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Teaming Up: Creative Alliances In The Musician Community - by Peter Spellman
Classical guitarist Stevan Pasero honed his craft through years of hard work. He developed a style of classical guitar playing he felt would appeal to large numbers of people. And he made a beautiful recording of his music.

The problem was, he wasn't interested in touring nor did he have the money or interest required for the standard huge promotional push to radio, press, retail, publishers, record companies, etc. He did, however, want to earn his living as a musical artist. What's a musician to do?
Pasero had an idea. He teamed up with a friend with marketing and business training, formed his own label in 1985, calling it Sugo Music (Sugo is an Italian word that refers to a family's sauce recipe), and together they developed an alternative marketing strategy for his record. They decided to target large businesses with his record, "Heartsongs". Calling the plan an "executive gift program", he started contacting large companies. Corporate executives were invited to purchase discounted CDs and tapes to give as gifts and incentives to employees and customers. One of Pasero's first clients was Apple Computer, which was seeking a special musical gift for their executives and partners. Their initial order? Nine -thousand please! Since inking similar deals with other companies, the fiesty Sugo label was picked up by Allegro for national retail distribution in 1993.

This story illustrates an approach more and more musicians are taking today: to team up with others whose skills complement and enhance their own talents in order to break into an increasingly crowded music marketplace.

Partnering is nothing new for musical artists. Songwriters collaborate with each other; musicans form "bands" of like-minded players, performers team up with producers, and recording artists sign up with record companies--all in the hope of creating "synergy" where the sum result is greater than the singular parts.

Synergies occur on all levels in the music business. In corporate parlance they have many names: mergers, joint-ventures, subsidizations, development deals, limited partnerships, co-ops, and strategic alliances are a few ways they are expressed. Big companies do it all the time in the hope that combining forces will yield new business opportunities. This was behind the Time/Warner merger in 1989, the Viacom/Paramount merger in 1994, and the Disney/ABC and Westinghouse/CBS mergers in 1995. The whole idea here is for media corporations to gather under one umbrella different firms that represent production and distribution interests in a variety of media in order to "cross-fertilize" each other.

Record companies also "merge" in order to acquire additional copyrights, new ideas and hopefully, market share. Sony snatched up CBS Records, BMG purchased both Island and A&M, EMI absorbed Chrysalis and Virgin, Warner Bros. purchased (then sold to MCA) Priority, SubPop and Mammoth, and so on.

There's a lesson in all this for musicians: teaming up can multiply your efforts and move your career in an upward direction more quickly than going at it alone. Traditionally, musicians joined with "professional" teamates like management companies, high-level booking agents and established record labels. This still goes on but in the DIY era we're increasingly seeing artists and bands avoiding the musical industrial complex and instead finding friends and relatives as viable "partners" in the goal of growing a musical buzz.

Take the band Everything, a group that puts out an infectious amalgamation of new rock, funk and R&B. After meeting at James Madison University (JMU), they began playing there and on nearby campuses like UNC/Chapel Hill and Virginia Tech. Various other friends began gravitating to the band to help with live sound and promotion. In 1992, they decided to make music their full-time job and moved to nearby Sperryville, VA, renting a renovated farmhouse which they still call home.

Randy Reed, another JMU musician-friend, fell into the role of managing the band. Other friends came aboard to handle tour managemnt, stage management and office administration. "We didn't really sign any contracts with each other," says Reed, "The set up is almost communal, with a family-like feel." Together they decided to incorporate and make everyone on the team a shareholder. "Responsibilities are written down and agreed to, but not 'signed off' on," says Reed.

When the band is home they schedule frequent business meetings. Everyone sends agenda items to Reed before the meeting. "It's very organic", continues Reed. "Everyone listens. We brainstorm. And as success builds upon success people's different strengths come more to the surface. Someone may have a T-shirt design; another is good at coming up with video ideas; someone else may have a knack for song order for the CD. This results in a natural division of labor."

Everything has gotten pretty creative with the team approach. Three years ago when the Web was young, the band teamed up with their Internet Provider and broadcast two weeks worth of shows over the Net, one each night. They sent posters to cybercafes all over the world ahead of time and had them advertise the shows. The Internet Cafe in London on one of those nights had over 200 people watching, each paying $10 for the priviledge. Since then their website has attracted an international audience.

For the past five years, the band has been touring relentlessly, playing over 200 shows a year. Their previous CD releases, including Sol*id (1993) and Labrador (1994) have sold 50,000 copies to date, and their self-titled 1996 release was nominated for Best Rock Album by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD, now called AFIM). They were also listed as one of the top 50 grossing concert tours by Pollstar Magazine for four months in 1996. It all paid off when they "partnered" with Sire Records in mid-'97 for a recording deal. "It was a team effort from start to finish", says Reed, "and we've been able to leverage our success for an equitable deal and fair treatment from Sire."

How do you spell T-E-A-M? Look no further than the folks at A.C.R.O.N.Y. M. M.U.S.I.C. In 1996 medical student Matt Asbell and his actress friend Michelle Nagy were both musicians in search of an adventure. "On a whim" they decided they wanted to do a recording. In between jobs and school they trucked down to Baltimore to record a full-length CD.

While recording and musing on what they might be able to do with the CD when it was complete, it became apparent that the project was bigger than they alone could handle. They needed help.

Fortunately they had some close friends. One was a lawyer who developed websites for a living, another had been an economics major in college and had a good sense of marketing and finance, and a third was a singer with a killer graphic arts background. The five met and discussed putting together Acronym as a partnership to put out the recording. After hashing out a joint-venture agreement together (a "grueling process", according to Asbell), the team was born and Acronym was launched in early 1997.

But the synergy didn't end there. Once recorded, the CD needed "an identity", something to tie it all together. Asbell relates what happened next: "Michelle had a 'revelation' one day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and right then and there decided to center the project around the idea of an art museum."

Team #2: Using their contacts in the art world, Aconym recruited artists to do original drawings and paintings for inclusion in the album, with design oversight handled by their graphics partner, Jamie Flick. For their efforts the artists got a "mini-gallery" in which to show their work, and the Acronym release got some very creative packaging and design. The CD, "Art Museum" was released in the fall of 1997 and they held their combo "release party/art exhibit" on the Philadelphia waterfront. It made a splash and the press responded. The CD has also received accolades from BMI, Borders Books & Music, CDNow, MTV, and well-known singer-songwriters such as Janis Ian and Jennifer Kimball.

And the team-building continues. Matt decided to can medical school and take on the GM role at Acronym, acting as the "glue" that keeps the project jelled. Believing that in numbers there is strength, he's now taking on other artists who'd like to join the Acronym team so that he can promote them together in one package thus saving money on mailouts and phone calls. He's also in the process of putting together a "joint-management company" with a manager from New York in the hopes of creating even more synergy.

Both Everything and Acronym see their fans as team members too and provide them with opportunities to work together. Everything enlists fans for flyering, stickering and other promo work in exchange for free tickets to their shows. Acronym takes it even further with its "Grass Roots Distribution Network" which anyone can join. Acronym provides members with multiple copies of its current release at a special discount rate. The CDs can be sold, given away to friends, family or industry tastemakers. Every member of the network gets an acknowledgement in Acronym's next release as well as at shows where they make themselves known there to the team. One hand washes the other.

If you're considering going into business with a friend, or several friends, you're joining in a basic human dream--running your own show, being your own boss and hopefully gaining some control over your economic destiny. There can be many benefits of shared ownership of a business. The chemistry and spirit of two, three or more minds and souls working together can often produce exciting results. There's more energy and enthusiasm, and--at least as important--more cash, skills and resources. And it's a lot easier to arrange time off if you have partners than if you're trying to run a business all by yourself.

Those who choose to run their own company will almost inevitably go through periods of stress, and their survival will depend on their mastering quickly and competently all sorts of unfamiliar skills and tasks. When it was clear to Reed that the Internet was a viable channel for promoting Everything he took a course in HTML programming so he could update the band's website himself. "If you're looking for someone to take over management duties, look for a friend who knows you or the band you're in," advises Reed. Required qualities: "An even mix of the creative and the business, with a bit more on the biz side".

In a partnership, there are also the stresses and risks that can come with shared ownership. Money can be incendiary stuff, and when you share money-making, you're inevitably involved in an intimate relationship with your fellow partners. "This stuff has to worked out on the front end", says Asbell, "and make no promises or financial commitments until you are sure the chemistry is right."

There is, of course, a potential downside to these kinds of teams and partnerships. Asbell warns: "Patience is key and understanding that people have their own lives". In the Acronym project, everyone has careers with Asbell being the only full-timer. However, everyone still has a certain amount of Acronym-realted duties each week. "Sometimes I need to be a hard-ass when I feel someone isn't pulling their weight. That can be difficult."

To counterbalance the "business" relationships, Acronym early on drafted a "Sanctuary Agreement" that states that all business partners are first and foremost friends. Each teammate has a framed copy they display in their own respective dwellings to remind themselves what they are essentially about. "If there is a conflict we back off and remember this agreement".

Here are some bullet point guidelines for developing strong teams and partnerships:

* Find someone whose strengths complement your weaknesses and set up a trial period to see if you can work well together. The key is chemistry and chemistry involves experimentation with different combinations of elements until the right formula is found.
* Define who will contribute the cash, property, or expertise. Each is needed and each has a value.
* Communicate regularly to avoid power grabs and misunderstandings. Talk openly, honestly and relentlessly with your partners. Never let things build up to the point of explosion.
* Specify the percentage of ownership each person will have and define how, when, and in what order the profits will be distributed to partners.
* Prepare a business plan and financial forecast for the life of the partnership. This provides a map and an agreed-upon route to your goals.
* Provide a way to remove or buy out partners who fail to meet their obligations. Shit inevitably happens. People fall in love and leave town, another band snatches your drummer, a job with a steady paycheck becomes just too irreistable--in essence, people change. Prepare for this scenario beforehand and you'll save countles hours of heartache and stress later.
* Never forget you're dealing with fiends. Asbell counsels: "Don't let the stupid biz stuff and tedium get to you. Stand back from the petty conflicts that inevitably crop up and try to see the big picture."

The Acronym Music website has what can be considered an anthemic description of this whole team theme: "This company was founded on the ideal of mutual support for creative endeavor". That about says it all.

Peter Spellman, Director


Turning Music Business Data into Useful Knowledge.

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Author of "The Self Promoting Musician: Strategies for Independent Music Success" (Berklee Press).

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