I divide people who make music into five categories: musicians, songwriters, engineers, artists, and producers. In this post we’ll look at the first three. Part II will explore the artists and producers.
The people in the music business that I have the most profound respect for are the musicians. Of the five groups of people who make music, they work the hardest and get paid the least. As I’ve said before, almost everyone in this business started off as a musician, but after a few professional (or less than professional) encounters, many opt for something steadier. The ones who stay with it seem to do so for one main reason: they feel a burning passion to create. They did not choose music, music chose them! It’s a dedication that is often underappreciated by labels.
Musicians fall into two general categories: the Survivor and the Jobber. (Note: It’s important to understand I’m writing about the pop record industry. Therefore, the comments about musicians don’t necessarily apply to other genres like classical or jazz. Also not included in this section are singers, whom I have classified under “Artists.”
Typically, this musician is a male between the ages of 17 and 29. He has a day job that pays him $19,000 to $51,000 per year before taxes. After his survival expenses, he spends most or all of his surplus income on musical equipment. He reads some trade magazines but mostly the ones that cater to his particular instrument, like Keyboard, Guitar Player, or Modern Drummer – rarely Billboard, Variety, or any business-oriented trade mag. He plays in at least one band and maybe as many as three, gigs out at least one to three times a month, and makes about $25 per gig. Many survivors play with a wedding band on the weekends, which could gross $400 or $800 per gig. Occasionally he or she gets session work, usually on the recommendation of a producer/engineer friend.
This type of player is easy prey for those looking for a bargain on talent. Because this musician doesn’t involve himself in the industry, he’s at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiating a good pay rate or copyright share, so he will often be hired to work for little to no money. The trade-off for this exploitation is the hope that the job will lead to something bigger. Long odds for these little gigs, even on a good day.
Ninety percent of the people who call themselves musicians are covered by the above description. A small percentage of them will be attached to an act when it gets signed to a deal with a good label that pays on its contract. About a year and a half after the deal is signed they may, if the record is doing well, start to make enough money to quit their day job.
But the survivor often doesn’t grasp the concept that getting a record deal or completing a CD is the beginning of the race, not the end. Most bands break up after three albums, and then the survivor is often back to square one. If they have songwriting credit, then at least they will get publishing royalties. But for various reasons the survivor rarely contributes to the actual copyright of the songs on the record and so has little to show for the experience save the box of complimentary CDs in the corner of his basement.
Most survivors I know move into other areas of the business. Some try to get their own deal as an artist. Some go on to be producers and/or managers. There are several who have found bigger success as A&R people than they did on the road as a musician.
At one point in their career this musician looked a lot like the survivor. But they hung around a few more parties, or read music better, and eventually got a break on an album as a side player or on a jingle or some high-profile gig that earned them a reputation. This break can come at any time, but usually happens when they are about 27 or 28 and generally occurs after they have been hanging around the scene for some time. When the break does come, they quickly become session players, getting hired often, usually with language like, “We have to get so-and-so, he’s hot now.”
Jobbers have no day job. They sleep during the day, sometimes do a session in the afternoon, and play with a heavy act that’s in town at night. Or they’re on the road with a national pop act, or playing in the pit band of a Broadway show or with a big orchestra. They sometimes can make as much as doctors. Figure a broad range from $80,000 to $500,000 per year. If they’re vocalists, they can make even more by doing national radio spots. Obviously, the supply-and-demand factor here is much different than for the survivor, and the competition for these jobs is murderous.
A subcategory of this same group is the writer/producer. This person is a heavy jobber but also writes songs and/or jingles. Because they are meeting and interacting with the top performers in the industry, they are in a choice position to hawk songs to them. As mentioned above, typically these same jobbers also write jingles and soundtracks whenever they can get the work. They rarely commit themselves to a single scenario, like a band, because they make too much money by staying uncommitted and floating from situation to situation. They always have a pet project that they’re developing, and I have yet to meet one who wouldn’t chuck all the money they make for a good offer from a record label to do an album of their own stuff with themselves as the artist.
But these offers are rare to none. Ironically, the jobber is too overexposed to be of interest to labels, who mostly look for artists that are younger and are discovered under serendipitous circumstances. Jobbers, however, will often network themselves into a producing position because they’re good musicians, personable, and have a lot of studio experience.
Although it is easy to lump songwriters in with musicians or artists, I prefer not to. Songwriters have a unique place in the creative process in that they make the foundation for all other creative work. Plus, it is a misconception that most recording artists write their own material – most do not, particularly in the R&B arena.
Also, many songwriters are not traditional musicians. Some don’t even play an instrument; instead, they will collaborate with arrangers by humming the melody to their lyrics. An arranger/co-writer figures out the chords and composes the accompaniment that makes up the musical bed. This is an exception, though. Many writers play one, if not several, instruments. Since 1984, computers have made it possible for one person to play many instruments without having to go through the trouble of learning music theory or playing technique.
Most writers/arrangers who share ideas with lyricists agree to split the writer’s credit 50/50 regardless of who wrote what. It seems to be a simple way to end nasty arguments and keep the marriages friendly. If figured in dollars per hour, songwriters are the highest-paid professionals in the business. Songwriters who are not recording artists can make anywhere from zero to millions of dollars per year. If a writer has just one song on an album that goes platinum in the U.S., he or she stands to make about $65,000 on record sales alone, even if his song is the worst one on the album. If their song is the hit single, then in addition to record sales they can look forward to royalties from the radio airplay. A typical hit song plays for six weeks, many times a day, on hundreds of stations throughout the country. It will earn between $150,000 and $300,000 for that year, depending on which performing rights organization the writer is affiliated.
If you are a working songwriter and you manage to get even one average-sized hit a year, you can look forward to $500,000 to $800,000 for the year, gross. If you’re a superstar writer like Taylor Swift or Pharrell, you can multiply those numbers by 10.
These figures can be deceiving, though, because most writers have deals with publishing companies, agents, and managers, all of whom take a cut, but still it’s not too bad for a profession that doesn’t even require a high school diploma.
In 1997 the artist Sting signed one of the largest publishing deals in history – $32 million. Included in the deal were rights to his older hits with the Police and several future albums. Also included was the money earned from sampling his hit “Every Breath You Take” for the rap hit “I’ll Be Missin’ You” – an estimated $600,000, which earned out in a few months.
Some ironic observations about songwriters:
- Most songwriters don’t sing well.
- A successful songwriter will earn more money in one year than the president of the United States will earn during his entire four-year term in office.
- Almost no songwriters know the words to “Louie Louie.”
- President George W. Bush knew the words to “Louie Louie” and quoted them in speeches.
This is a category close to my heart, because it is the group from which I came.
Engineering is both a fantastic and a thankless task. Producers usually get the credit for the engineer’s good work, and paying dues is murderous. But engineers often are the hub of the entire creative process, like lawyers are the hub of the business process. Engineers sit in on a lot of different projects, and they hear what everybody is working on well before the public does. They will often be asked their opinion by a producer for this reason. By way of this dynamic, the engineer will often become the psychiatrist of every person on the gig, especially the producer (who is usually pulling his or her hair out because of some insurmountable problem).
Usually, if there is no designated producer on hand, the engineer, by default, will end up in control of the session. Two or more band members may get into a dispute over a part, and in order to settle the argument the engineer will be consulted. Once requested, his opinion is rarely challenged. It’s easy to see why many engineers go on to be producers, but this was not always so.
In the ’50s and ’60s an engineer was someone who had a background in electronics and worked his way up, first spending time as a maintenance assistant for a number of years. Then, gradually, they were booked on sessions by studio managers, and – here’s the important part – engineers were employees of the recording studios.
Today studios don’t generally employ engineers. They retain, on an independent contractor basis, studio assistants. Producers bring their own engineer, with whom they are comfortable working.
Most engineers today who work in larger commercial studios, especially remixers, have only basic electronic knowledge. They rely on the studio maintenance technician to know the internal workings of the machinery. An engineer’s main responsibility today is to concentrate on keeping the session happening.
While successful engineers can make over $250,000 per year, the average working engineer makes about $60,000 if he works studio gigs regularly in New York or Los Angeles, and $150,000 if he’s out on the road three-quarters of the year. Many engineers used to start their path investing anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 in audio school to learn the techniques of engineering and then interned in a studio for little or no money. After a year or so, they became assistants and earned about $8 to $15 per hour before taxes. However, times have changed and nowadays an engineering job is gotten through placement via one of the major universities that offer audio as a major, such as NYU and Clive Davis School (both in New York). Large studios often look to them for new crops of graduates. These schools can cost well into the six figures and are competitive to get into to boot.
Almost 85% of the engineer interns/assistants are men, and they take home about $475 per week. Because they usually live in the major cities and spend a great deal on their education, it’s easy to see that they must have some financial assistance, beyond studio work, to pay their bills. While it’s true that there are many young interns and assistants who work hard and live frugally while paying their dues, the reality is that most come from middle- to upper-middle-class families who support their offspring during this hazing. And then there are those who, unfortunately, supplement their income by acting as a procurer of controlled substances for their clients. I don’t condone this, but I have known it to produce good results for some of my peers.
Another important point about engineers – they lead a very high-stress existence. They are constantly getting fired – usually for political reasons, but it’s to be expected when you consider that the engineer usually gets the job because of political reasons. In order to attract clients, up-and-coming engineers often discount their work enormously, or give large commissions to the producers who hire them.
Some ironic facts about engineers:
- In general, recording engineers know more about electronics than airline pilots.
- The most important part of a half-million-dollar recording project, calibrating the recording system’s electronics, is often done by the engineer’s apprentice, who makes little more than minimum wage.
- Many engineers are addicted to Star Trek and video games.
Moses Avalon is a much-honored record producer and engineer, a top-selling author of music business books and education tools, and a tireless advocate for artists’ rights. He is an active lecturer, a popular blogger, a court-recognized music-business expert, and CEO of the Moses Avalon Company, which assists hundreds of clients in the music industry. Previous editions of Confessions of a Record Producer have been required reading for music-business courses around the world. Moses lives in Los Angeles.