Blog 1421: Guitar & Business School

Talking dollars and cents before picking up instruments is to musicians what Sex Ed is to kids: totally unsexy, totally essential.

Not long after moving to Berlin, I was invited to participate in an international songwriters summit. It was a kind of cultural exchange program, where songwriters from another country came over to visit us in Berlin. Over five days, we’d pair up in various combinations and co-write songs.

As soon as I hear “co-write”, my next thought is “then what?”

So on day one, during the introductory “Getting To Know You” round table, I asked: “Who owns the songs we’re writing at this summit?” It was my first one of these, and I’d heard about songwriting summits organised by music publishers to generate content for their libraries. Apparently, I wasn’t the only first-timer at this event: I got looks from the other musicians in the room like I’d just farted in polite company. The organiser replied: “You own them”. This raised more questions in me – but, after the frosty reception of my initial enquiry, I kept them to myself.

Why the awkward moment? At the time, I figured it might be a cultural thing – like Leo Di Caprio versus the Swiss banker in Wolf of Wall St – but, sadly, I’ve encountered it on both sides of the planet.

On day three, after two full days of co-writing, a guy from the musician’s union came to speak to us about copyright, publishing, and other legal concerns a songwriter encounters, knowingly or otherwise, once they release a song. He concluded by announcing: “If you didn’t sign a co-writing agreement before picking up your guitar at this summit, then you’re foolish.” The room was all wide musician eyes. I took this opportunity to repurpose one of the questions that I’d suppressed the day before: “Do you have a template agreement we can all use?” He promised send one through before the next day.

By day four, however, the musician’s union guy hadn’t sent through that template. I’d anticipated this (which may seem pessimistic or over-prepared of me – but, hey, it happened) and had brought in my own co-writing agreement templates for myself and the people I’d written with the three days prior. Other songwriters I hadn’t worked with jumped on my templates like seagulls on chips: “Can we make copies of yours?” I had no problem with that – the templates weren’t my property or my creation, just the result of a quick google search. What I did have a problem with was musicians scoffing at one of their own for trying to protect himself – especially when so many of us are so bad at it, and are so easily exploited because of that.

Why is it considered to be bad form, or “killing the creative vibe”, to discuss business before or during the creation of art? Especially when it’s so easy for an artist to get ripped off for making bad or ill-informed business decisions (or none at all)?

I for one would rather have an “unsexy” conversation before getting my art on, than risk paying for that art financially and emotionally later on. For me, it actually relaxes me and frees me up to then go and create.

In the years I was making music before The Ray Mann Three, I was almost always involved in co-writing projects. With every one of them, the question of splits came up sooner or (more often) later.

For those who don’t know: a “split” refers how any income a song generates will be divided amongst its writers. Negotiating splits can be complicated – moreso once you factor in emotion and ego, two things creative people often possess in spades, and often in the place of business sensibility.

I believe there’s one very simple reason why musicians aren’t usually the best business people: we don’t study business.

A kid goes to Guitar Lessons, not Guitar And Business Lessons. Imagine if that kid did, though: they’d grow up with equally-developed skills in both areas – and the art and commerce opportunities for that person would likely be stronger and more interesting. Sadly, however, that doesn’t usually happen; so you end up with talented, hardworking musicians who can navigate their way through complicated chord changes and difficult audiences way more deftly than they can a basic licensing agreement.

Luckily, in Australia and New Zealand at least, there are some excellent resources for musicians to educate themselves on everything they already need to know. APRA and AMCOS regularly offer seminars and talks (many of them free) about various aspects of the industry, from getting creative to getting paid. ArtsLaw is an incredible service: for a modest annual subscription fee, you get access to otherwise prohibitively expensive legal advice, on all aspects of your art.

Since moving to Germany, I’m still yet to find local equivalents. My musician friends from around Europe also have no similar resources in their home countries. In the meantime, I only hope that I and my fellow musicians can get a little better at talking about it with eachother.

UPDATE 1: Steve Albini recently spoke about this at Face The Music in Melbourne. His words are worth a read.

UPDATE 2: for those of us getting started (or re-configuring your approach), here are some helpful tips for managing the artist/biz dichotomy via 99u.

Blog | Guitar And Business School

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