As some of you know, I’ve been at this thing for a while. I often get texts from colleagues asking for business advice, and I always end up thinking dang, I really wish someone had stopped to tell me that when I was first starting out.
On the phone with my lawyer the other day I realized I have a platform I can use to educate fellow song writers, so why don’t I? You can’t imagine how many in’s and out’s there are to the music industry.
So let’s start at the beginning. Are you a song writer? Are you in a band? Wanna make sure you don’t get screwed out of royalties or residuals? Get yourself registered with BMI or ASCAP today as both a song writer AND a publisher. Use your full legal name for both. Why? It makes recouping your back end MUCH easier! When you’re asked to perform on a session, yes even for a friend, ask about a session fee. If you get asked to come up with a few lyrics or a bit of melody, ask to be credited as a writer before you commit to contributing material. Always have your BMI/ASCAP information handy to share with anyone who invites or contracts you to play. If you’re asked to tour, inquire the same kinds of questions. Will I be paid for the shows? Will I be paid for rehearsals? Will any of the shows be recorded by the venues? Etc. If there’s little to no cash involved consider you DO have the option to say “no thanks”.
Why is this stuff important? When I was 21 a musical group called Sleepy Sun asked me to join as a full time member. Over the course of a year and half I recorded vocals on 2 albums, 2 singles, rehearsed (often for much much longer than the time it takes to play a show) and played hundreds of shows. Each album’s recording session lasted an entire month and took place in another country. Each tour was approximately 4 to 5 weeks long with approximately 1 to 2 weeks off in between. And guess what? I wasn’t paid for any of it.
I liked to sing and I was excited to be in a cool band. It had never occurred to me that one thing would lead to another and I would suddenly be 3 tours deep with no break in sight and no money to show for it. It had never occurred to me that the band would continue to withhold paying me for as long as they could. And while my impulse today is to judge my younger self harshly, I have to remember that at the time, I was only 21, hadn’t gone to college and had zero business smarts. I trusted these guys and thought eventually we’d be making enough money to where we could all get paid right?
In addition to recording and touring for free, I was also left off the publishing and writing contracts for both albums and singles as the band stated that they did not see my contributions were worthy of pay of any sort beyond my food allowance. During the first album’s tour cycle the only payment I received was a $10 or $15 daily per dium for food (only received during the tours on show days).
When I finally found out I was the only member of the group not being contracted or paid in any professional capacity I did finally demand a fee which the band begrudgingly stated would be $60 a show…
As their co lead singer for nearly 2 years I had gone into $15,000 of debt trying to pay my bills between tours and let’s be honest, on food. After the band began paying me, which was roughly around the release of our 2nd album, their kindness towards me shifted. My pleas for time off to stabilize my life were met with hostility and shaming. In the middle of touring Fever I was given a final ultimatum, my mental health or the band, so I did what I needed to do and I left. We released Fever in June of 2010 and I flew home that October.
The moral of my story, it is 100% ok to look out for yourself! Always ask for what you need upfront and if there isn’t money there to at least pay a bill, I recommend not contributing. Obviously if you don’t need the money and you love the people, hey go for it. Just don’t let people guilt you away from taking care of your basic needs you know? Don’t assume your friends are looking out for you or even know the proper way to conduct themselves.
And while I’m finally airing this chapter out a little I also want to state for the record that I was never romantically involved with anyone in the band. I see comments from time to time that just miss. I left to recover myself and my only regret was not knowing better sooner. Any claims that state otherwise are false and defamatory.
Live long and prosper,