Dave Holmes

Music and Music Business part 1.

Music and Music Business part 1.

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." Hunter S Thompson


From time to time I teach at the Institute for Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) in north London, usually depping for the regular teachers. I sometimes include anecdotes about my own experiences as a freelance guitarist during my lessons, time permitting. The students seem to enjoy them and hopefully they learn something useful too. During one recent class I mentioned my experience at We Will Rock You when my equipment failed on stage (see earlier blog). After the class, one of my students, Sven, asked me how I deal with situations like that; whether I take it in my stride or whether I get angry with the people involved. I always try and keep cool. Getting angry and flustered and generally acting like a diva doesn't get you anywhere. It certainly doesn't help you perform well after the incident.

Sven then related a story about a friend of his who'd played guitar in a band for a couple of years. The band management kept saying that there was no money and being a typical musician, this guy was just happy for an opportunity to play and trusted what the management were saying. Eventually he found out that the band had been making money all along and they'd been taking advantage of his good nature and naïveté. He got so pissed off, that he decided to quit music altogether and got an office job.

Business and music are not easy bed fellows. Most of us just want to play. We are dreamers, creative artists and spend alot of our time with our head in the clouds. We strive for perfection, we want to move people to dance or to cry. Money is such a minor consideration or may not register at all when we're starting out. For anyone who's serious about becoming a professional musician, it's time to talk business. You are entering a dark world that doesn't sit well with the artist in you.

Here's the thing. The music business is there to make money out of music. It's not there to support your dream. Its not there to reward you for all the hours you've practiced. You won't get offered a deal because they like your music. You'll get a deal because they think they'll make money out of you. Venue managers will pay bands to play because he hopes they will attract customers who will pay the entry fee and make him a profit over the bar. Freelance musicians will get work by providing what the artist needs to perform his or her songs. But as far as the artist's management is concerned, backing musicians are an irritating expense who eat into the profits. They dont give a shit how good you are, only how much you cost or whether you can make them money. It's a business like any other business.

When you're starting out its tempting to jump at the chance of any work in music. Being paid to play my guitar?! Are you kidding?! Of course I'll do it! But with experience, a professional musician will become aware of the service he's providing and what it's worth to his employer and the cost to himself, in terms of his time, effort, equipment wear and tear etc.

Nine times out of ten, you'll be told that budgets are tight. Having played at countless society weddings, awards ceremonies, TV shows, tours of all shapes and sizes and seen evidence of huge amounts being spent in other areas, my first reaction these days is to think, "Well, you'd better rethink your budget then!" Before you take on the job, find out as much as you can; How big are the venues? How big are your audiences? Do you have your own back line tech? Is there record company backing? How much are the tickets? If you're playing with a band playing their own material in pubs, the chances are they won't be making any money. If you're offered an arena tour with a huge crew, big production etc, someone is making money! I'm not suggesting you start banging on tables and making demands. I'm saying try and get as much information as you can before taking on the gig. Then at least you can go in with your eyes open and you won't feel like you're being taken for a ride. You may decide its worth your while to take on a gig for a small fee. The chances are you'll make some good contacts, have fun and gain useful experience. And experience is everything. In time, you'll develop a realistic idea of where you fit in and what the going rates are. Experienced guys with a reputation can negotiate better fees, especially if they've been asked for by name. But in the meantime, realise that you are providing a valuable service which the money men will try and get for as little as possible. Its not personal, its just business.

Going back to Sven's mate...I mean, really, how can you do a gig for two years and not figure out that there's money coming in?! You can keep your 'artistic dreamer' intact but develop a tough 'inner minder' to deal with the business men and keep your eyes and ears open. You can keep your head in the clouds but make sure your feet are on the ground.

Dave Holmes 02/07/2012

back to blog posts

© 2012 Dave Holmes

Dave Holmes