Carlock: Music career takes total commitment

Published 1:05 pm Thursday, October 11, 2012

I received a call this week from an aspiring singer who asked, “What do I have to do to get signed to a record deal?” After a long pause and a deep breath, I told her that right then she had to choose the red or blue pill, because what I was about to tell her would change her perception of everything around her. Was she sure she wanted to know the truth of what the music business is all about if it meant destroying her innocent impression of the world? Her answer was yes.

I told her that if she decided that she wanted to go down the road to being a popular music artist, that she had to approach it like an aspiring Olympic athlete or a sports professional. It’s all commitment, all the time or it’s just a waste of time and an unrealized dream. Because these careers aren’t built overnight, there’s a limited age window to go for the gold and get a major signing.

It’s also a pricey proposition. Just as Olympic contenders have coaches who are paid well for their time and expertise, producers and managers are the coaches in the music business. Because of the cost of working with those professionals due to the time commitment necessary to “train” performing and recording artists, I told her she needed to understand as best she could at her young age that she would need to accept a near poverty existence if she really wanted to make a stab at a career as a national or internationally known music artist. In this world, she may have incredible experiences but she would own little. She may never independently own a home without a 3rd party footing the bill. Financial struggle would be one of the constant thorns of her existence and I told her to seriously consider if she could handle that.

A common solution to an artist’s cash-flow problems, though not without it’s cost, is finding a life-partner or investors to provide financial stability while an artist devotes time to pursuing their career. I told her that if she had a large trust, inheritance, personal investments, or lottery winnings, they could aid significantly in her independence. I also referred her to my coverage of Amanda Palmer’s recent activity to give her a glimpse of the kind of money it takes to create the “Brand store” for a Popular Music Artist, fund a tour, and pay the necessary professional team members to move a career forward at that level.

During the making of the first professional record I ever worked on for Columbia Records, session keyboard player C.P. Roth advised me similarly, though a bit more enigmatically, about wanting to be an artist. “Don’t be an artist, man”, he said. “Do you know why I always have the bitchin-est snake skin boots on my feet and all these amazing keyboards to play?”, he asked, pointing to his feet and hand motioning around the room to tens of thousands worth of late 80’s synth gear. “Because artists have to pay me to get their records made. They can’t afford this stuff. It’s never-ending pay-outs to be an artist. You don’t wanna be an artist.”

And with all that, I felt I had eased-her-in enough, and finally gave her the red pill. I told her that every time she sees anything in her world regarding music, it’s paid for. Every end cap CD display in bookstore chains or Wal Mart or FYE is paid for. Every new record launched on major market radio stations is paid for (to the tune of $1.2 million for Clear Channel’s 1200 stations, as exposed by Elliot Spitzer over the last decade); and an emerging artist who hasn’t yet made dollar one still has to pay for those costs just like Mariah Carey does.

I explained to her that whenever she sees her favorite new band opening for a major artist on tour, that slot is paid for by the newbie’s record company, show by show. Those slot’s are for sale to help offset the massive touring costs paid out by the headliner—the crew, the sound, the lights, etc.; the opening act uses all their team. A new band pays for that fanbase building access and name association marketing (“I toured with Katy Perry”). It’s an expense known as “tour support” and it can regularly total up to $100K. So without funding invested to the tune of six or seven figures, that artist’s career on a national or international level is dead. And by the way, you don’t ask your day gig if you can go off on tour for 2 months, you have to go, so usually you lose your job—again, requiring payment from investors to participate in your own career.

After painting the picture for her, I asked if I had just blown her mind. She said with some downturned spirits that she figured it was kinda like that. I asked her if she thought she’d be happy singing at the local pub on the weekends cause that was way easier—she could hold a job and maybe make a few bucks. “No. I really think I want this”, she said.

And for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, that’s how the unknown journey begins.

Dave Carlock is a 25-year veteran of the entertainment business whose work as a recording engineer and producer, touring musician, and songwriter made him Googleable. His continuing work as an Independent Content Creator of Sound and Image has earned him a Grammy Award certificate, two Platinum Record Awards, and a Paragon Award in advertising. Currently, he brings national and international artists to make records and music videos at his production studio in the Benton Harbor Arts District.