A band isn’t just making music, it’s a business.
So, you want to start a band? Don’t. No really, it is a terrible idea. In the immortal words of Reel Big Fish, “You’ll be so disappointed that it was nothing like you planned.” Being in a band isn’t all about sitting around and playing music. You have to collaborate with bandmates to write songs, record, edit, market, book shows, find representation, and secure a label.
It’s a lot of hard work. It might look like someone having the best time doing the thing they love, but they had to go through a lot of hard work and failure to get there. Surviving that part and still wanting to do it is rare. Here are a few things to know before you consider starting a band.
Know the laws
Every band has a horror story about a venue that refused to pay them or someone charging them more than was first quoted. And that’s all before you record an album. Having a basic understanding of contract law is going to take you far in the music industry. When you’re booking a venue, read the whole contract. Are they going to charge you for the use of the green room? Are they providing comped tickets? Do they provide food and beverages? What about a sound tech? Lights?
It’s also handy to understand some basics of copyright law.
Did you know there are six exclusive rights of copyright?
All of these can be owned by different people. This is famously the case with Taylor Swift. While she owns the rights to the songs she wrote, she didn’t own the rights to the recordings of those songs.
Most people don’t have the capital to record and distribute their music in any impactful ways. This is where record labels come in: they front the bill to record an album and, as part of their payment, own the rights to the recordings. Oftentimes, they will own everything but the original lyrics and music. The label makes money from every album sold, every show played, every download, and every stream.
The lavish lifestyle you see bands living on tour? Technically all on loan from the label until the band sells enough tickets to make up for the cost of the tour.
As mentioned, the ownership of the master recordings—the studio recordings that are used to produce every album and digital file—are often not owned by the band or artist. And those masters are bought and sold all the time. Paul McCartney famously confided in an up-and-coming Michael Jackson that he regretted letting the studio have the masters and was in the process of buying up songs as they became available. Jackson, flush with cash, went and bought up most of the Beatles’ catalog before Paul could.
Friendships get strained
There is no such thing as a poor man when he has good friends. And there’s no such thing as friends in the music industry. When the band Creedence Clearwater Revival broke up, their lead singer John Fogerty started a solo career. The rest of the band sued him for sounding too much like CCR. Fogerty had written most of the lyrics and music and ultimately won the case because it’s not wrong to sound like yourself.
Needless to say, McCartney and Jackson were not on great terms after the stunt Jackson pulled.
So what should you do?
Staying in school is probably the first thing. Putting all your eggs into the music basket is a huge risk. There are lots of musicians that went back to school to make sure they had a fallback plan if and when it all fell apart. Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden is a commercial airline pilot. Greg Graffin of Bad Religion is a Professor of Evolutionary Biology. Jim Morrison had a film degree from UCLA. Dexter Holland of The Offspring has a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology. There are dozens more—Tupac was better known in high school for performing in Shakespeare plays than his music.
It’s the music business
So, if you do start a band, know who owns what. Know your rights and protect them. Don’t assume your bandmates will remain your friends when money is involved; it’s a business. And have a fallback plan. Maybe college isn’t for you, but expecting to make money just because you think you’re a good musician isn’t a good plan. Teach the next generation to play, learn a trade, start a small business—have several plans for how you can succeed, even if the band falls apart.