Like many entertainment attorneys, I sometimes work with young musicians and their bands, providing legal services and counseling as they start their careers. Over the years, I have received numerous calls that start this way: “Hi, I just finished this great CD and I want you to get me a record deal.” “OK, when was the last time you played live.” “Uhh, well I recorded the CD in my basement. I sang in the church choir when I was fifteen.” “Sorry, there’s probably not much I can do for you.” For those young musicians and bands who are willing to work to get to where they want to go, here is some advice:
First, play live. Better yet, play live often. While the digital revolution has made it so easy for artists to record and distribute their own music online at minimal expense, the removal of the traditional barriers to distributing music and the reduction in the record label’s longtime role as industry gatekeepers has led to a an ocean of music where artists struggle to gain any traction with audiences and dealmakers. By playing live, a band can develop a following, develop their chops and, not insignificantly, make some money. Except for very limited exceptions (see Bieber, Justin), the record labels look to sign artists who come with a built-in fan base, one that can most easily be grown through live performances.
Second, play cover songs. Yes, we know that your originial songs are the best expression of your art that sets you apart from anyone else. The problem is that no one wants to hear your original songs, at least at first. People want to listen to what they already know because they crave the familiar. What one musical thread did the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead and early Springsteen have in common: many of their early shows prominently featured Chuck Berry numbers. When I was in law school in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Dave Matthews Band was just starting out. Their shows included plenty of originals, but they also played covers including a version of “All Along The Watchtower” that later became a staple of their early stadium shows. By playing accessible cover songs, people will stay to listen to your originals. Playing covers also allows you to learn other styles and sounds. If it’s good enough for the Beatles, Stones, Grateful Dead, Springsteen and DMB, it’s probably a good strategy for you.
Third, register and track your online presence. Unlike on terresterial radio, recording artists whose work is played digitally, whether satellite radio, online or by download, are entitled to royalites. Soundexchange is the performing rights organization that handles digital royalties in the United States and operates under s simple model: you register with them, they track the digital use of your music, and periodically they send you a check. Failure to register with SoundExchange and to keep track of your digital presence can mean you are leaving money on the table.
Fourth, get a publicist. In order to make No. 1, above (Play Live), work you need to get people to come to your gigs. And while you can do plenty of self-promotion through Facebook, Twitter, emails, the band website, etc., it really helps to have some promotion in the mainstream press. A good publicist can help get you featured in the local newspaper, alternative weekly, terrestrial radio and other traditional outlets where it helps to have someone who knows the ropes. This kind of publicity can bring more fans to shows, more consumers to your music, and possibly more critics, reporters or writers to find out who you are and what your music is about.
Fifth, play live. Alot. I can’t overstate this. For years, The Young Dubliners, a leading Irish rock band, would play three shows every St. Patrick’s Day — a free outdoor show in downtown Los Angeles at lunchtime, followed by two sold-out evening shows at two of the hottest live music venues in the city. For many artists, concerts at colleges can be a great avenue for exposure: (1) colleges have money and they pay, (2) college radio has disproportionate influence on consumer taste for young listeners, and (3) especially if you are from New York or Los Angeles, it’s a great way to escape the pay-to-play racket and see what the rest of the country likes to hear.
With hard work, some good planning and a little luck you may find yourself, like Chuck Berry, “high over Albuquerque on a jet to the Promised Land.”