Chasing the deal - Part 1
There is the record business, and then there is the music business. This difference is even more apparent in the digital streaming age. Still, it is essential to understand and appreciate that the two were, and are, very different industries despite appearances.
The music business, structured into its various segments, can be confusing and intimidating, so let's assume you have a record deal, which makes the parts vital but distinct from the record business. A quick breakdown reveals that a band or artist at one time or another will have to deal with a record company, manager, an attorney, promoters and booking agents, each with unique areas of concern and expertise.
In many ways, it is far easier for an artist to be signed today than it was back in the day before and while I was working in the record business.
We will examine the record business before reviewing how the record business dovetailed the music business before moving forward to today's scene. We will assume you have some great songs, some talent, and now all you need is a chance to show the world you have something to offer, before embarking on your musical sojourn.
Once you had your songs down on tape, the next step was to get them to a record company (they will love what you have recorded!), who will know what they have in you. You make 25-30 copies of your tape, send your letter introducing yourself and letting them know seven other labels said no to The Beatles, (and it would be a shame for them to overlook your talent). You were giving each record label a chance to sign you. Days go by, and you get to know the habits and schedule of your postman, even waiting for him or her, on the steps so you can grab the letter from them, rip it open and scream yes, giving the postman a big hug and tell them the news! A few weeks on, you wait for the mail to drop through the slot onto the floor and eventually, you just quit waiting for a reply.
So what would you do next? You could call the labels and try to book an appointment with the A&R person (artists and repertoire-the guys and gals who seek out and sign new talent) in the hopes of a meeting where you can explain your talent to them. Unfortunately, you never get past the secretary. If you are lucky, you will receive a letter stating the company does not accept unsolicited material. What this means, in short, is you left before you arrived. So how did record companies find new artists? Back then, there was no internet, no YouTube, no likes or dislikes. Word of mouth, plenty of live shows, working your ass off in the hope of being discovered, and a great deal of luck! Luck, as it turned out, was necessary.
I was trying to land a record deal for a good friend who was a talented guitar player, had a good voice, and I thought the songs he was writing were as good as anything in that singer-songwriter genre heard on the radio. So off we went into a studio, a full 24 track studio in Ancaster, Ontario owned by two musically inclined brothers. We were mightily impressed by what we had to work with and felt the musical possibilities were endless. We brought along a drummer and guitar player. While we were recording, a Canadian artist came into the studio and had just had a big top 40 hit. A couple of other well-known musicians came in (just came by to say hello to the owners while we were recording) and guested on a couple of the tracks. It was cool, really cool to have these guys drop in and agree to play and then being able to add their parts after hearing just a few minutes of the tracks we had recorded. Being in the music business was for us, no doubt about it. We finished our recording, mixed it and had numerous copies made on cassette to shop around.
I began the quest knowing nothing about how the record business worked. I sent the tapes out, even called some of the smaller ones, and surprisingly enough, got through. One A&R guy asked me if it was a top ten hit. I told him I wasn't sure. He told me to call him back when I felt I had a top ten record to play for him. The first lesson learned, you have to promote yourself even to have a shot at getting your foot in the door. That lesson served me well later on as a promotion man. Finally, I landed an interview with an A&R guy with a major record label. We sat down and listened to the first track, which we felt was the best foot forward. He listened intently, and we listened to the next two songs on the tape. He told me right then the songs were pretty good, but the vocalist, although he had a good voice, had no particular style that would make him stand out. He also felt the production was excellent and asked me for the name of the producer. I told him two brothers had done it. One of those was Bob Lanois, the brother of Daniel Lanois, who later would go on to fame as a producer.
With the significant obstacle being "not accepting non-solicited material," how did one go about being solicited? It seems you had to gig your ass off, mix in some cover tunes and throw in some originals until you made a name for yourself on the live circuit. What could happen is record company staff might hear your band play in a bar one night, or a booking agent dropped by to see what kind of business the club was doing, or the girlfriend of a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who works for a record company heard you. After a few shows, their (agent, record company guy or friend of a friend) excitement was building, and word might get to the A&R department, and if you got lucky, a company staffer would convince the company to send a talent scout out to check the artist out. Or maybe a local radio station was having a talent contest and you won the top prize. The radio station would hand out 45's to record company promotion staff when they made their weekly visit to meet with (with arms loaded with records*) the music director in the hope of getting his records played on the station. Talent shows, live gigs or maybe you were just talented you leapt the barriers and were signed based on your raw talent. Jackson Browne followed pretty much the same path outlined above and did not receive a reply. A secretary in the A&R department saw a picture of a handsome guy in her wastepaper basket and hauled it out.
Along with the picture was the tape, and she felt a guy this good looking might write and sing some good songs. She listened to the tape and turned her boss onto it (they had never bothered to even take the tape out of its case!) The rest is history.
Okay, now you are signed. What comes next? As I used to tell young bands, getting a deal is when the hard work begins. At this point, the A&R department becomes heavily involved in coming up with a budget that would include a cash advance to give the band something to live on and buy equipment they may need to assist them in the recording. The best songs the artist had were demoed, and if the album was lacking a clear hit track, they could bring in outside writers. And you could bet the songs picked for the artist came from the record companies publishing division. Big money is in publishing but more on this later. A producer, once chosen, has selected which songs to record and the studio time booked. The songs were recorded, mixed, and sequenced on the album. Once this process had begun, marketing and promotion stepped in. What genre of music? What stations could be relied upon to support the album? What market would be best to break the artist in? What kind of image will the artist have? Photo sessions, biographies, album artwork begin to form the story the public will see, and the band's image will be shaped and moulded. Album artwork was vital not only to create the image but to build in-store displays. Sales managers were brought into the loop to determine how many "out of the box" albums they could target. This strategy would provide data on how much to spend on advertising initially.
The total costs added up, and the company then knew the dollar figure the artist has to pay back before they begin collecting any royalties. Those costs were called recoupable's and included anything from little trinkets like keychains, advertising, posters, standups used in retail to draw attention to the album, tour support, and so on. The bigger the budget, the more significant the initial debt and bigger budgets did not mean better albums. When the Police recorded the first album, they did so with no label behind them, and no manager, and borrowed about $2000 from the drummer's brother to pay for it. Roxanne, the first single, was completed and based on the strength of that single, a London based label signed the band. Being a new band might have made this difficult had it not been for the fact Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland were veterans of the music scene, and this pedigree made it easier to have their music heard by the labels. That was a smart move because it meant they owed the record company nothing at this time for production costs. The band toured America in a station wagon playing shows along the way as the record broke, and new markets opened up for them to play in. The most important lesson here was they controlled the costs and began making money more quickly.
There were so many different facets of the business. New artists gaining airplay traction would then embark on a promotional tour where the artist or band members sat down and did one on one interviews with the media and visited radio stations who were playing the record. These tours cost money from travel to hotels to meals. More often than not, it was the promotional team that went on these promo tours, and they were the same guys who took the records into the stations each week to convince the music and program director to add their records to the playlist. Most hit stations generally added 4-7 new songs a week, and these slots were vital to secure. A single played in the heavy rotation could receive 35-40 spins a week while a medium rotation received 18-25 spins and a light rotation where brand new, untested new artists usually went received anywhere from 8-12 spins a week. Sometimes launch parties for marquee artists were arranged, those who were selling millions of records or artists who were on the cusp and were poised to become major artists. I attended many of these parties, and some involved dinner for well over 150 people (not to mention the costs of flying them in, putting them into hotels). Along with artist support the record company was offering to create large out of the box initial orders, many favours were given in the hopes of debuting at #1 on the best-sellers album chart the week of release.
The bottom line in all of this is these costs were recoupable, and the more significant the initial outlay, the more albums the artist had to sell before they could begin making money. Ticket sales, in most cases, did not cover the cost of the tour for many artists, but merchandising became the big moneymaker. Tour sponsorship deals became popular with some artists taking the money while others refused. Opening acts, unless they had drawing power, were often placed by the record company that offered tour support to secure the spot, especially if it was a national tour. The reason for all of this was simple. The more people the artist played in front could mean spikes in sales leading up to and after the show meaning, which helped to pay off the recoupable. Tours helped sell the album. Very different from today.