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Ari Herstand
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based musician, the founder and CEO of Ari’s Take and the author of How to Make It in the New Music Business.

The thing you start to learn the longer you’re in this business is no one really knows anything. They think they do. They pretend they have all the answers. But no one really knows.

People have their personal experiences. If they became successful by doing it one way, they’ll claim it’s the way. If they failed doing something, they’ll declare it a flawed path.

There have been standards and ‘ways of doing business’ proclaimed as fact by those who came before. But nothing is set in stone. Donald Passman states that managers make (typically) 15%. But the Colonel took 50%. That deal worked for Elvis. You could say the Colonel took advantage of Elvis, but Elvis would never say so. I know some managers who get paid a flat monthly fee. And some who take 5%. And some who take 30%. What is ‘correct?’ Is there a correct?

What’s correct is only what is right for the situation.

If you’re a union musician (or actor) and sign with a union regulated agency, that agency takes 10%. But how many musicians do you know who are union? College booking agents take 20% across the board. Every single one of them. Are they correct? To go against union regulations? Well, none of them are AFM certified. And they’d like to keep it that way. It works for them. And it works for their clients. There are ‘best friend’ managers and agents who take an equal percentage as each band member. Are they correct?

What’s correct is only what is right for the situation.

For producers, it’s points. You’ll read everywhere that producers earn anywhere from 1 to 5 points. Points meaning percentage points of royalties. That’s how the labels limit a producer’s cut. But it’s common practice in some circles for producers to take nothing up front and 20% on the back end. Or 50%. Or (more frequently) get paid a fair wage up front and take nothing on the backend.There is nothing set in stone.

+8 Ways To Get The Best Deal For Your Gig

What’s correct is only what is right for the situation.

Steve Albini, legendary producer/engineer of acts like Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Bush, Low, Cheap Trick, and literally hundreds more, never took points on a record. Ever. On the Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways HBO documentary, Albini says that his philosophy then is the same as it is today:

“Normally bands would be paying a royalty to the producer. From an ethical standpoint I think it’s an untenable position for me to say to a band that i’m going to work for you for a couple of weeks and then for the rest of your fucking lives you’re going to pay me a tribute.” – Steve Albini, Producer, Nirvana

Sure, Albini could have made a lot more than he has. Royalties from In Utero alone would have probably kept him out of debt for a good decade. But he believes what he believes and god bless him for that. He helped sustain hundreds of musicians’ careers a little bit longer because of that royalty he never took. Or maybe he helped labels stay in business a little bit longer… less sexy. Or maybe this method helped focus him on the task at hand which enabled him to make those brilliant records.

Albini uses the analogy, “it’s totally normal if you’re a carpenter…You spend X number of hours working on a house, you get paid for your time. [Not] ‘oh look the house is still standing in 20 years! Maybe I should get a little bonus for that eh!?’ “

“It’s an unusual position in the music industry. Totally normal if you’re a fucking plumber or carpenter.” – Steve Albini, Producer, Nirvana

In his best-selling book, Drive, about what motivates us, Daniel Pink explains that incentivizing creative performance is actually harmful (like producer points). He writes:

“An incentive designed to clarify thinking and sharpen creativity end(s) up clouding thinking and dulling creativity. Why? Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus. Traditional ‘if-then’ rewards can give us less of what we want: They can extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, and crowd out good behavior. They can also give us more of what we don’t want: They can encourage unethical behavior, create addictions, and foster short-term thinking.”

So maybe the reason Albini has been so prolific and has created such masterful pieces of art is because he wasn’t clouded by the future earning potential.

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Anyone who tells you that ‘this is how it is,’ is lying. This is how it is, maybe, to them, 15 years ago. Or this is how it is for the scenario they are creating. Or a situation they just experienced.

Unless it is written in the law or in an organization’s TOS, everything is negotiable. And nothing is ‘correct.’

You may call producers, managers, engineers and agents amateurs if they don’t abide by your rules and your percentages. But many of these ‘amateurs’ are defining what the new music landscape is looking like.

YouTubers who have millions upon millions of views, hundreds of thousands of subscribers and selling more on iTunes than many major label releases, work out deals with producers that may make no sense to you. But they don’t work by your rules. And they’re succeeding much further than those abiding by the old rules. And some of them are more popular than ‘mainstream’ pop stars.

It’s good to understand (and respect) the history. But it’s also important to be open to change.

About The Author

Ari Herstand
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based musician, the founder and CEO of Ari’s Take and the author of How to Make It in the New Music Business.

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