|Some of Your Friends are Already This
by Steve Albini
I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always
end up thinking of them
in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about
four feet wide and five
feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with
runny, decaying shit. I
imagine these people, some of them good friends,
some of them barely acquaintances,
at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at
the other end, holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed.
Nobody can see what's printed
on the contract. It's too far away, and
besides, the shit stench
is making everybody's eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the
first one to swim the trench gets to sign the
contract. Everybody dives
in the trench and they struggle furiously to get
to the other end. Two people
arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling
furiously, clawing each
other and dunking each other under the shit.
Eventually, one of them
capitulates, and there's only one contestant left.
He reaches for the pen,
but the Lackey says, "Actually, I think you need
a little more development.
Swim it again, please. Backstroke."
And he does, of course.
Every major label involved
in the hunt for new bands now has on staff a
high-profile point man,
an "A&R" rep who can present a comfortable face to
any prospective band. The
initials stand for "Artist and Repertoire,"
because historically, the
A&R staff would select artists to record music
that they had also selected,
out of an available pool of each. This is
still the case, though not
These guys are universally
young [about the same age as the bands being
wooed], and nowadays they
always have some obvious underground rock
credibility flag they can
wave. Lyle Preslar, former guitarist for Minor
Threat, is one of them.
Terry Tolkin, former NY independent booking agent
and assistant manager at
Touch and Go is one of them. Al Smith, former
soundman at CBGB is one
of them. Mike Gitter, former editor of XXX fanzine and contributor
to Rip, Kerrang and other lowbrow rags is one of them. Many of the annoying
turds who used to staff college radio stations are in their ranks as well.
There are several reasons
A&R scouts are always young. The explanation
usually copped-to is that
the scout will be "hip" to the current musical
"scene." A more important
reason is that the bands will intuitively trust
someone they think is a
peer, and who speaks fondly of the same formative
rock and roll experiences.
The A&R person is the
first person to make contact with the band, and as
such is the first person
to promise them the moon. Who better to promise
them the moon than an idealistic
young Turk who expects to be calling the
shots in a few years, and
who has had no previous experience with a big
record company. Hell, he's
as naive as the band he's duping. When he tells
them no one will interfere
in their creative process, he probably even
When he sits down with the
band for the first time, over a plate of angel
hair pasta, he can tell
them with all sincerity that when they sign with
company X, they're really
signing with him and he's on their side. Remember that great, gig I saw
you at in '85? Didn't we have a blast.
By now all rock bands are
wise enough to be suspicious of music industry
scum. There is a pervasive
caricature in popular culture of a portly, middle
aged ex-hipster talking
a mile-a-minute, using outdated jargon and calling
everybody "baby." After
meeting "their" A&R guy, the band will say to
themselves and everyone
else, "He's not like a record company guy at all!
He's like one of us." And
they will be right. That's one of the reasons he
These A&R guys are not
allowed to write contracts. What they do is present
the band with a letter of
intent, or "deal memo," which loosely states some
terms, and affirms that
the band will sign with the label once a contract
has been agreed on.
The spookiest thing about
this harmless sounding little "memo," is that it
is, for all legal purposes,
a binding document. That is, once the band sign
it, they are under obligation
to conclude a deal with the label. If the
label presents them with
a contract that the band don't want to sign, all
the label has to do is wait.
There are a hundred other bands willing to
sign the exact same contract,
so the label is in a position of strength.
These letters never have
any term of expiration, so the band remain bound
by the deal memo until a
contract is signed, no matter how long that takes.
The band cannot sign to
another label or even put out its own material
unless they are released
from their agreement, which never happens. Make
no mistake about it: once
a band has signed a letter of intent, they will
either eventually sign a
contract that suits the label or they will be
One of my favorite bands
was held hostage for the better part of two years
by a slick young "He's not
like a label guy at all,' A&R rep, on the basis
of such a deal memo. He
had failed to come through on any of his promises
(something he did with similar
effect to another well-known band), and so
the band wanted out. Another
label expressed interest, but when the A&R
man was asked to release
the band, he said he would need money or points, or possibly both, before
he would consider it.
The new label was afraid
the price would be too dear, and they said no
thanks. On the cusp of making
their signature album, an excellent band,
humiliated, broke up from
the stress and the many months of inactivity.
There's This Band
There's this band. They're
pretty ordinary, but they're also pretty good,
so they've attracted some
attention. They're signed to a moderate-sized
"independent" label owned
by a distribution company, and they have another
two albums owed to the label.
They're a little ambitious.
They'd like to get signed by a major label so
they can have some security-you
know, get some good equipment, tour in a
proper tour bus-nothing
fancy, just a little reward for all the hard work.
To that end, they got a manager.
He knows some of the label guys, and he
can shop their next project
to all the right people. He takes his cut,
sure, but it's only 15%,
and if he can get them signed then it's money well
spent. Anyway, it
doesn't cost them any thing if it doesn't work. 15% of
nothing isn't much!
One day an A&R scout
calls them, says he's "been following them for a while now," and when their
manager mentioned them to him, it just "clicked." Would they like to meet
with him about the possibility of working out a deal with his label? Wow.
Big Break time.
They meet the guy, and y'know
what-he's not what they expected from a label guy. He's young and dresses
pretty much like the band does. He knows all their favorite bands. He's
like one of them. He tells them he wants to go to bat for them, to try
to get them everything they want. He says anything is possible with the
right attitude. They conclude the evening by taking home a copy of a deal
memo they wrote out and signed on the spot.
The A&R guy was full
of great ideas, even talked about using a name
producer. Butch Vig is out
of the question-he wants 100 g's and three
points, but they can get
Don Fleming for $30,000 plus three points. Even
that's a little steep, so
maybe they'll go with that guy who used to be in
David Letterman's band.
He only wants three points. Or they can have just
anybody record it [like
Warton Tiers, maybe-cost you 5 or 10 grand] and
have Andy Wallace remix
it for 4 grand a track plus 2 points. It was a lot
to think about.
Well, they like this guy
and they trust him. Besides, they already signed
the deal memo. He must have
been serious about wanting them to sign. Theybreak the news to their current
label, and the label manager says he wants them to succeed, so they have
his blessing. He will need to be compensated, of course, for the remaining
albums left on their contract, but he'll work it out with the label himself.
Sub Pop made millions from selling of Nirvana, and Twin Tone hasn't done
bad either: 50 grand for the Babes and
60 grand for the Poster
Children-without having to sell a single additional
record. It'll be something
modest. The new label doesn't mind, so long as
it's recoupable out of royalties.
Well, they get the final
contract, and it's not quite what they expected.
They figure it's better
to be safe than sorry and they turn it over to a
lawyer-one who says he's
experienced in entertainment law-and he hammers out a few bugs. They're
still not sure about it, but the lawyer says he's seen a lot of contracts,
and theirs is pretty good. They'll be getting a
great royalty: 13% [less
a 10% packaging deduction]. Wasn't it Buffalo Tom
that were only getting 12%
less 10? Whatever.
The old label only wants
50 grand, and no points. Hell, Sub Pop got 3 points
when they let Nirvana go.
They're signed for four years, with options on
each year, for a total of
over a million dollars! That's a lot of money in
any man's English. The first
year's advance alone is $250,000. Just think
about it, a quarter-million,
just for being in a rock band!
Their manager thinks it's
a great deal, especially the large advance.
Besides, he knows a publishing
company that will take the band on if they
get signed, and even give
them an advance of 20 grand, so they'll be making that money too. The manager
says publishing is pretty mysterious, and nobody really knows where all
the money comes from, but the lawyer can look that contract over too. Hell,
it's free money.
Their booking agent is excited
about the band signing to a major. He says
they can maybe average $1,000
or $2,000 a night from now on. That's enough to justify a five week tour,
and with tour support, they can use a proper crew, buy some good equipment
and even get a tour bus! Buses are pretty expensive, but if you figure
in the price of a hotel room for everybody in the band and crew, they're
actually about the same cost. Some bands (like Therapy? and Sloan and Stereolab)
use buses on their tours even when they're getting paid only a couple hundred
bucks a night, and this tour should earn at least a grand or two every
night. It'll be worth it. The band will be more comfortable and will play
The agent says a band on
a major label can get a merchandising company to pay them an advance on
T-shirt sales! Ridiculous! There's a gold mine here! The lawyer should
look over the merchandising contract, just to be safe.
They get drunk at the signing
party. Polaroids are taken and everybody
looks thrilled. The label
picked them up in a limo.
They decided to go with the
producer who used to be in Letterman's band.
He had these technicians
come in and tune the drums for them and tweak
their amps and guitars.
He had a guy bring in a slew of expensive old
vintage microphones. Boy,
were they "warm." He even had a guy come in and check the phase of all
the equipment in the control room! Boy, was he
professional. He used a
bunch of equipment on them and by the end of it,
they all agreed that it
sounded very "punchy," yet "warm."
All that hard work paid off.
With the help of a video, the album went like
hotcakes! They sold a quarter
Here is the math that will
explain just how fucked they are:
These figures are representative
of amounts that appear in record contracts
daily. There's no need to
skew the figures to make the scenario look bad,
since real-life examples
more than abound. Income is underlined, expenses
Manager's cut: $37,500
Legal fees: $10,000
Recording Budget: $150,000
Producer's advance: $50,000
Studio fee: $52,500
Drum, Amp, Mic and Phase
Recording tape: $8,000
Equipment rental: $5,000
Cartage and Transportation:
Lodgings while in studio:
Tape copies, reference CDs,
shipping tapes, misc. expenses: $2,000
Video budget: $30,000
Processing and transfers:
Online editing: $3,000
Stage and construction:
Copies, couriers, transportation:
Director's fee: $3,000
Album Artwork: $5,000
Promotional photo shoot
and duplication: $2,000
Band fund: $15,000
New fancy professional drum
New fancy professional guitars
New fancy professional guitar
amp rigs (2): $4,000
New fancy potato-shaped
bass guitar: $1,000
New fancy rack of lights
bass amp: $1,000
Rehearsal space rental:
Big blowout party for their
Tour expense (5 weeks): $50,875
Crew (3): $7,500
Food and per diems: $7,875
Consumable supplies: $3,500
Tour gross income: $50,000
Agent s cut: $7,500
Manager's cut: $7,500
Merchandising advance: $20,000
Manager's cut: $3,000
Lawyer's fee: $1,000
Publishing advance: $20,000
Manager's cut: $3,000
Lawyer's fee: $1,000
Record sales: 250,000 @ $12
= $3,000,000 gross retail revenue Royalty (13% of 90% of retail): $351,000
Less advance: $250,000
Producer's points: (3% less
$50,000 advance) $40,000
Promotional budget: $25,000
Recoupable buyout from previous
Net royalty: (-$14,000)
Record company income:
Record wholesale price $6.50
x 250,000 = $1,625,000 gross income
Artist Royalties: $351,000
Deficit from royalties:
and distribution @ $2.20 per record: $550,000
Gross profit: $710,000
The Balance Sheet:
This is how much each player
got paid at the end of the game.
Record company: $710,000
Previous label: $50,000
Band member net income each:
The band is now 1/4 of the
way through its contract, has made the music
industry more than 3 million
dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on
royalties. The band members
have each earned about 1/3 as much as they
would working at a 7-11,
but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month.
The next album will be about
the same, except that the record company will
insist they spend more time
and money on it. Since the previous one never
"recouped," the band will
have no leverage, and will oblige.
The next tour will be about
the same, except the merchandising advance will have already been paid,
and the band, strangely enough, won't have earned any royalties from their
t-shirts yet. Maybe the T-shirt guys have figured out how to count money
like record company guys.
Some of your friends are
probably already this fucked.