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Arts Professional Story: Michael Frank, Earwig Music Company

An insider’s advice to musicians about making recordings, getting gigs, and developing a career.

michael frank, ceo, earwig music

Some artists seem to think that club owners, festival talent buyers, and agents have a hidden agenda that determines how they book musicians or take on clients. The main reasons actually are business-related. Artists get hired if they have a track record of being a successful draw. They need to be able to sell tickets and fill the house, and the music needs to fit the mission or artistic vision of the venue or label. They and their agent must have personal and professional attributes that appeal to the talent buyer or agent. And the artist’s performance fee must be appropriate for the venue or event.

Many musicians also have the misconception that if a venue is packed, the venue must be making a lot of money. In fact, if the artist did the venue’s math by actually counting the number of paid admissions at the admission price, adding in the venue’s costs – such as the sound man and other staff, and the performance fee – the artist would see the hard reality from the venue’s economic perspective. Musicians who’ve produced CDs have similar misconceptions about record label profits. Once all the costs are factored in, the profit margins can be pretty thin. Many record labels, major and independent, lose money on releases. A great many do not break even, let alone turn a profit. A musician who is not working much, has no web site, is not using the Internet, has no decent press kit, has limited public musical performances going on, and is mostly just writing songs and recording cheap demos, is not ready for a record label or a booking agent.

Probably the biggest misconception many performers have is that they need to have a booking agent or manager to make their careers happen. Performers can and should be proactive about their careers. They can learn how to use technology, including doing Internet research and using social networks. They can learn about publicity, database management, and other tools. Or, they can find help or volunteers who can do this for them.

I, and most record label owners and booking agents, look for specific personal and professional qualities when searching for new artists. I visit clubs and play at festivals with “Honeyboy” Edwards where I can meet new musicians. I also get many unsolicited CDs in the mail. Sometimes, musicians come to me with projects. That was the case with two of the last four releases on Earwig. And sometimes folks suggest or recommend someone to me, and then I check that artist out on the web and in person.

First and foremost, I have to like the music and the musician who is the leader. I expect leaders or solo artists to be focused, proactive in booking and promoting themselves, and willing to take some cheap gigs on occasion for the benefit of promotion. I look for musicians of sound mind, without alcohol or other drug problems or mental health issues. They need to be honest and reliable about showing up for gigs, pay their CD bills and commissions on time, and show some loyalty to the label.

I also look for musicians who treat people with respect, who are good communicators, who will be open and direct with me and with whom I can be open and direct. I also seek musicians who appreciate the point of view of venues and venue owners and talent buyers. It can’t all be selfish: Me, me, me. Give me, give me, give me. Success in this, or any other, business is all about customer relations, and my customers are the musicians, the talent buyers, the media, and the fans. If the musicians are only interested in their own well-being, I am not interested in working with them. Our business takes a collaborative attitude and effort. Of course, everything I look for in musicians I expect of myself. I try to act the same towards them and towards everyone in this business.

Artists who want to get signed to a label, manager, or booking agent need to be working enough to demonstrate that they are likely to be successful if taken on. They also need to have a positive attitude about the music business and about those of us on the business side. No one likes working with a whiner, complainer, or someone who makes global negative statements.

Before soliciting a label, manager, or booking agent, all artists need to do some advance research to determine if their music really is a good fit for that label, manager, or booking agent. An artist does not need a lawyer, accountant, or other professional to solicit or send out promo packages. Do some homework, put together a professional press kit, find the name and title of the right person at the label or agency, and write a well thought out cover letter outlining what you’re looking for. We’re not mind readers. Clearly state if you’re looking for a recording or music publishing contract, distribution, booking or management representation, feedback on a project, or whatever. I get way too many unsolicited CDs from musicians or their representatives who have done none of this.

Once artists are on-board with a record label or manager, they need to be willing to do media interviews and occasional publicity appearances for free. Artists will need to spend some of their own money to hire a publicist, or perhaps share in the cost of hiring a publicist and producing professional press materials. Artists also can help a record label by collecting the names and contact information of their fans at shows. A strong network of friends and associates, who work for free or for a fee, also can help provide support and services to artists.

Artists should stay in touch with their label, and communicate about their work, but they should not be pests. An e-mail is often more effective and efficient than a phone call. If artists do call, they should be mindful about label staff’s time and keep conversations (and voice mail messages) short and to the point. And be realistic about requests. If an artist wants CDs to sell at gigs, be sure to pay the previous bill, and also give more than a one day notice to pick up the CDs or have them shipped. This is basic stuff, but important.

In return, artists can expect that label staff will help their careers by offering advice, guidance, and contacts, whether I sign them to my label or not. At some point I will charge for my time and information, but not in every case. They can expect that I will give them my honest and direct answers to their questions. If I produce their CD or represent them in some way, they can expect I will do it in a professional way, and that any written communication or print materials (like CD packaging, press kits, or posters) will be done to a very high standard. And, if they do anything dishonest or disreputable, I will tell them and will terminate the relationship if they do not rectify the situation quickly.

Musicians who want to be successful need to learn as much as possible about the business side of the industry too. That includes knowing about various types of contracts and contract language, copyrights, different types of royalties, and organizations that can help them manage their music – such as the Harry Fox Agency, BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, Sound Exchange, Taxi as well as music genre-specific organizations such as the Blues Foundation or the Folk Alliance, among others. All this information is available on the Internet and at Chicago’s main library downtown. Check the Music Information Department at the Harold Washington Library.

Artists also should have someone proofread their press kits and CD artwork before printing and mailing them. I can’t stress this enough. Sending materials full of errors or of poor printing quality leaves a bad impression. It’s being penny wise and pound foolish. Pay attention to the details. They say a lot about your work ethic and standards. We notice that kind of attention to quality. After sending materials, follow up by e-mail or phone in about two weeks. Then, be patient!

If offered a contract, artists do need to hire an entertainment attorney to review it before signing – even if the musician knows and trusts the person or company. During a contract negotiation, the artists and attorney need to appreciate the perspectives of the label, manager, agent, and publisher to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. Be willing to work cooperatively with all parties. That’s part of doing good business.

Make an effort to join professional organizations such as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and attend their events and seminars. Get to know people in the music business – the label owners, managers, and others. Many of us are willing to talk about the business and often give free advice when we’re attending industry events, festivals, and awards shows.

For more than 30 years, Michael Frank, founder and CEO of Chicago-based Earwig Music Company, Inc., has managed and recorded some of the world’s most acclaimed blues artists, including Grammy-winning, legendary guitarist David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Since founding Earwig in 1978, Frank has produced 50 of the 57 recordings released. Ten are storytelling/spoken word albums, two are jazz, one is gospel, and the rest are various styles and eras of blues. 

This Artist Story was based on an interview by Paula Tsurutani, a freelance marketing writer who focuses on arts and nonprofits.