I had a lengthy internal debate over whether to join the endless number of blogs, articles, tributes and montages in honor of Michael Jackson. Even though I was big fan of MJ and I did rock the moon-walk on numerous occassions during bar and bat mitzvahs and family weddings during the 80’s, I decided that for purposes of my posts, we should learn from Michael rather than add to the endless fluff pieces circulating our globe at the moment.
So, what can we in the independent music industry learn from the King of Pop? One glove is better than two, Emmanuel Lewis (aka Webster) is cool, living on a ranch with children, monkeys, and an amusement park will definitely get you noticed. All joking aside, Michael Jackson was one of the biggest grossing artists of all time. He single-handedly changed the way music was marketed to the masses. He was one of the first truly international (Asia to Africa to Australia) superstars. Along the way, he purchased the Beatles catalog.
That purchase, along with some of his other buisness decisions is what I can’t help but focus on when thinking about MJ’s legacy. Michael and/or his management team had the foresight to purchase a large chunk of the greatest rock and roll band’s publishing catalog of all time. In 1985 he puchased ATV Music Publishing for $47.5 Million. ATV controlled around 200 Beatles songs. This investment, at a time where the value of music publishing was still unknown, was one of the best investments anyone could make.
Every time one of the Beatles’ songs was played on the radio, which is virtually every minute of every day, Michael was earning money as the publisher. For every song that was licensed in advertisements, tv shows, movies, greeting cards, etc. Michael got a check. At the time of his death, the Beatles catalog would have been one of his most valuable assets. Think about that; Michael Jackson albums sold in the 100’s of millions but he had more earning potential from another artist’s songs.
Obviously when we discuss the Beatles and Michael Jackson we are looking at musicians who are in a different stratosphere when compared to most indie musicians or even most major label acts. However, the lesson that any musician can learn from both the Beatles and MJ is that control of publishing, control over who owns your music and how it is maintained, can be the life-blood for your retirement, and even for future generations.
When you sign to a label you need to think about what you are signing away. If you choose not to sign with a label but pursue a publishing deal, the same rule applies. Most major label deals will come with a publishing deal wherein the label or a division of the label will get the right to publish your music. While this is not always a bad thing, just remember what you are giving up and what the financial repercussions may be. A good warning flag that indicates that a musician may be giving away her music forever is an offer of an advance. Typically, publishing deals, like label deals, come with an advance. BE WEARY OF ADVANCES. If you are getting money up front, it usually means that you are leaving something behind. The length of publishing deals can be for the life of the copyright (95+ years in some cases) or can even be perpetual (never ending). Is a $50,000 advance worth the value that publisher is going to bring to your music for the next 100 years? Maybe…
Publishers are ideally supposed to act as your world-wide agent. They are supposed to help advertise your music to the world and seek money making opportunities for that music. Also, publishers are there to collect the money that is earned for music which is actually “published”. The typical split with most publishers is 50/50. The even split looks better than it is (of course). Many artists need sub-publishers to reach different markets around the world. A sub-publisher will take its percentage which in turn reduces your percentage.
The easy argument to make in favor of publishers is that without them: are you going to get your music out to the public en masse and more importantly are you going to collect once that music has been published? While the new music industry has seemingly endless opportunities to get your music out to the public, the publisher still plays an important role. Several new bands and even labels have either formed their own publishing company or partnered with a publisher. The partnership or the self-publisher model will reduce the endless percentages that go out to people and companies who are not in the band. But, just like everything else in the D-I-Y music model, it takes a lot of work and a strong team to accomplish what established publishers can already provide.
God willing your catalog of music will be worth as much as Michael’s or the Beatles. Realistically, you might not get to that level. That does not mean that you should not think about the value of your music before you hastily sign it over to a publisher. A quick advance from a publishing company may look great now, but as I have ranted on several occassions, advances are simply loans which must be paid back. Look at all your options first and go with the one that is best for you and your band. Think before you ink.
SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION OF THE WEEK: NALEDGE’S (AKA MR. BRAIN) CHICAGO PICASSO
Some of us who work with businesses that are on the periphery of the music industry (clothing manufacturers, software and computer companies etc.) have been babbling about the trend of coupling music with another consumer product for some time now. Finally the idea of bundling or packaging new music with other merchandise appears to be taking off. Artists like Mars Volta, ACDC, Mos Def and, oh yeah, the Beatles, are getting into the game providing major steam to the indirect music sales category.
Most of the readers of this page are not signed to major labels (at least I don’t think so). So the idea of getting your next single on Guitar Hero IV is not very realistic. However, in the past we have discussed creative ways of getting your music out to the masses. Mos Def, a true indie hip hop legend, has taken this approach with his latest release: The Ecstatic. As Pitchfork, Digital Music News and NME have reported, Mos Def’s newest release will be presented to the public via a “Music T-Shirt”. Each t-shirt will have a unique code that will allow the buyer to download the album (not to mention rock a new sweet t at the same time).
This cross marketing and cross selling idea is clearly the wave of the future for music sales. With continuous drops in physical cd sales, limited and dwindling numbers of stores selling cd’s and the tight economy, musicians and their labels have to think of new and creative methods for getting the new music to the people. The majors may be too slow and too entrenched to re-invent their sales method in time, but creative indies and mid-size labels can definitely get on board.
The t-shirt idea is brilliant, but how about including music with the purchase of a particular sneaker. If Converse knows that their shoes sell particularly well to the hipster community, why not include download codes for music from Passion Pit, Santigold or MGMT? If you are a band that has identified your target audience, approach a company whose products are popular amongst your fans. For young bands, their fans probably only buy music digitally. Why not get custom usb drives made with music embedded on it and sell those at your concert instead of cds? The cost is about the same (check out CustomUSB and Molotalk ) and the chances of a fan buying a wicked cool usb drive far outweigh a crappy cd with a handwritten label.
Musicians are creative by nature so the possibility for this secondary revenue stream for the sale of new music is seemingly endless. As with all licensing and merchandise deals, the same “lawyerly” warnings apply. As this trend grows and more non-music companies approach musicians to ask for music, more shady deals will be presented. As always, be careful before you agree to sell, license or give your music to anyone. That sweet t-shirt compilation idea may wind up as a not so awesome singing laxative container.
SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION OF THE WEEK
I already plugged (no pun intended) them in this article, but check out Custom USB. They have already worked with many big named musicians on really cool USB drives that can come in any shape, size or quality. They can embed software that not only includes music, but also creates a fan based intranet site that pops up once the device is plugged into your computer. Awesome stuff.