Do you ever hear about athletes who were already skiing when they were 18 months old or swimming at 3 months? Well, I was brought into the music business in sort of the same way. My father was a staff producer for Atlantic Records and is a five-time Grammy winner. By the time I was 16, I was playing on and producing albums. I got my real start at 17 assisting producer and bassist Marcus Miller on albums with David Sanborn, Miles Davis and Luther Vandross. I went on to work with Bono, Brian Eno, John Cale, Laurie Anderson and Chaka Kahn as a bassist.
I've since become a solo artist using the name Mocean Worker and have released four albums, three of them as an artist signed to a label (Conscience, Palm) and the latest, Enter the MoWo! (2004), on my own label, MoWo!, Inc. So I have learned a bunch about what to do and what not to do as an artist and label owner. My music has appeared in Six Feet Under, The Bourne Supremacy and The Sopranos as well as in commercials for KIA, Bailey's Irish Crème, Miller Genuine Draft and Yahoo. I've also done remixes for Tenacious D, King Sunny Ade and Charles Wright. I've figured a few things out about how the industry works, and for those of you about to leap into the unknown waters of a record deal, here are answers to some of the big questions.
My band was offered an indie record deal. How does an advance work?
An advance isn't just what you get for being good: It's your budget to make the album. Be extremely careful with it. Do you want to hire a producer, work at a professional studio, hire guest artists to sing or play on the record and hire mixing and mastering engineers? All of that comes out of your advance. And many times, if you have a manager, his or her cut comes out of your advance, too.
A friend of mine signed a huge major-label production deal; the next time I saw him after the deal was signed, he was dressed in fine clothing and had shades on that were so dope, even Bono would have been jealous. I asked, “You guys already have a smash hit?” He answered, “No, man, I just took the money from the advance, and I'm having some fun with it.” In fact, he took so much money from the advance, the record never got made, and the deal was pulled. Long story short, it'll be time to live like a star after the record is a hit, not before!
Our label is offering us a publishing deal to help license tracks for film and TV. What should we do?
Run! Just kidding — but it's not a good idea to put all of your eggs in the same basket. Labels normally offer their artists publishing deals through their publishing division or a company they own. It's a smart move on their part because the label only owns the master recording of a song by an artist on its label, not the song itself. So a label will often try to buy the song outright or give the artist a publishing deal for x number of years to own the song and control its rights. You run a huge risk by letting your label own your master recording as well as the song rights. If the record tanks (and over 97 percent do), your label will likely stop going to bat for you. Publishing is where you are going to see the lion's share of the money you will ever make in this business. Hold on to it unless the check being offered to you through a publishing deal has so many zeros after the one that you get dizzy.
This contract is Greek to me: mechanical rights, indemnities? How do I make sense of it?
First, get yourself an entertainment lawyer who specializes in record contracts. Don't use the lawyer the label recommends! The last thing you need is a lawyer that the label is really comfortable with. Ask friends who have done deals; ask your manager; or ask a family friend who is a lawyer, as he or she may be able to suggest someone who specializes in the music business. But it's in your best interest to read the contract, make a copy of it and underline things you don't understand. Don't assume, “These people are experts. I don't have time to bother with this nonsense.” If you do that, you are going to miss something überimportant. Contracts are tricky; lots of language is thrown in to try to confuse and lull you into a false sense of security. Let a seasoned lawyer take care of the points to negotiate, and learn from what they do on your behalf.
What can I expect from an indie for promotion, marketing, radio, ads and tour support?
In many cases, an indie label is going to sign a band; give it a modest advance (or none at all); and, with whatever resources it has, try to make the record happen. If an indie has an infusion of capital and the band is a good risk, a strong push will be made at retail, and promotions and prominent shelf space will be bought. Meanwhile, college radio is usually the route taken with the hope that a groundswell will start, and record sales (SoundScans) and healthy touring will grow the image of the band to the point that mainstream radio has to pay attention.
Usually, the label will handle PR for print and TV media in-house. But when a label really thinks the band or artist is going to happen, an outside person will be brought on to work the project for three months or more. As for touring, lots of indies simply don't have the money to support a band on the road; get it if you can.
Keep in mind that all these expenses — going down to the tuna sandwich that the art director ate while designing the album ad — go against your account. So don't be a pain in the neck, but make sure things are done wisely. Watch and learn. You will make mistakes, but you'll gain knowledge that you can stash away for future reference.