Good and Bad Deals in the Music Industry

Man playing music at a meeting
Fuse Creative #: 78780554 Getty

Is that music deal on the table a good one or should you run the other way? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. Check out these common music industry scenarios and see if you can spot the good music deals from the unfair music deals.

Scenario One

You're trying to land your first gig, and the booking agent at your chosen venue says that they're willing to give you a shot. There's no money in it, but you'll be playing on a pretty busy night at the club and you can sell some CDs. Good deal or bad deal?

Good Deal. You may feel like you're getting hustled if you get asked to play a show for free (or next to free), but try looking at it from the venue's perspective. You haven't built up a following yet. You're not going to be bringing many people into the venue. If venues paid every up and coming musician over the odds for a show, there would be no more venues.

What you really have here is a great opportunity. Granted, it's not a financial opportunity, but what you are being handed is the chance to earn some fans and build up that following that will eventually allow you to demand some good money for your shows. Impress the venue, and they'll want to have you back. Start pulling a crowd, and they'll want to pay you - it's not in a venue's interest to refuse to play musicians who draw a crowd, and accepting the low paying/no paying shows as you start out lets them know you're willing to do the work required to be successful. It doesn't set you up for being the sap that always plays free shows. Lots of musicians price themselves right out of the market in which they belong, and that's cutting off your nose to spite your face. Pavement once sang, "you've got to pay your dues before you pay the rent" and that REALLY holds true when it comes to playing shows.

Scenario Two

Tambourine player wanted! Must have rehearsal space, guitar, bass, drum kit, mics, amps, a refrigerator keg and the ability to make a mean fried chicken. *SERIOUS MUSICIANS ONLY.* Good Deal or Bad Deal?

Bad Deal - I almost feel embarrassed for asking this one. You may want to play music, but that doesn't mean you want to play with just anyone. These musicians need you to deliver the goods to allow them to play - they're not looking for your collaboration. Read between the lines when you're reading ads for musicians to make sure your music skills are really what they're interested in.

Scenario Three

You've found a physical distribution deal with a company that says they can get your CDs into a certain chain store. There is a pretty large upfront fee, and the fees are graduated - the more you pay, the more copies you can get into the stores, and the more store locations your CDs will be stocked in. You get to pick which stores your CDs go into. Good deal or bad deal?

Bad Deal - Now, it's true that some people don't have a problem with this kind of deal, and they do happen. I'm not a fan for a few reasons. First of all, there's already a fee structure built into distribution. Distributors get a cut when your music is sold. An upfront fee is double dipping. Plus, getting your CDs into the store is only a tiny part of the battle. Putting some CDs on a shelf with thousands of other CDs doesn't really do much to increase the chance of selling some music unless there is some good promotionbehind it all. Although some distributors work with any label that comes along, a lot of physical distributors are selective. That means that they will be actively involved in marketing your music (after all, that's how they make their money). When you pay for distribution up front, where is the motivation to sell your music?

There are plenty of free distribution options out there that don't get involved in promoting your music but that at least don't ask for cash upfront. They're a better choice.

Scenario Four

An indie label is interested in putting out your album. They can't afford to pay you a large advance because their budget is tight and they need the money for pressing and promotion. You've already paid for recording. Good deal or bad deal?

Good Deal - The idea of a big advance might be appealing, but in the long run, it's not as valuable as someone spending time and money working hard to promote your music. Recouping your recording cost would be great, but the cold, hard fact of the matter is that you may not do that right out of the gate. An indie label that really believes in your music and is willing to work hard for you can do a lot to take your career to the next level, even if they can't put much cash on the table up front.

Of course, in exchange for your flexibility on the advance thing, the deal you sign with the label should be nice and easy, too. There's no need to sign a five album deal with a small label. The future is too uncertain for all parties involved, so take it one thing at a time.

Scenario Five

You've stumbled across a company online that claims they can make you a music biz star in seven days. All you have to do is pay $500, and you'll get personalized information and a special phone session with a music industry expert who knows all the tricks for overnight success. You know that they're at the top of their game - after all, a great deal of the space on their website is devoted to testimonials from musicians just like you who took the course. It seems like a small price to pay to finally make your music dreams come true. Besides, you'll be a star in a week - you'll make that $500 back in an hour! Good Deal or Bad Deal?

Bad Deal: - This bears repeating - BAD DEAL. Making it in the music industry is hard, hard work. It takes dedication, patience, perseverance, humility and not a little bit of luck. Anyone who tells you anything different either doesn't know what they're talking about or is lying to you. Anyone who wants to charge you money for a cheerleading session and some meaningless and/or bad advice is taking advantage of you. Oh, they'll yell loudly, stomp their feet, be over-opinionated, and tell you that anyone who doesn't use their service or see things their way lacks vision/doesn't know what they're talking about/doesn't really want to make in the music industry. Kind of trying to sell you a timeshare. The bottom line is that it is oh-so-easy to prey on people's dreams, like becoming a successful musician, and a lot of people are willing to exploit that to make a quick buck. Be careful out there.

These five scenarios are just a few examples of some common deals you might encounter, but you have probably detected a theme that will help you judge other deals that come your way. Deals that aren't necessarily financially rewarding may have other benefits that can be very helpful when you're trying to build your music career. On the flipside, paying for something that is usually offered for free or under a different fee structure is a red flag. In other words - common sense. Your best tool in making real progress in your music career is judging your opportunities with a clear, realistic head and making good decisions.