We continue our grilling of veteran musicians, who dispense career advice. Go here to read the previous installment, featuring Patti Smith, Bob Mould, Jon Langford, and more.
BY JASON GROSS
I don’t have any instruction books for musicians. There’s a lot of different issues that people don’t know when they’re not experienced- for instance, copyright, getting gigs, writing songs, making songs.
If you’re trying to get gigs, you just apply. I would steer away from gigs where they like to put about four bands on the bill for the night and pay everybody a little bit. You don’t play at a place with the door (for payment) – you want a guarantee.
For labels, you need to know what you want. You don’t want to owe the label a lot of money. You want them to give you some money. Maybe they don’t want to give you any money (but) maybe you want to put out a record anyway, but you don’t want to go into debt for a lot of expenses that you can’t even imagine are being planned. So you have to know what you’re getting into. Check legalities, check the law. For contacts, one pitfall is where the artist automatically gives the label the publishing contract for their original material- the label hands them a standard songwriter’s contract with the publishing, split 50/50 between the artist and the label’s publishing company. And you don’t need to do that. You can start your own publishing company and have a 100 percent of your royalties. It’s not too difficult to start your own publishing company- that’s just getting affiliated with either ASCAP or BMI. The labels will often say ‘we’ll publish your song,’ then they offer you services that come with their publishing deal, which is to solicit your songs to other artists and TV and whatever. Doesn’t really amount to anything. So you don’t want to give 50 percent to those publishers. You want to be your own publisher. If you have original material, you want to start a publishing company.
The label’s advance sometimes is good. Of course they take that out of your earnings later on for record sales as practice, but that’s fair. It’s fair enough. And not all labels today want to give you an advance. It’s often still a good deal just to have your record out and have copies to sell, if the label gives you copies to sell. You just sell it yourself.
(Advice for songwriters) Just write what pleases you, not what you think will sell… What’s pertinent to you, that’s what will eventually be the most valuable thing- your individual expression and outlook. That’s what people will find useful- what is unique about you, as a person.
(Advice for musicians) Enjoy it. Stick to it and don’t get too disappointed if it doesn’t seem to pay off. The payoff is just to be doing it for you. It takes patience and persistence. So with all this, it might be a long while, a long term of patience and persistence so you better enjoy it, because it might be a long while before you get anything out of it. I see musicians where they get disappointed when it doesn’t seem to make their living, it doesn’t seem to pay their bills and all that. Well, it wasn’t really ever supposed to. It might, you know? Just expect that the existence of the music is sufficient in itself. Expression. It’s healthy for the soul and for you physically to be able to express yourself in music, to play music and put it out there. If that’s not satisfactory within itself, then maybe you’re in it for the wrong reasons.
BERT JANSCH (R.I.P.; Pentangle)
Basically, he (the young musician) has got to love what he’s doing. If it’s the music he wants to play and all that kind of stuff, he’s got to love it. He’s got to make a success of it. He’s got to practice at it. He must have heroes too, I suppose.
(Business advice) That’s very tricky, especially for young people starting out. They can easily go the wrong direction if they’re not careful. In the other days, we never used to have lawyers, whereas nowadays if you’re doing any sort of deal of any significance, you always want to have a lawyer look at it. But when you’re starting out, you really can’t afford all of that. You can take advice from anybody at hand who’s a bit more savvy than you are when it comes to doing business.
PAUL LEARY (Butthole Surfers)
Well, I’d tell them to go back to law school. Usually when somebody asks me that question, 99 times out 100, it’s… a tough career to choose and if you really wanna do it, the best thing you can do is just quit your job, get rid of your safety nets and definitely don’t have kids. And just do it and trust that, you won’t starve to death.
(Business advice) Oh man… I’m terrible with the business side of that. All I’ve ever done is make a mess out of my business. You just gotta hope that the mailman will bring money at some point and if you stick around, he starts bringing checks. And I don’t even know what they’re for most of the time.
(Dealing with labels, managers) Well, I’m not very good with dealing with labels either… They kind of freak me out, the kind of people that are at labels. There’s a few of them that are cool and are my friends and what not but sometimes it’s just like… they just give me the willies and I start having diarrhea and stuff like that, physical reactions.
And managers… there’s cool ones and it’s great to be able to work with the few cool band managers that are out there. It’s hell to work with the ones that aren’t but I’ve been fortunate to work with some cool people.
Basically, be careful about who you trust and if a label hands you a contract and tells you to sign it, you can read it if you want to but the label’s gonna probably uphold whatever they feel like upholding anyway and so the paper doesn’t mean anything. So you just gotta kind of just decide who you’re going to get into bed with and then let them do what they’re gonna do to you and accept that as part of the ride. You’re going to be the last person in line to get a paycheck and by the time you get to the front of the line, there’s probably nothing left. And you gotta be OK by that.
(Advice for starting your own label) You know, that’s what people do but… I’m so terrible with business that I wouldn’t be able to advise about that. If you were like me, I’d write some songs that’ll make it into movies. That’s a good thing to do, ’cause that stuff’ll pay for YEARS. And then learn how to produce music. That’s kind of what I did. I just learned how to make music and now I help people do it all the time and there’s money to be made doing it. It’s a lot of fun.
BABES IN TOYLAND
Lori Barbero: Just do it. Don’t be afraid, and don’t even take lessons. Just learn it on your own. Keep dinking around ‘til there’s something you like doing and just do it. You don’t have to take lessons, you don’t have to read. Just be original. Even if it’s a singer and a guitar player and a drummer, and you don’t have a bass player, just start and you’ll find a bass player. Things will all work out. It always will work out. If you sit idle, you’re not gonna move forward. You just have to keep doing it. Even if it has to be in a basement or in a bedroom or whatever and you have to get headphones and practice amps or electronic drums or whatever. Just write songs and have fun. And then if you aren’t having fun, then don’t do it. You can only do it if you’re having fun.
Kat Bjelland: Watching bands helped me. I used to stare at Greg Sage from the Wipers and just watch his fingers very carefully, memorizing how to do it.
KELLY DEAL (Breeders)
“Get a job that will let you leave. ‘Cause you do need some sort of job that you can get that you can do on the road or you can walk into the job while you’re home and that’s going to enable you to leave. You can come back. It’s really important to travel and get out of your town. Leave your town and go and play. Get in a van and go play other shows. Go play different states. So that’s my thing, is to try to make sure that you have a job that’s going to let you do it. And it’s a challenge to do that. ”
IAN MACKAYE (Fugazi, Minor Threat, The Evens)
Some of the people who ask me are OLD – they’re starting to get into music.
My general advice to anybody doing anything ever, where it’s music or writing or cooking or whatever, is that they should love what they’re doing. If they’re going to play music, they should love that music. They should play exactly what they hear in their heads, or try to. And that way, if they play for some period of time and if they actually have some concept of what success is, beyond what I think is the obvious definition of success, which is to have done it, and should they not reach that goal, they will have at least spent their time doing something they loved. And that’s a worthwhile way to live.
Q: Any business advice?
No, other than to not pay attention to it. One question that has come up along those lines, people say ‘I want to go on tour with my band, how can I pay my rent?’ Or ‘we want to put a record out, how do we do that? How do we sell enough records to pay for the actual cost of making the record?’ I don’t think of these people as being entitled, but there’s certainly a sense of entitlement. This idea that… ‘I’ve decided to be a musician, so therefore, I want to pay my rent.’ That’s not the way that I think about music. People ask me ‘how do I get people to buy my records?’ or ‘how do I get people to come see my band?’ I guess, write a song. It’s just so straightforward, it’s just so obvious to me. If you want to be a remarkable band or a remarkable musician, then do something, creative something that people want to remark upon. It’s so clear.
The business aspect of it, I think, creates an illusion that there’s a certain schematic or a certain structure or grid that if you push all the right buttons, then things will happen. I suppose that has occurred and probably on the same order of somebody winning the Powerball or something. For most part, my sense is that people who engage music coming at it from a point of view of getting their business in order first, usually they never get around to the music. They just figure that since they have everything else in place, they have management or lawyers or they have their copyrights and all that stuff in place, then they actually at some point forgot to have actually made music or to have made music that people are interested in.
Since I don’t really give a goddamn about the music industry (laughs), and I think that having played music for 30 years now and having my own label for 30 years and I think my record makes it pretty well clear that I don’t care. I don’t have a manager. I don’t have a lawyer. I’ve never had a manager, I’ve never had a lawyer. I don’t use contracts still with the bands on the label. From my point of view, it’s counter-creativity and counter-life. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s evil. I don’t think that. I just think that it’s just a business- it’s not music. Music is merely the content of that business. So I just don’t engage with that world. I don’t think about it. If someone asks me ‘how do you think we should deal with management? ‘ I would never get a manger, but that’s me.
I think first and foremost, if you’re talking about somebody coming to music for the first time, young or old, make something you love. And hopefully, this creation, this object of desire, will be something profound enough or energetic enough to capture other peoples’ imagination. I see bands whose music I don’t particularly like but their devotion to it always attracts me because I sense that they’re doing something they full believe in. I find that really affects me. And I may or not listen to their record… I probably don’t listen to their record because I’m just not that interested in that kind of music. And I occasionally hear a song that for me… it’s so deeply in step with my heart that I can’t not listen to it. That’s another connection. People often ask me ‘what kind of music do you like?’ and ‘what kind of bands do you like?’ And I don’t. I’m not a genre specific person.
What I listen to, what always attracts me about music is hearing music being played by a person or people who at least to my ear, doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Because I think of music as something sacred and something that… I always say this, it predates language in terms of communication. I think music’s been around for an awful long time. It’s been around longer than the record industry. And I understand that the music industry, because we’ve had to interact with it for so long, over a century now, that there’s this sort of illusion that it is music at its core. But it is not! Music is so much bigger than that and so much deeper. Records are the bottle that the water comes in, not the fucking water. And I have a record label so I’m speaking from my own experience. I don’t exclude myself from that. It’s just plastic manipulated in a different way.
ALBERT MAZIBUKO (Ladysmith Black Mambazo)
Musicians should believe in themselves and try to stay as strong as possible to their own culture. That’s the most important thing to always keep in mind.
THE MIGHTY SPARROW (legendary soca singer)
I would tell them to follow your heart. If you feel like singing, then that’s what you’re being called to do. If you fell like playing an instrument, then that’s another thing. Either way, do it to the best of your ability. I became a pretty good singer because I played guitar and now I have several guitars and it enhances me when I’m singing, so I love it.
There’s always a risk in the business side (of music) because there’s always someone else who does the selling and marketing and you can’t do it all. If you’re lucky, you can find good people and smile all the way to the bank. But if you not, you must find someone who can guide you so you’re not ripped off too badly.
Never give up – and keep trying. Believe in your music and keep working hard. Also multiply your efforts to meet and collaborate with other artists. A key moment for me was my encounter and subsequent friendship with Peter Gabriel.
FREDERIC RZEWSKI (composer)
Advice is not like socks, one size fits all. I can only speak from my own experience; and while that might be useful to some, to others it might be uninteresting. But if it’s a matter of transmitting experience from one generation to another, then I would be inclined to look back to the old masters. Brahms, for example, tells a young composer ‘leave it!’ Keep leaving it, and keep going back to it, until it is as good as you can make it. You can’t know or control if it’s beautiful; but you can perfect it. And Berio used to say: “It can always be better.” My old friend Cornelius Cardew, who gave very good advice which he did not follow himself, said that everything is possible if you can just live long enough.
In other words, take lots of time with your music. Very often, the difference between a pretty good piece and a very good one is in some little detail that was added in the last moment. That means you cannot do it for money. You must do it for love.
Of course, the good advice of a hundred years ago might not be good today, because times have changed, and there are new species of predators in the waters in which we swim. It might have been a good idea once to have a publisher; but I would strongly advise against this today. Be very careful with titles: you may find you are not the composer of your music.
FRED SCHNEIDER (The B-52’s)
Get Pro Tools! And someone who knows how to work them. I mean, I don’t but luckily, I’m working with people who do. With the B-52’s, we used it for everything for “Funplex” and it made everything so much simpler, along with live instruments. With “The Superion” (his solo record), I did all instruments except for cowbell and Noah (Brodie) played on keyboards and syndrums because there was no budget for anything else. So you gotta get your music together and then record it so that way, you can put it on iTunes, YouTube with the homemade video, which is what we did for the Christmas album. We bought a green screen and we did it in a den in Noah’s house.
Q: What about on the business side?
Get a good lawyer, to help give you good legal advice, rather than get a manager and then a lawyer. That’s a mistake that a lot of people make. Some managers sound like they’re going to be really, really good and then they turn out to be “oh God…” and you can’t wait to get rid of them. So it really helps to have good legal advice, and navigate contracts because they’ll still try to take your publishing. The waters are still filled with sharks, even nowadays. People are hungry for a contract or a record deal and they find out later what they signed away.
AMON TOBIN (techno artist)
I generally say to people honestly, although it’s a contradiction, don’t really take any advice from people if you can help it, or at least… try not to listen to people too much, whether they tell you that you’re terrible or you’re awesome, either way. I don’t mean like, ‘be arrogant.’ I mean, ‘listen mainly to people when they’re not trying to tell you what to do.’ I think that’s when you need to get your ears open! (laughs) When people are talking or doing something of interesting to you. But when someone specifically is trying to tell you a recipe for success or something you shouldn’t do, in my experience anyway, that’s always been the time to put the filters on. Any time I’ve actually taken people’s advice, like career advice, it’s generally been a bad idea. Or if I try to be too smart or too clever about how to manipulate my situation or anything else like that, it’s always ended up badly. I tend to find that the most honest and direct approach is always the most rewarding ultimately. It always seems to be the one that produces the best results, is when you’re not trying to manipulate the situation or trying to be a smart-ass about things. I really think honestly is very clever. People who are trying to give you advice generally aren’t speaking from the heart- they usually have an agenda and it tends not to be very helpful.
The truth is, nobody really knows (about the business). Everyone’s kind of out on a wing and a prayer, even the people with a lot of experience. The fact is, there aren’t really any recipes for making things work. If there were, the whole situation would be very different in all kinds of industries, not just the music industry.
But specifically, with something creative like music… I think a lot of executives and music people like to think that there is a certain way to do things that will guarantee a certain amount of success and the truth is, that might be true for a very short-lived period of time. But anything worthwhile doing is going to be quite mysterious. Music, by nature, is quite mysterious- you know, why people like certain things and why other people don’t. I just think that second-guessing all that stuff and trying to actually shape yourself into what people might want to hear is kind of a losing battle because you’re never gonna quite get that. You’re always gonna fail at that. Actually, you feel much better when you succeed at doing something that you just really wanted to do and that ends up being a success itself or that ends up being the thing that works. I know it might sound a bit… airy fairy or whatever but in my experience, that’s definitely true. I really think so.
Q: That’s interesting because usually I hear something like ‘find a good manager or lawyer.’
I really don’t agree because all of these people have something to gain. Like the lawyers, managers, all these people are in on the game. (laughs) What do you do? You get a manager ’cause you can’t trust your label. But then you have to trust your manager. Basically, you have to trust yourself, you have to trust your instincts, and as few people as possible telling you the right way to do things is probably the best ’cause you’re the one who really has your own interest at heart. Everybody else has theirs at heart, regardless of what they tell you. So, people will help you to a certain degree but only as far as it’s advantageous to them. You need to keep that in mind.
It is a good question and I do get asked sometimes by young musicians- why they ask me, I’m not quite sure… (pauses) I suppose you have to be true to yourself and true to your own individuality. There are a lot of musicians in the world. You know, it’s an overcrowded profession. And it’s unusual to find musicians who say anything different, who have an unusual style or voice. And I think in an age of an overcrowded profession, it’s really individualism that should be championed. And as a musician, it’s what you should look for in your own art. It’s a thing you should emphasize regardless of the immediate commercial drawbacks, if there are any. But I think in the end, it’s the thing that will make you really stand out and may make your music attractive to people.
BERNIE WORRELL (P-Funk)
Well, the first thing I would say is ‘start with the basics.’ ‘Basics’ meaning your scales, key signatures, Hanon studies (a piano instruction series), which builds technique. The scales help your fingering later on, when you’re soloing. It also helps to learn chord structure because within your scale is your root, the third, the fifth, the seventh and the ninth, so as you practice your scales, learn your fingering at the same time. It’ll be kind of embedded in your head. But first, the root, the third, the fifth, the seventh, the ninth of a chord because all those steps are within the scale. So actually, you’re learning three things at once if you think of it that way.
And from then, practice as much as you can. It’ll help mobility, help the brain, (it’ll help) you remember arrangements, or help you to compose. Also, for soloing, freestyle helps the flow better. It’ll help you when you’re attempting to solo on a piece that you’ve never soloed on before ’cause the dexterity will be there from the scales and different keys. The reason to know key signatures is so you’ll be familiar with the accidentals like the sharps and flats in a different key. So if you do your scales, you’ll be a little bit ahead of the game as far as fingering.
Q: What about business advice?
Definitely please… (laughs) If you can, go online and find anything about the business of music. There are books… I believe the title is “The Business of Music,” I think there’s two different volumes. I’ve been screwed by the business like a lot of us but nowadays, with technology and the computer, at least I know the basics of the business. And you don’t necessarily need a lawyer. A good business manager, someone that knows the music business, would help. And if you do need a lawyer, get a lawyer that knows the business of music because anyone can tell you ‘yeah, I can help’ but the music side of it is a little different. But definitely have a little basic knowledge of the business, even though it’s changed a lot now. Learn the basics, even if it’s the smallest amount because you can keep learning each time you go online. If a problem arises or you don’t know something, now there’s a reference right at your fingertips.
Q: What about advice would you give a songwriter?
Listen to what comes through your heart and to your heart, to your mind. I’m a spiritual person and I’m just an instrument where God has given me the gift and the music comes through me. Depending on the person’s hearing, if you hear something in your head, try to copy what you hear in your head. And if you can’t hear music, just record it. Just play what’s in your head and in your heart and what you feel and just let it flow. And then, once you play it back, you can develop on it. But just let it flow. And you can experiment with that also- you can start out with one note and then just see where the journey takes you. It’s a journey. (laughs) And sometimes, people just hear stuff in their head, a whole sentence let’s say, or a phrase. So if you hear a whole phrase, play that. Or you could just start with just one note and improvise. Just let it flow, whatever comes out and that’ll be it. And then pick apart later, if it needs picking apart! It depends. Then develop it, if it needs developing. It doesn’t come the same way every time.
TOM ZE (tropicalia singer)
ADVICE TO A YOUNG COMPOSER:
THERE IS NO LIFE AFTER DEATH. BUT IT IS ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN THAT THERE IS A LIFE AFTER LIFE.
NOW YOU’RE STARTING TO TEACH YOUR CEREBRAL CORTEX TO SING. FROM THE BEGINNING, BE ESPECIALLY CAREFUL OF VIOLENCE, BECAUSE WHEN NEURONAL CONNECTIONS ARE REPEATED MANY TIMES, THEY BECOME HABITS AND THESE MECHANICAL HABITS ARE TRANSMITTED TO THE CEREBELLUM. THE CEREBELLUM CONTROLS FROM A GREATER DISTANCE AND KEEPS REPEATING THE ACQUIRED HABITS. IF THESE REMOTE HABITS ARE FRAUGHT WITH VIOLENCE, EVEN WHEN YOU DO NOT NEED IT ANYMORE TO ACT-REACT WITH THE WORLD, VIOLENCE WILL CONTINUE TO SHAKE YOU WITH ABANDON FOR A LONG TIME.