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UNSMOOTH MOVES

April 1, 2006
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For six years, my company has been dedicated to giving straight advice on the music business and how artists and writers can protect their money and their rights. For those who do not know me, here's a brief: I started in the business in the early '80s with a small demo studio, and within a few years I was engineering major-label projects. Producing soon followed and then, after listening to countless stories from my clients — several of whom had platinum records and Grammys — about how the industry ripped them off, I decided to take a new direction. I began a crusade to inform artists of their rights and to make sure that these industry injustices wouldn't happen with the same frequency as it once did.

One way I did that was by writing Confessions of a Record Producer: How to Survive the Scams and Shams of the Music Business (Backbeat, 2002) and by doing my Confessions Workshops in Los Angeles. Also, on my Website (www.mosesavalon.com), there is a ton of free information on who's naughty and who's nice in the industry.

This past year, I put together Million Dollar Mistakes: Steering Your Music Career Clear of Lies, Cons, Catastrophes, and Landmines (Backbeat, 2005). I pulled in favors from my top clients and affiliates and interviewed them within an inch of their pride, with one basic question: What was your biggest screwup? They're all there: Stories told firsthand by the producers and executives who developed big-name acts, specifically people who have worked with Michael Jackson, Christina Aguilera, Courtney Love, Madonna, Destiny's Child, Kurt Cobain, Pink, The Rolling Stones and hundreds of others.

Million Dollar Mistakes has dozens of stories, but here are a few highlights. (Note: The interviews and text below have been edited for space.)

MISTAKE NUMBER 1

British rocker Andy Wickett played keys and sang in the early days of Duran Duran. He wrote two of their hits and has little to show for it because of a document his lawyer recommended he sign.

“One night, I wrote this song called ‘Girls on Film,’” Wickett says. “[Soon after that], my girlfriend — who was managing the band — and I split up. So I left the band, and they still had this demo from me. A few weeks later, I was told that guys from EMI really loved [the demo]. They offered me 600 quid [about $1,000 in 1983] for all the rights to it. [My lawyer] said I should sign the paper because, ‘It proves that you have an interest in the material, and once you sign it, you'll be able to take them to court.’ I signed that paper, and I had no further rights to Duran Duran or any of their material. I wrote the whole melody, music and hook to ‘Girls on Film,’ but when I heard the final version, they had changed the words in the verses, and my name wasn't on it. I knew I had been f**ked.”

Needless to say his lawyer was completely wrong. In fact, he wasn't even a true music-business lawyer but worked in probate.

Million-dollar mistake: For God's sake, get a proper music lawyer. (Or at least ask me to refer you to one.)

MISTAKE NUMBER 2

Jim Barber, former Geffen exec and manager of several big acts, including Courtney Love, told me the revealing story of Black Lab, a mid-'90s rock group that had it all and lost it because they and the label decided that a band member who was responsible for the group's unique sound wasn't important. Black Lab got signed by Epic, and that's where the publishing dragon began to rear its head.

“There was a dispute about what the songwriting split should be,” Barber says. “Paul, the lead singer [also the writer], had a really rich publishing deal with EMI Music. The contract specified that he had to have a certain percentage of the copyrights of the album, but the sound of the band really depended on the guitarist, Michael, who technically didn't ‘write’ any compositions.”

This is very similar to a producer who composes a beat for a track but does not write the rap. Technically, the producer is not the author of the song. Logic and the law often disagree.

“What [the guitar player] was looking for was a cut of the songs, which, if Paul gave it to him, would not have allowed Paul to fulfill the requirements for his publishing deal,” Barber says. “The band's manager sided with Paul. The mistake was that neither the [EMI execs] nor the manager had the sense to come in and work out a compromise. What they decided is that the guitar player is not that important. He quit the band, the record wasn't what it could have been, and the label never released the album. It's a heartbreaking story.”

Million-dollar mistake: Writing is important, but it isn't everything. Learn about publishing, and don't underestimate the value of a great player or producer doing something great on your recording.

MISTAKE NUMBER 3

The stereotype of the arrogant pop star is so stale that we don't even laugh anymore when it's lampooned on South Park. But hey, isn't this why we buy their records? Isn't being a rebel part of their job? Sure. It's practically in the job description. Up-and-coming musicians fueled by the bravado of their role models emulate this behavior, thinking that it's expected of them.

In the survey done for this book, people were asked what they felt was the number-one mistake made by artists entering the business. The most common answer, by an overwhelming majority, was some version of this comment by Platinum producer Geza X (Meredith Brooks, Dead Kennedys): “[People think] that the hype in Rolling Stone or on MTV is really the way artists behave, record and perform, [but that kind of behavior is what] sabotages interviews and recording sessions. Artists, especially up-and-coming ones, are not in charge of anything.”

Million-dollar mistake: Acting like a diva doesn't mean you're going places with your career.

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