The following excerpt comes from my book Zen and the Art of Producing.
Your approach to politics when working with a band is what separates the men from the boys in producing. We’ve discussed some of the basics throughout the course of this book, the most important and obvious being to cozy up to the brainchild.
How much power the brainchild or leader wields is almost directly proportional to how many songs she writes for the band. The more songs the leader writes, the more power she has within the structure of the band. There’s a good reason for this. The songwriter is the one person in the band who can’t really be replaced, not without significantly changing the identity of the band. Cover bands notwithstanding, the band exists because of the songs, and whoever writes the songs is king (er … or queen).
Occasionally you’ll come across a band in which there are multiple songwriters, and this changes the dynamic considerably, although with some predictability. The power structure of the band will almost always mirror the songwriter relationships within the band. For instance, two songwriters who usually write as a partnership will typically carry equal leadership weight within the band. A band carrying four separate songwriters will typically function as a democracy for band business, but will rotate power creatively based on who wrote a given track.
Some bands work out songs together and share credit equally between the members. This is by far the healthiest business structure for a band. Everyone gets paid equally, which prevents the drummer from insisting that his two shitty songs make the album. Given this scenario, it’s not a bad idea to have a business discussion with the band. Otherwise, you could be hog-tied into recording and prioritizing less important songs in order to accommodate a somewhat business-savvy band member.
I realize I’m repeating myself here, but for purposes of review, there are only three major music revenue streams when it comes to bands: record sales, live performance (which includes merchandise), and publishing. For all intents and purposes, record sales no longer exist. Too many acts are willing to treat the product as a loss leader for the other two revenue streams, and that’s not an unreasonable business model, given the nearly complete erosion of intellectual property protection. Obviously, some acts still sell records, but today’s 1 million in album sales is the equivalent of yesterday’s 10 million in album sales. The chances of anyone making money on sales these days are so low that this can no longer be relied upon as an effective method of profit sharing. Hopefully, this will change in the future, but as of this writing, that’s the reality.
Since the record itself won’t bring in significant revenue, it’s often used as a loss leader for ticket sales. Live performance monies can be a lucrative revenue stream, and the band typically shares equally in these revenues. Touring is the crux of the band’s business, but it carries a rather large overhead. As a result, many bands require tour support, which is a nice way of saying they need a subsidy from a label or large management company. As the band becomes more popular, its need for support begins to drop.
Publishing is the Mother of all Revenue Streams. It’s where the big money is at in this business, and without sales, the only stream that can generate “mailbox money.” A hit song, one that is spun relentlessly on radio, streamed on the Internet, licensed for commercials and movies, played in clubs, and successfully covered by others, will generate revenue for decades. Whereas live touring requires the band to tour in order to generate revenues, the songwriter will make money for the rest of her life, well after the band entity itself has disbanded.
Given these realities, any band member who is not a songwriter in the band will only make money on the band’s efforts when they’re on tour. Once the drummer comes to this realization, he will often attempt to write songs, and will likely insist upon some of his songs making the album. If the drummer gets two songs on a 10-song disc, he will receive one-fifth of the writer’s royalties for the album. The problem with this logic? The record sales that do exist today are trending toward online song purchases. This would tend to preclude the drummer from making any money on his shitty bullshit song. I realize there are drummers in this world who are talented songwriters in their own right, and I don’t mean to be picking on drummers, but it seems to be the most economical way to make my point. At least it was until I wrote this disclaimer.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have the worst songwriter in the band demanding song representation on the album, you must either capitulate and record those songs, or finesse the issue. If you merely ignore the problem and steamroll over the band by refusing those songs (whether done early or upon completion), you could blow up the entire project. It’s in the interest of the band to put out as many great songs as possible. The best way to accomplish that is for the songwriter(s) to give the band a stake in the songwriter’s royalties. Enough of a stake so it makes sense to everyone in the band to choose the songs based purely on quality.
It’s impossible to come up with a fair percentage for the band to receive without understanding the band’s contributions. Even then I would be reticent to offer any hard numbers. If the songwriter typically comes into rehearsal with a completed song in which he spoon-feeds parts to the band members, then the band is not particularly integral to the process beyond performing the songs. Given that scenario, a nominal percentage of the publishing would be downright generous. If the songwriter typically comes in with half-baked ideas, and the band works on the song as an entity, then the others should be entitled to a share of the songwriter’s royalties. Technically, only those involved in the lyric and melody are the songwriters. But if the band entity is an integral part of the process, it makes sense for the songwriter to reward the band for their contributions in the form of profit-sharing revenues.
Politically, it would be foolish for you to suggest this sort of business arrangement in an open forum. This discussion must be had directly with the songwriter of the band, and should be presented wholly in business terms, not moral ones. This explanation must be based on the contributions of the band, the realities of the business, and the importance of a happy band. If the band is the venue in which the songwriter can best release his songs, then the band is not without significant importance. All you want to do is present the dilemma and the solution, and let the songwriter figure it out from there.
This is not a discussion you should have with a band unless it’s proving to be a problem. You don’t want to fuck with a band that is happy with its business arrangements, even if you think they’re unfair. You risk blowing them up by doing that, and they will renegotiate their terms if and when it comes up. The problem is if your mere involvement is perceived as raising the stakes significantly. Then the songwriting royalties can become an issue.
Bands and artists alike frequently ask to share production credit. I’ve done this in the past, and I don’t recommend it. In this book I’ve laid out for you exactly what producing is. In concise terms, it’s both a leadership role based on morale management and creative vision, and an organizational role based on resource management. Regardless of what you bring to the party in terms of song enhancements, creative contributions, arrangement, song form, parts, and overall presentation of the band, they will get all the credit. They’re the band. They get credit for being the band, which is everything. They need to take credit as producer, too? I think not.
From the band’s perspective, they are a major part of “producing” their album. This is true. After all, they wrote the songs and demoed them up in a way that attracted you. But the credit is “Produced by,” and in all but rare cases that task is performed by one person—you. Sharing your credit as producer is as ludicrous as you sharing credit for being in the band. Believe me, if you do your job right, by the time you’re done successfully creating the album, they will consider you part of the band. Of course, that feeling will fade quickly as they spend months on the road and you move on to produce other bands.
The one time you might consider sharing your producer’s credit is if you’re asked to perform duties as an engineer/producer for a long-established band with many albums under their belt. Even then you should resist this demand unless it’s the difference between winning and losing the gig. Just keep in mind that any time you draw a line in the sand, you risk losing the gig.
This entire book is one big argument against sharing credit. Don’t be afraid to shoot such a request down outright when it comes up early. A young band will rarely push this issue beyond an initial inquiry, particularly if you lay out your reasons in a clear, concise, and firm manner. Consider a request to share credit as the most important test of your leadership and communication skills. Pass this test, and the band will have accepted you as the leader of the project.
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