Self-Release Q&A, Chapter 2

Since the Guitar Nine site was established in June of 1996, I have received a huge amount of e-mail from guitarists, musicians and bands who have been inspired enough to begin making plans to release their own records. In the process of doing so, specific questions arise about how to accomplish certain tasks and where to get more information. I've decided to periodically share the most common questions we get here at Guitar Nine, and try to answer them as best I can.

Question: Let's say I wanted
to re-record a song by a famous group and change some lyrics, etc. How would I do that without infringing on the rights of the artists?

Answer: A simple rule of thumb is that you can't do anything with anyone
else's copyrighted material without their permission. However, you are allowed to do a cover version of anyone's song by taking advantage of a provision in the copyright law that says anyone can record or perform anyone else's recorded work. For a recording, you obtain a Mechanical License from their publisher, which is like a contract stating how much you will pay them for each song that you sell. If you want to make lyric changes or other derivative works, it will require negotiation, and should definitely be done with a lawyer and a written contract with the publisher.

Back in the 50's and 60's it was not uncommon for the exact same song to be on the charts with two different artists! The first one would come out, and some other record company would quickly obtain a mechanical license, rush an artist into the studio, and have a competing single on
the radio! The publisher didn't care (nor the songwriter), since they got paid regardless of who sold the records.

Question: In regards to airplay on various radio shows around the world, do we receive any royalty for that? Have you ever received any payment for radio or TV airplay?

Answer: Performance rights royalties are collected by performing rights organizations such as BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, SOCAN and other international
organizations. Radio and other outlets buy licenses from these organizations to play any music from their roster. Then these companies pseudo-scientifically figure out what is being played and distribute the license money out to their members. As a result, since they can't really track everything (they just take samples and playlists), unless you get a fair amount of airplay you would never see any money.

Question: Which performance rights organization do you recommend I join, ASCAP, BMI or SESAC?

Answer: I would have to say BMI, since it is almost impossible for an average person to determine which of the performance rights organizations has the better system, and also because I am a member of BMI. How's that for an unbiased answer!

Question: There is a possibility that a record label will pick up my independently recorded CD for re-release. Should I lead them to believe that another label is interested and that way if they are truly interested they will want to take action before "losing out"?

Answer: You should let them know that another label is interested if it is the truth. They will probably press you for details about the other label's 'interest', so it better be legitimate. If you try to bluff them you will lose.

Question: Don't you find it ironic that if you sign a record deal, the business people end up controlling what an artist does?

Answer: I find it ironic that many musicians and artists want to sell themselves to a business entity (disguised as a record label). I get a lot of
resumes and information from bands and it's amazing how many of them have as their number one goal to get signed by a record label. Not to make records, not to tour, not to record, not to write music, not to play with the best of the best, but to get signed. That's the true irony -- as soon as you sign your career away to a business then you've
signed your control away too. And what kind of a goal is that anyway?

That's why it is satisfying to have this site set up and be working with dozens of independent artists knowing that every one of them controlled every note on their CDs. And all they had to do to earn that right was scrape up enough money for recording costs and duplication. So yes, it constantly amazes me that musicians who want to call themselves 'artists', are so willing and anxious to sell their art and ability to anyone with a little money.

Hopefully that will become a thing of the past. Imagine if a painter couldn't paint a landscape without some marketing guy telling him it didn't have enough 'blue' in it to appeal to the kids of today?

Question: After you have your CD made, who can you get to sell it? Local stores? Or are there ways to get people like BMI or others to promote and sell it?

Answer: Local stores are an option if you play live regularly in your area. To
have it there when you don't play locally will not sell very many, if any. You will be selling almost all your CDs yourself. If you can play live and tour, then gig sales would account for a large percentage of your sales. If you don't play out, then you have a tough time. You can start a web site, but then you need to dedicate a lot of time to developing the site and promoting the site in order to promote your record. That's one reason our site began merchandising other guitarist's instrumental CDs; it saved a lot of guys time since our site had already built up the traffic and had the infrastructure in place to sell any number of CDs.

You can also advertise in guitar magazines like Guitar World to pick up some sales, but that's a tougher sale when you are just starting out and don't have a name yet. If you can get a review in the same publication, some ads would work a lot better.

A few independent artists have had success with small
distributors that liked their work enough to invest in several hundred copies. Others have secured distribution in countries like Japan for their release. Obviously the CD has to be good enough for these guys to get interested. They don't take everything, to say the least.

You'll find that promoting and selling your CD is much harder than making it. If you know anyone who has any ideas or experience in publicity or advertising, then definitely take advantage of it. Keep in mind that one CD does not a career make. The time it takes to get your name known is the key to a breakthrough at some point.

By the way, BMI and ASCAP do not sell CDs.

Question: I am starting an independent label. As far as the contracts go, what is the standard or normal percentage that I pay the artist or
publishing company? If I find distribution, what should I give as a price to the distributor for tapes, CDs, etc.?

Answer: There isn't really a standard because there are many variables. Usually
between $1 to $2 per CD (less for tapes) would go to the artist (any recording costs or advances would be paid out of this first however). Wholesale costs go from $6.00 to about $7.50 per CD, depending on the name recognition of the artist (again, less for tapes). It is normal to express
the actual amount that goes to the artist in the contract as a percent of the suggested retail price (SRP), which could be $12-$14 for a new artist to $16-$17 for an established artist. Remember, everything is negotiable. With some indie labels that are trying to create contracts that are more 'fair' to the artist, sometimes a tiered percentage works best. So you might say 10% of SRP for the first 5000 in sales, 12% of SRP for the next 5000, and 15% over 10,000.

Question: I'm not sure why I should release my own record for the sake of creative freedom. Can't I just sign with an independent label and get money and freedom in the same package?

Answer: I don't think I know of any labels like that in the world. The 'independent' part of the indie label name simply means that the label is not distributed by a major record label or distribution company. It doesn't mean that the artists have any more
creative freedom than they do with Sony or MCA (even less a lot of times). If you have any Shrapnel Records releases, look at who produced (or was the executive producer on) most of the records and look who published the music (you can bet it wasn't the artist). That means there was someone there controlling the final sound with an iron hand, and someone other than the artist owns the music.

The only way to have creative freedom for your music is to start your own label, raise the money and pay for your own recording and duplication. Period. If any record company or label lends you money (which is really what they do, it's
more like a bank) then they expect you to do what they want, not what you want. They want to make money on your release, not help you make an artistic statement.

Question: My band doesn't sound like anybody else, we sell a lot of records, we don't look like anybody else, and everybody likes us. What do we have
to do to get a record deal? Everyone says we need one.

Answer: If you are selling a lot of records, why do you need a record deal? What a nice problem to have. Just keep doing what you're doing!

Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.

He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.

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