David Wells and Hannah Boothby
It’s what you’ve always wanted: a record company offers you a deal, someone says they can make you a star by managing your band, or someone tells you they can get you the best gigs in town – or even the best gigs in the world! But is it too good to be true? Here are some of the questions you should ask before you sign anything.
Have you been successful in the past?
Ask them which bands are signed to their label. Usually this information is on the company’s website. Based on this information, you might want to look at the bands’ social media sites to get a sense of how popular they are.
Ask them about their most successful band, and whether their bands get played on the radio. Have they had any success in placing bands in large venues or festivals? For example, have any of their bands opened for any national acts? Have their bands’ songs been used on television, in films and in adverts? If so, can they provide information on recent placements?
What services do you provide for the band?
A record deal might have been what you’ve dreamed of your whole life, but what does that actually mean, now that most bands make their money from touring? Additional questions you might want to ask are:
What type of distribution services do you provide?
Do you actually perform recording services for the band?
What kind of marketing support do you provide for the band?
Do you provide any kind of booking services?
Do you organize tours for the band? If so, what kind of tour could be expected and would you pay for it?
Do you perform band management services?
Do you attempt to license bands’ songs for television, film and marketing etc?
Why are you interested in signing/representing our band?
What makes them think that you’ll make a good partnership (and, if we’re honest here, what’s in it for them)?
A bad answer would be: 'We are going to make you the next Justin Bieber!'
Another bad answer would be: 'The first thing we are going to do is take your songs and combine them with some of our bands songs and put them on a compilation CD. We think it will be big!'
A good answer would be: 'We listened to every song on your CD, we watched your videos and we came to your gig last night. We think you would be a great fit on our label. We love your sound. Your genre is compatible with the other bands we carry, which can be very helpful as we book venues and mini-tours. We want to work as a partnership with you. First, we first need to build your awareness and expand your fan base in the Northwest through medium and large venues, teaming you up with some of our more established bands where you would be their opening act. We have a strong track record of taking the bands we sign and getting them to the next level. Here is a list of the bands on our label and their contact details. Check them out. Lastly, we do need to get you back in the studio in the next 6-9 months.'
What are the terms of the deal, and how will we work together?
It isn’t as exciting as rocking out in front of a massive crowd or hearing your song on the radio – but you have to work at understanding the small print or you might stay in the small venues! Find out what they expect of you and your band, and what you can expect from them. Ask to see a copy of the contract before you sign anything, and make sure you take plenty of time to think about what it says (and ask advice) before you sign it.
You also need to find out about more practical, day-to-day matters. For example: Will there be an A&R rep assigned to the band? Who should you contact at the company when you have questions? How are music publishing issues dealt with?
Ask about the technicalities – who pays for what and what does it mean?
The person who pays for a recording usually owns the rights to that recording – so if the record company pays for you to use a recording studio, they own the recording you produce. Make sure you’re clear about who owns these rights. Ask:
If there is no record label involved, does the band automatically own the rights to the recordings?
Are the rights split evenly between band members?
If someone else was paid to record the album, does that person have any rights to the recordings?
What if the third party offers to record the album for free?
What if a producer is involved?
What happens once the band has signed the deal?
Make sure you find out what happens if you agree to work with a person or a company. What costs, if any, should the band expect to incur once they sign with the person or company? Once you’ve signed, what activity can the band expect to occur in the first 90 days, six months, first year…?
Getting straight answers
People who are serious about working with you, and who want the best for you and your music, won’t be vague or elusive when you ask these kind of questions. If people aren’t straight with you about financial and business stuff, it’s a serious red flag.
The music business is changing, and artists are no longer at the mercy of record labels. Digital services like Soundreef, which provides music for stores and pays artists a fair royalty for their work, are helping artists to make the most of public performance rights. The old collecting society system is changing – you don’t have to sign bad deals anymore!
David Wells is the manager of Those Willows, an indie band based in Portland, Oregon. Those Willows, and its former incarnation Sunny Side Up, have had considerable success licensing their songs with Soundreef’s sister company, Beatpick. They were also the first US Indie band to sign with Soundreef. Those Willows band site is: https://www.facebook.com/thosewillowsmusic and their songs can be heard at http://www.beatpick.com/artists/ThoseWillows.
What are your experiences with record deals, management deals and promoters? Have you ever been ripped off? What do you wish you’d asked at the time? We’d love to hear about it!