The Record Company Fandango (Chasing the Deal - Part 2)
Day one of the rest of your career happens when the promo reps take your single into the radio station to play for the music director. Many (the band, management, family, friends, and the record company) expect local media to fall into line and support the act because that is what local media does. Often band members would get their supporters to call-in requests for the song, vote for it on showdowns, and vote to get it to the top of the station charts. While the single was getting airplay locally, the company promo reps had to get the single added to key stations - (those key stations being the trendsetters and those stations that reported their playlists to trade publications). In short, trade publications, read and followed by the music industry, were where you could live or die. If your single was getting mentioned or appeared on their charts, you had a good shot at establishing your song on the air for months to come. If this happened, several actions would result. The first being the record company sales team would sell singles into the market; if the requests were legitimate, the single would sell. The net result from this airplay (assuming you have a hit across the country) would be the second single would be set up and likely added without much pressure from the record rep, and orders for the album's increased due to having a hit single. Now you have one hit single, a second on the way, and your record readied to ship to retail. The publicity and marketing machines would have kicked into gear. All of these activities meant the band could further increase their exposure by meeting record retailers and their staff, press, television, and radio to build a profile ahead of the album release. While the agent was busy booking club tours and opening act slots (likely a combination of both), the artist would be rehearsing and making image decisions around the look and feel on stage.
When the artist hits the road is where a whole new life unfolds for everyone. Being on tour, although fictional accounts show the party goes ever on, is extremely exhausting. Think of it this way. Let's assume you are a professional welder and you do one-hour jobs every day but with a difference. With your job done, all your buddies want to hang with you and drink beer and party. It is okay the first week or so, but you have to pack up your gear after and jump into a vehicle and drive all night to the next job. You check into a hotel for a few hours before going to your next place of work and do it all again.
Sometimes you have to sit behind a table and sign autographs for hundreds of fans, pose for photo's and make each person feel special. You do the job and rinse and repeat for weeks, sometimes months on end. In other words, you are moving your office, place of work every day, sometimes driving hundreds of miles during the night. Life on the road is the part that will make or break you. The record company is there to make you feel good about it all.
For us, the record company reps, we spent the early part of the day getting our other work done, returning calls, and getting to the airport to catch our flight. While we grabbed a few hours of sleep in a bed and ate a decent breakfast, the artist was either in a van or a tour bus, traveling to the next show. There were also times when the band played club dates in between hall or arena shows to pay the bills. Opening acts seldom were paid enough money to cover costs, and the record company would help subsidize the cost of touring. This situation then put significant demands on the artist to be available for whatever the record company felt necessary to promote the record.
While you were out touring, the record company's pressure begins to build as they want to discuss plans for the next record. Any artist will tell you song ideas come and go, and you have to make the most of those times when they come to write it down. Many songs written on napkins, scraps of paper, stuffed into guitar cases for further development were the bread and butter of the future. When you think about it, and it is a good idea not to, the artist, has so many people dependent upon you making it. Your manager, who is taking his standard 15% of earnings, has to pay rent, staff, phone bills, bar bills and so on to keep the machine running. Road crew salaries, transportation, and gear rentals, hotels and meals and per diems see a great deal of money flowing out. You have become a small business, and management is there to help you through all of it. Agents get the shows; management takes care of the rest. Your manager is the one who makes the deals, both with agents and promoters and the record company.
When the artist was simply a name on a marquee, agents took their slice, promoters their's, and management theirs. The artist always was the last one paid, if at all. Things began to change when Albert Grossman, the first modern rock manager (Dylan, Joplin, The Band), began to treat recording acts as artists. In the mid-'60s, pop music still dominated by singles acts began to change slowly. Jazz and folk artists, and of course, classical artists depended upon the album, but pop and early rock and roll acts still were treated as singles acts. Most labels wanted nothing to do with rock, and it was a happy series of accidents that made some in the record business sit up and take notice. Grossman began to demand, and receive substantial advances for his acts, and guaranteed advances at that. In short, that meant even if the record did not sell, the artist received the guarantee. Grossman began to put the artist in the driver's seat, and as record companies began to understand the profits to be made, began signing up acts. This clout also extended to the promoters and down to the agents. If a record company was willing to invest large sums of money, the promoters and agents could demand more considerable appearance fees, which meant increased revenues.
All of this, at that time, was new ground. Artists began to take control of most aspects of their careers, from writing songs to producer selection to studio location and album artwork, marketing, and publicity. Record labels began to compete with one another for acts, and many record companies encouraged management to form independent labels that they would distribute. The best example of this was when a young David Geffen, then an agent with William Morris and managing Laura Nyro, could not convince Atlantic to sign Jackson Browne resulted in Geffen creating Asylum Records, with Jackson Browne being the first act. Success quickly followed, and Asylum ended up with a stellar lineup of recording acts (Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, and Bob Dylan), setting the tone for the future. Artists, especially successful ones, could make demands for higher royalties, more control, in essence, becoming a corporation within a corporation. A good manager meant the artist need not distract themselves with business concerns, but that shift meant many things. One, the artist could be seen as not interested in money (when in fact, they very much were). Two, the initial drift away from planned commerce to accidental commerce was now swinging back to business, but this time with the artist having a say. That mentality also affected signing and maintaining artists. As large corporations purchased record labels, the business of music began in earnest once again, with the bottom line being profits, not art. By the time the 1980s had arrived, economics were such that the contracts for newer artists began to evolve back into instruments favoring the record companies. But some acts still had the clout. The Grateful Dead signed on to Arista Records, home to Whitney Houston, Barry Manilow, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and named their price. They negotiated a significant per-unit royalty, kept control over their work, and were able to get what they never could get before. The band was always playing, and close to 80% of their revenues came from touring, but they never had a hit record. "A Touch of Grey" from In The Dark became the band's first top ten hit, the group was rewarded handsomely. The Grateful Dead was a prestigious band, and though they never sold vast numbers of records per release, they were treated with respect and were a heritage act from a time when music, not commerce, mattered. Managements' role expanded the artist's ability to earn income, and the record labels were more than eager to sign acts away from other labels.
The art of music began once again to take a back seat to the art of the deal. If you had a hit and sold enough albums to warrant a second release and increase your sales, you had clout, especially if the artist had management with a longterm view. Bands dealing with the promotion reps found it very different dealing with the sales reps. Sales reps earned a base salary and commission, and it was always in their best interest to sell the hits and shift the misses. The sales reps were the ones who got pressure from their wholesale and retail clients if the album was loaded in and did not sell. Retailers could return records that did not sell but were limited by the details in the sales agreements. A new album by an unknown or new act often was sold in lighter due to a previous release that was touted as a hit but did not sell. If that album sold in lighter was yours, it could be frustrating to play a show and not be able to find your record in every store or accompanying displays. This situation is when the band complained to management who complained to the label who put heat on the regional manager who leaned on the sales rep to correct the situation. There was a situation when Michael Jackson's new album was shipped into wholesale very heavy and did not sell. With no hit single to propel retail was returning the inventory to the wholesaler who was complaining about the large numbers they had sitting in boxes. A new single was released and the next complaint from retail was they could not replenish their shelves quickly enough to keep up demand. It often was a case of feast or famine.
It is hard work trying to become an established act. Personnel changes, record company pressure, touring, lack of income and a creative dry spell could all, or sometimes singly sound the death knell. Even superstar acts were not immune to this. Peter Gabriel left Genesis just as the band was pushing itself to the top. Fortunately, both went on to enjoy separate careers but many were not so lucky. Cream self-imploded and only Eric Clapton was able to firmly establish himself in rock, blues, and adult contemporary music fields. Ugly Kid Joe wracked up sales of over 5 million records, won the Readers Choice Award, toured with Ozzy Osbourne, had a song in Wayne's World, and seemed poised to take it to the next level. I met up with them (covering for my sister company's promo rep who could not make the show) at a dingy bar playing to a few hundred souls - a far cry from the tens of thousands they were used to playing in front of in Europe, North America, and Australia. They were beset with many issues along the way which resulted in personnel changes and declining sales from one album to the next. As the lead singer told me about how many albums they had sold but they still owed the company money, you could hear the shattered dreams and a feeling of betrayal in his voice. Being a recording artist is not for the faint of heart.
It would not be long before the chips began to fall back into the pockets of the record companies when a new threat to everyone's livelihood began to appear on the horizon.