The Business End of the Music Industry

I’ll never forget unwrapping and listening to the first copy of my CD, “Windows of the Soul.” For the first time in my life, I didn’t listen to the music and hear things I wanted to fix and to change. What I heard was the fruit of two years worth of blood, sweat, and tears.

Don’t get me wrong, creating the CD had more reward than cost. There’s no doubt about that in my opinion. But witnessing your self-produced music finally completed and packaged beautifully for the first time will fill the eyes of the stoutest musician with warm, happy tears.

I wanted to bounce off the walls and shout to the heavens, “I DID IT!!” No one helped me with it, no one paid for it. It was marvelous and it was all mine! A new problem arose, though. You see, the next day, when listening to your music on the CD again (you’ll do that until you’re just sick of hearing it, and the prospect of playing them over and over again, for the next two years makes you want to gag!), you realize that your work has only just begun.

When you’re signed to a label, the CD gets finished, and you get a tour schedule. The label handles all the marketing, the booking, the distribution, the finances, the merchandising and “concepts”. If you made the CD yourself, you don’t have all of that. Where do you go from here?

Well, you have a few choices. One is to send the CD off in a demo package to record labels, producers, booking agents, and managers and such. Then you have to get real religious and pray like heaven that your package will be one which actually gets their attention out of the hundreds and thousands they get every day. Hey, I’m as good at this as the next person, but let’s be real here!

If you’re not sure about pursuing a label, you might even consider hiring a manager, or producer to help you out in making the right decisions. He or she may even be able to arrange a “showcase” for you with A&R people.

I had thought at the offset that having a manager might be the easiest route to take. So, I interviewed several people, and finally took on a “Leisure Suit Larry” type guy, who had a LOOOOONG list of verifiable references and a track record like nothing I’ve ever seen. He had a small record label and recording studio where he self-produced the talent he had in his stable, and he seemed to know what he was doing.

Meanwhile, back at the bat cave, I had already started my own record label for the purpose of producing, selling, and marketing my own CD’s. In addition to that, I trademarked the name of the label, and the band that I owned the rights to. It was a costly process, but I have never been one to fly solo without a net. I was covering all my bases and covering them well.

In addition to that, having made an intense study of the record industry, and having been stiffed on payment by nasty club owners more times than I cared to count, I began my own little database of information. I had a spreadsheet for notes, contacts, legal information, contracts, and even requests that I had gotten at clubs.

Since I had done so much on my own, my manager’s job basically consisted of booking my gigs, and helping me promote, sell, and distribute the CD. Fortunately, I refused to sign a deal with the man until he had produced a little work for me, and I had produced a little cash flow in return for him. He thought I was really good and had no problem agreeing to my terms, stating that maybe a trial time of thirty days would be a good idea.

At the end of like sixty days, I was beginning to see that this wasn’t going to work out. I always showed up on time for my appointments and the guy was never there. I understood that he was a busy man, and I was more than willing to wait, but weeks spread into months, and he never called, booked me a gig, or helped me out with much of anything.

So one night, about three o’clock in the morning, this guy calls me from his studio and says, “Yeah, Sonata. Look here. I got this great punk band in here recording tonight, and we were discussing the possibility of trade marking their band name. How would they go about that?”

Now I am as understanding as the next person, and I love helping people out. But I’m thinking, “If this guy is representing me, and he doesn’t even know how to go about the legal stuff I’ve already done, what do I need him for?” I asked for the number of the bandleader and promised to give the guy a call with some detailed information in the morning, and then I said, “Oh, by the way, you’re fired!” and hung up.

After helping these young guys set up their web site, their publishing rights, and doing some artwork for their upcoming CD and such, I began to realize that I had been planning to rely on other people, to do what I could just as easily do on my own.

So I contacted the Small Business Administration and asked to whom I could talk about starting my own small business. I had decided that it was high time I treated my musical career as a business. They sent me to the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), where I could get information and counseling on the matter for FREE.

I learned that you can’t begin a business without capital and that banks would loan you money for your small business, provided you had some of your own start-up capital, and a good business plan.

I had never even heard of anyone considering the idea of a business plan for a music career before, but the people at the SBDC set me up with one, and counseled me on how best to fill one out. It was hard for them (and for me!) to figure out how to tailor a standard business plan for a musical career, but we muddled through pretty well I think.

When I had first begun the music business, I had, as most musicians do in the beginning, a day job and I made enough to pay my bills (and NOT a penny more than what I absolutely needed to survive). After filling out the business plan, I realized I was going to have to get up some capital, and fast! I networked the internet, the phone, and sent packages in the mail, and pretty soon I was booking myself a mini-tour to promote the CD.

I decided that my day job had to not only pay bills and buy necessities, it would also have to supply gas money to my gigs, and pay for my equipment and such.

Needless to say, I ate a LOT less, and used a LOT fewer utilities. Man, that was the toughest part! But the bottom line was that ALL monies for the music stuff had to be stashed for venture capital.

Soon, I had a few bills fall short of getting paid in full, and I was beginning to think the whole thing was pointless, really. I was VERY tempted to use the money I had stashed in the bank for payment on my bills, but I just COULDN’T do it. If I ever intended to work for myself in a musical career, I’d have to find some other way to make my bills.

I hired myself out to mow grass, and paint houses during the day on weekends, and at night, I was playing some club within a hundred mile radius of my job. God, I was tired! One good thing about having an undying desire and passion to play music, is that you’re rejuvenated, especially the MOMENT you get on stage.

In three months time, I had cleared three thousand dollars from the gigs and stage sales of my newly released CD. I had a windfall – I got a house to paint in the historic district that promised a nice little chunk of money in my pocket.

When I finished paying bills that month, I designed some merchandise, and sent off for key chains and can coolers with my band logo on them, (which was trademarked by the way), and I set to the task of designing my own T-shirts. Being a graphic artist had its advantages. I made my own T-shirts, and made a HUGE profit on them at my shows.

I LOOKED professional, whether I was yet or not. And do you want to hear something funny? When you look professional, you’d be surprised probably to hear it, but you really are professional. In this business, people judge you so quickly by your appearance, that you need it to be as right for you and as close to flawless as humanly possible. By the end of five months, I had about five-thousand, eight hundred dollars built up, and I had finished my business plan.

I called my bank (the one which had been receiving mysterious money-order deposits from me, bought at convenience stores around four in the morning and dropped into the night-deposit box for deposit into my account), and I set up a meeting with a loan officer.

I am not ashamed to say that with a very painful divorce behind me, I had really messed up credit. Fortunately, my deposits over the past few months showed that I was in fact successful, and I autographed a copy of my CD for the loan officer to keep personally. She also got a free T-shirt, a can cooler, and a key chain. Ha ha!

At any rate, because I was able to show a surprisingly good part-time income, and a steady bank deposit record… and because I wasn’t asking so much for a loan, it was granted. It helped that I had done a target market demographic study to reflect what songwriter’s typically make in their first six months. My progress was above it by a mile. I really just needed the loan so I could survive and do this for a living.

I got incorporated under my stage name, had repairs done to my equipment and got a bunch of CD’s pressed. Because I was incorporated as a legal business, all of my repairs and purchases were tax write offs, and I was going to be getting a weekly paycheck from my account that was slightly more than I had been earning at my job of three years. This gave me free time to make music, perform, and market myself.

All of my remunerative transactions were handled through my bank account and I was suddenly taken seriously from a business point of view. I was so busy in fact, filling orders, answering fan mail, booking shows, and pushing the CD, that I rarely had time for recording any more.

It slowed down the ability to work on new material, and pretty soon, after 2,050 sales, and 1,000 or more press kits, I was wearing thin. I am only just now getting to the point where I am seeking any outside aid, and really it’s just to help me manage my career rather than to take it over.

The good news is, that because I took a business-like approach to my music, I became successful rather quickly, clearing a net of forty thousand dollars last year alone, when my goal, according to my business plan was twenty thousand dollars. When I’m ready to go to the bank for a new loan… I doubt I’ll have any trouble getting it, and with their help, I have actually begun cleaning up my credit enough that I hold corporate accounts with my merchandise companies and glass house, which means I pay for their services by the month.

This also makes me hot property where outside influences are concerned, and I have had little to no difficulty getting attention. At this stage in my career, I am interviewing managers, producers, record labels, musicians, and assistants as though they are employees in the business of me, and I have the rare (and wonderful) opportunity to be selective about it.

The truth is that, as artists, musicians are by and large disorganized thinkers. We are so overwhelmed, in fact, by our creative ideas and avenues of expressing them, that we cannot often manage ourselves in a business sense. It’s up to us to take charge of our careers, in order to make ourselves more appealing to the people who will only be managing our “business”.

I was fortunate. I took two years of Business Administration in college, and had been managing companies for other small businesses all along, so I had a jump start in forming my own business. On top of that, I do countless researches into the music industry on a daily basis, and had been doing so for about four years, so I knew not only what to do, but where to go. Basically by becoming our own boss, and strictly sticking to a plan, we can overcome the current system and still turn a profit.

The problem is, that as musicians, it is much easier for us to blow money on new “toys”, and equipment, and waste time doing covers for beer addled patrons, than it is to deprive ourselves of some little luxuries and put our head down to brave the storm.

Let me just extend this word of caution. This is the hardest route to take, make no mistake about it. The responsibility for all your success and failure rests solely on your own shoulders taking this method, and if you fail, you stand to lose everything.

There are going to be times when you don’t sleep for days because you’re running between gigs, studios, and home trying to get it all done. In the beginning, you’re doing all of those things, balancing a day job, and trying to make good contacts for future references, so it can be quite painfully tiring.

I found myself designing merchandise, CD cover booklets, labels, my own business cards, correspondence etc. I mean I even have a template for “Thank You” post cards, business cards, and stationery. I made my own posters, T-shirts, caps, and stage attire. I was a sewing, stamping, ironing, designing fool.

I have had the good fortune to already be something of an artist, and to already have a grasp of graphic arts and templates, so I managed to do this myself. I also grew up on a farm, where my mom made my clothes until I was old enough to make them myself, so sewing is another of my abilities. I can’t imagine having to pay someone to do all of these things for me. The cost would have been too great for me.

If you think you’re going to need to pay for these things, make sure you have several estimates for them attached to your business plan. My ability to “do-everything-myself” helped quite a bit, because I didn’t need extra cash for expenses.

I don’t want to give the impression that my music was just so good that it sold itself either, because if that were true, there’d be a LOT better music on the radio than the crap I’ve had to listen to lately.

The truth is that my music isn’t bad. My new stuff is far better. I just want to make it perfectly clear, that my success was dedicated not only to having many talents suited for the music industry, but because I was determined to see it through, and willing to risk everything. If you have nothing to risk, most likely you’re not going to make it, because you don’t work half as hard at it. If this failed, I was going to have to go back to work for someone else, and put my music on the back burner, and to me that was almost a fate worse than death.

Empower yourself with knowledge. Learn this business inside and out from as many aspects as humanly possible… and as always…hone your craft daily. Once you’ve done these things, and taken over your own work, you have the key to success and you’ll be surprised how heavily the bloodhounds follow that scent. Just be prepared to sweat, starve and bleed for it because it’s the most difficult route to take.

Always remember that YOU are the one offering the service and that the outsiders are to be viewed as employees in the business of you. Once they realize that you don’t need them, and that you are succeeding, they will clamor for your attention. When that happens… your dream of being a full-time musician will be that much closer to becoming a reality.

If I can be of any further help, or if you have any questions, feel free to write to me at:

It sweeps throughout my heart like a whisper of love, and lights the fire of passion in my veins. In short…I love music.

It may appear to some, I suppose, that there is some madness in my desire to create the beauty of music, but it is only in the soft refrains of my melodic musical endeavors that I find total clarity and sanity. It seems that no matter how off balance the rest of the world is… there is solace in music.

Music is in all life.
~Sonata Jones
“There is no better time than today…this very minute”