Ain’t Nobody’s Business But Your Own

inUncategorizedon March 5, 2013

“You listen to my CD in your ear, wear my tee shirt on your chest, and you’ll feel good about yourself in the morning.” This was Guitar Gabriel’s mantra between tunes at every one of the hundred bar gigs and festival sets I watched him play in the last 4 years of his career. He repeated it so many times each show that it became a running joke with the audience. But it wasn’t a joke to Gabe; the merch sales doubled his take every night, making poor paying bar gigs worth playing.

What Gabe understood deeply was that while a musician and a poet, he was also a self-employed entrepreneur. Gabe has pretty much retired and only played for his community near the housing project where he lived in Winston-Salem, NC when Tim Duffy showed up on his from door in 1990. But Gabe saw an opportunity to revive his career in the energy of this young, ambitious folklorist that offered to find gigs, manage band members and do all of the promotional work (and the diving). Not believing lengthy contracts were worth the paper they were printed on, Gabe offered Tim a simple arrangement: they would work as partners and if Tim ever cheated him, Gabe would shoot Tim.

Tim thought it was an honest deal and for the scores of gigs that followed, at the end of the night Tim would chase down the elusive bar owners and squeeze then for the band’s percentage of the door. Then, he and Gabe would sit and count the cash together and divide the proceeds, pay the drummer, the gas money, etc.  They worked together for the remainder of Gabe’s life as partners and the best of friends.

With the exception of symphony players and full time teachers, most musicians do not work as salaried employees. So whether you are a singer songwriter that performs solo, a principle partner in a band, a session player or a sideman for a touring act, like it or not, you are running your own business.

At Music Maker we try and do our best to empower entrepreneurship in the artists we serve.  We also try to supply the support services in terms of promotion, radio distribution and public relations. Music Maker grants these services to partner artists at no charge. However, for most working musicians it is either DI-all-Y or collaborating with any number of players, agents, and managers to make your business function, and those folks may often stand between you and your money. Record companies and music publishers represent another set of complicated relationships that need to be carefully scrutinized and considered for their potential benefits and pitfalls.

Not all of your business arrangements will be as simple as Tim and Gabe’s, but the only way any business relationship can be successful is if the responsibilities, rights of ownership and compensation of all parties is clearly delineated from the beginning.  The deal can change over time as the business changes or grows, but everyone should always know where they stand. These conversations can be uncomfortable. I have seen bands fall apart over the split on imaginary future royalties for albums they haven’t recorded yet. But, if a band can’t come to consensus about their finances from the start, they have little chance of agreeing when there is big money coming in or big bills to pay down the line.

I find many artists are averse to spending time reviewing financial statements and coming to terms with the realities of self-employment, especially from a tax prospective.  You can hire people to help you, but I always suggest keeping an eye on your own bank balances, income and expenses. The artists we have worked with that are proactive in this regard find it very liberating and occasionally lucrative. They also never waste time playing the “I got ripped off” blues.


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