How to Tell if a Record Label Deal is Sketchy
Industry rule #4,080.
Library of Congress
Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
Fan, My band recently got the attention of a local group of songwriters that work in licensing. The company is small and has a handful of artists that are all in the Midwest. One of the owners explained to me that they have active relationships with some TV producers and music directors and that they would love to shop my bands' stuff around to these contacts. His deal is 50% of the signing fee and then he gives the band 100% of the royalties thereafter. From what I've seen, that's a step above the standard deal in which some companies take 25% of the royalties. For a band with no connections to TV, is this third party approach the best way to get our music into the hands of producers?
Dear Anonymous, My first concern here is why these folks are operating outside of industry convention in terms of their take. Depending on whether you get a sync (placement) for a TV show or a commercial spot, the back end might be totally different. I had a roommate that lived off of checks for a song of his that was used a lot in a particular season of The Real World--the back end on that was substantial, went on for years due to marathon weekends. I have also known a lot of folks who made significant money from commercials, where all the money was lumped up front, the back end being mechanical/SAG royalties and the like. So while maybe this deal sounds great, if you crunch the numbers, it might be a rip-off.
That said, I checked around and folks said 50% up front seemed awful high, though it's not unheard of.
I looked through this companies weird little website, and from what I gleaned, of their handful of artists, they got placement for one, on a huge network show that has been off the air for years. They have nine likes on Facebook, no LinkedIn page and and are MBA dudes in a part of the country that is far removed from any entertainment industry. That right there is a non-starter. If you are still considering it, talk to say--three?--other people on their roster about their experience of communication, getting placements, and getting paid. Compare this to what the agency dudes are telling you. They can probably "explain" anything, but they should also be able to show you the proof.
It's easy, when you are being courted by someone, to be seduced by promises and people telling you how your band is the one, is so special and exceptional. Don't let that fool you if these other artists come back and say "well, actually, they've never placed a song for me," and you write it off by saying "well, that's because your band sucks, our band is different." What you need to be clear on is--is this company capable of delivering what they are promising, are they doing respectable business, do people like working with them, is communication good? It's easy to fall for things when you feel you have no other options on the table and are flattered by the attentions of well-manicured dudes with nice rides, you know?
That said, if you are interested in hooking up with a company to represent and promote your music to music supervisors, shop around and pursue a range of people with good reputations--look for agencies with good reels on their websites, or other evidence of recent syncs. You may have to network your way into conversations with other bands that have gotten placements and find out what the range of options and opportunities are out there--ask for some introductions if people are working with a publisher they like. Look for rosters that would make sense for your band, or of bands you admire. Apply yourself to a few hours of Google, research folks whose names crop up on, say, SXSW panels about publishing or music supervision and you will get familiar with who is doing good work in that realm. Working with someone who is a trusted curator--be they a licensing or publishing company--is the most crucial part, someone where you can see examples of their relationships within the industry.
Good luck, Fan
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