Why Musicians Fail: Lack Of Commitment

This bugaboo is a make it or break issue to be sure. 'Commitment'. Several times in your life you are asked to make a significant commitment to something that may change your life in a significant way...committing to getting an education, committing to a life partner, or with your own business; committing to your partners. In the music business those partners are your fellow bandmates. If you really want a shot at making money with your music, then the band you are in is going to be the vehicle for you to get there. If there is not a serious agreement within the group to work together toward that goal, then you will join the ranks of 'could-a-beens'; you had the talent but not an agreement that worked out all the possible issues that might come up and cause a split within the band.

Entertainment law attorneys have a name for all this. It is called a 'band agreement' or a 'partnership agreement'. What it really is, is proof-on paper-that there is a commitment within the group to deal with the everyday realities of being a professional musical act. How many times have you heard the familiar refrain "money changes everything"? Well, it is indeed a truism, and one of the main reasons that you want to sit down with your fellow band members and work out on paper how you are going to deal with all the potential successes or failures that come your way.

I could have called this reason for musicians failure "no band agreement", but how many of you would have read this far if you heard me say such an intimidating thing? Every time I bring up the topic of a band agreement at a class or at a workshop or in a consultation I can sense a restlessness in the room. It seems like it is one of those 'elephants in the room' topics within a band. No one wants to admit that there are personality problems, or business differences, or career goal differences within a group. If the musical chemistry is there, the feeling within the group is that there is no need to rock the boat by bringing up such an intrusive topic as 'band agreements'. Some bands go on for years without a written band agreement, and live to regret not having had one.

But hey, if you feel that way then maybe you should just forget about it, you could just leave everything to chance; or to a 'sense of fairness', to an 'unspoken agreement'. Really, as you read the following summary of issues that are in a typical band agreement, just say to yourself after reading each point, " Well, that isn't going to be a problem in my group". Perhaps if you chant this often enough you can conjure up some musical gods who will protect you from the jealousies, egos, and other distractions that are a leading cause for band breakups and lawsuits.

But should you decide that these issues have some interest for you then you can save yourself some attorney fees by discussing these issues and writing down notes on how you will handle these problems...before you sit down and talk to an entertainment law attorney who will draw up the legal agreement for you (charging you approx. $150 an hour).

So, here we go...here are the typical issues that should be discussed and resolved in a band agreement: *What business form will the band take on? You can be a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a corporation. It is beyond the scope of this column to go into the details of each, but let it be known that if you start making money with your music, you better realize you ARE a business, and the IRS and other state and local agencies might just be interested in having you pay some taxes like any other responsible citizen. Besides, choosing the right business form is just the right thing to do. You did say you wanted to make money with your music, right? Well, act like a business then, and choose a suitable business form. Who owns the copyrights to your songs? Who is/are the songwriter(s)? Music Publishing issues are a topic for a book, and there are many good books out there on the topic. Suffice it to say, there are as many possible answers to this question as there are members in a group. You have to take heed and resolve this issue. The real money in this business will come from the successful exploitation of the copyrights to your songs.

If you want harmony within in your group then decide who writes all the songs, and come up with a fair system to divide up the royalties for writing the songs. If you do not do this, then when any kind of success should come along you will be in deep doodoo regarding the split of those songwriting royalties with your fellow bandmates.

  • How are you going to decide within the group any of the issues that need to be discussed? In other words, how will you vote on band issues? You have really two choices; 'unanimous' or 'majority rules'. Hey, what can I say? If you are "all for one and one for all" then choose the three musketeers way of voting, and make all decisions must be made with everyone's vote being united and no dissenting votes. If you feel like the democratic system is more attractive to you, then just make for a majority vote, so that you really can offend the dissenting members of your group and they get to hold a grudge and pout for the next month. (guess which voting mechanism I am inclined toward? Well, the subject today is commitment isn't it? What kind of commitment is there, when contention within a group exists?)
  • Who owns the name of your group? or What about Leaving Members? Never thought of that one huh? Well, you better. There have been hundreds, if not thousands of lawsuits by members of groups who split and then continued to use the band's name, feeling that it was "their group". I am always surprised when bands are so unwilling to pay an attorney a fee for writing up a band agreement, but will later without having had such an agreement be willing to toss out thousands of dollars in senseless legal fees to resolve in a court of law what could have been resolved in a band meeting after a regular rehearsal was over. When someone leaves a group that isn't the only issue to be discussed beforehand. How will you fire someone who is not carrying their load? What is meant by carrying your load in your band? If a band member is not showing up on time for rehearsals, missing rehearsals with lame excuses, or not showing up on time or at all for soundchecks and live gigs, how are you and the other band members going to deal with that? I suggest you set rules for acting like a professional musician, so that when a violation of that rule happens, you have a policy to deal with it as a band.
  • Money Issues: i.e. Bandmember investments and/or loans to the band Lets say that someone in your band has more money than some other members in the group. They are the generous type, you know they just say things like "don't worry about the $200, we're in this together, someday you'll have money when I don't...it will all work out." Right...until some hard feelings come up, or the generous donor wants to by his/her beloved a special gift, and could really use that dough now. This scenario is just one of many that may come up when money is spent without a clear understanding of how, or if, it is to repaid. If you have a sugar daddy in your group, discuss in your written band agreement how your business form will deal with that issue.

There you have it. The aforementioned 'typical' issues in a band agreement will come back and bite you as sure as rain in the northwest, unless you have taken the simple step to 'commit in writing' what you as bandmates have agreed on verbally.

There are more issues that should be included in a band agreement. I recommend a great new book called 'Music Law: How To Run Your Band's Business' by Richard Stim, and published by Nolo Press. He gives you a template for an actual agreement, and discusses more legal issues and in-depth information on this important document, and why you should have such an agreement.

Before I sign off however, I would like to add to this list my own important topic for discussion within a band...Who Does What? If it is true that one of the main reasons for musicians failing in their careers has to do with a lack of commitment from their fellow musicians, then I find it particularly important that everyone who is in a band be given a specific business task to take on as their job. If there is someone that takes on booking the shows, then other members can split the work of getting posters designed, printed, and put-up, getting any bills paid, find rehearsal spaces, send out press releases, setup recording and plans for manufacturing, promoting, marketing and selling their CDs.

Until a band has established itself as a viable money making entity that is attractive to labels, management companies, booking agencies, publishers, and merchandise companies...somebody has to take on the job of being a real band...and that somebody is everybody in your group.

I hope you take my comments regarding 'commitment' seriously so that you reduce your chances of breaking up and set yourself on a course of agreement based on the commitments you have made to your music and your fellow band members.

Throughout his fprty year career in the music business, FourFront Media & Music's Christopher Knab has shared his experience at many industry conventions and conferences, including the New Music Seminar and the Northwest Area Music Business Conference.

Knab was owner of a San Francisco music store, co-owner of the 415 Records label, and station manager at KCMU Radio in Seattle.

He currently provides a unique consultation and education service for independent musicians and record labels. His new book is entitled "Music Is Your Business".

Christopher Knab