Interview with Bobby Borg by Nikki O’Neill
The landscape for artists wanting to make a living off of their music has changed drastically over the last 10 years. This month, drummer/author/teacher Bobby Borg is releasing his new and revamped edition of “The Musician’s Handbook.” Not only is it a highly entertaining guide — written for musicians by a musician — it’s also a must-read if you want to make a living as an artist. You’ll get the gist of all the income sources available to you; understand what the major key players in your career do, and develop the right mindset to succeed. OnlineRock met Bobby in LA to hear more about the book.
What motivated you to write “The Musician’s Handbook” in the first place? There are so many music business books out in the market…
- While there are many music business books on the market, most are written for music business attorneys or for people that are primarily interested in a pursuing a career in the business of music. I realized that there was a need for an easy-to-read guide written for musicians that cuts to the chase, so that they can get back to doing what they love best — create. Musicians don’t have to know every detail about the business, because inevitably they are going to hire a team of advisors, but they must at least know the basics. Make no mistake: music is an art, but making money at it and succeeding is a serious business.
At what level in your career did you start thinking about these things?
- When I went to Berklee College of Music and was working toward being the best musician I could be, I spent the majority of my time practicing. But after moving to New York City and joining a group with a major label contract, I started to hear business terms like mechanical royalties, three-quarter rate, and compulsory licensing thrown around daily. I studied some of this stuff at Berklee, but I wanted to understand these issues more thoroughly. I wanted to feel as confident about my business as I did my music. It was at this time that I became extremely interested in tearing apart contracts and figuring out all the music business terms and issues. It does surprise me how so many artists just don’t want to deal with this stuff.
It’s pretty interesting… because most of us wouldn’t be as ignorant if we were, say, buying a car or a house.
- Yeah, I think most of us would do a little research before buying a car, so that we don’t get talked into a bad deal by some fancy sales guy. But yet when it comes to the music business, musicians walk into bad deals all the time. I’m really curious about that. We could get very philosophical about this and talk about “left brain” or “right brain” orientation. I wonder if some creative people are so comfortable being in their right-brain world that they don’t want to touch upon anything else. Music is their escape — their fantasy world that shields them from all harm. But if you want to survive and thrive in this business, you have to find a balance between your music and the business. I’m not implying that musicians put down the guitar and the pen, stop writing songs, and start spending all their time on marketing and business, just to find a fine balance.
At UCLA’s extension division in Los Angeles, Bobby teaches two evening classes in Independent Music Marketing and Music Publishing. He also teaches at Musician’s Institute in Hollywood. Few teachers in this area share Bobby’s ability to break down such a dry, legalese subject as publishing and make it understandable, even entertaining. He’s experienced every career level: struggled for years as an unsigned musician, had two major label deals with different bands, and toured the world with 80’s hair band Warrant. With that being said, he has plenty of experiences and anecdotes to share.
If you can’t take his classes in LA, you’ll find all of this in “The Musician’s Handbook”. It’s perspective is very practical. Laid out in different parts, it starts by covering the necessary mindset and work ethic you need to succeed, giving you lots of great tips captured in short, to-the-point, paragraphs. Next, it covers the different types of business relationships you’ll have as a band member or solo artist, and the key players in your career. Finally, it explains the different income sources available to you, such as record royalties, publishing, touring and merchandise. It breaks down the terminologies, and tells you what to watch out for when deals are being negotiated.
- I call it a layman’s guide to the music industry. It covers a lot of areas, with the purpose of being very friendly, conversational, and entertaining. But it isn’t about my subjective view at all – there are plenty of interviews and quotes in the book, featuring a multitude of perspectives by people working in different aspects of the industry.
What changes have you made in the new edition?
- While the first edition has remained a consistent seller for Billboard Books [publisher] to this day, the music industry is dramatically changing. The revised version addresses these changes and the new income streams that exist such as digital download and ring tone royalties.
- The revised book also explains new types of record deals, like something called the 360 deal, which has surfaced as CD sales are slowly diminishing. There is also the mid-level up-streaming deal, where you sign with an independent label that up-streams into a major. The book even addresses the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) deal or philosophy, which is basically when an artist does his/her own thing without any labels.
- And last, the book includes many more tips for the DIY artist: everything from how to get an endorsement to getting more gigs, being your own booking agent, setting up a publishing company, pitching your music to film and TV, getting sponsorships, and more. The other thing this edition features is new interviews with top industry professionals. The book is also loaded with contact information including website URL’s and addresses to different resources. I wanted to make sure this edition had lots of new stuff to make it a worthwhile buy for someone who already owns the first edition.
Where can you buy it?
- You can buy the book at any major bookstore in the U.S. like Borders and Barnes & Noble, but also Amazon.com, and of course through my website www.bobbyborg.com. If you buy it straight from me, you’ll get the book signed, and I usually throw in some perk like a DVD or CD.
The balancing of creativity and business is a very real challenge for every independent and unsigned musician. How do you go about it yourself?
- In my previous life as a musician, I balanced creativity and business by not sleeping — seriously. But in my current life, I made the transition from musician to business-person, so I focus on one thing now.
So you’ve got to understand the business aspects, have great songs and be a strong live act to make a living as an artist. And you need the right attitude and work ethic. You’ve got to be willing to work really hard and make sacrifices. But does it require you to be a Type A personality with a single-minded, obsessive focus? Some success gurus claim so.
- You don’t have to kiss your life goodbye to be a musician and to be pro-active about your career. If you do that, you’ll have nothing to put into your music. There’s an amazing quote by Louis Armstrong: “What we play is life.” What you put into your instrument is the great experience you had traveling to Spain with your father, watching a good movie, walking your dog, or just sitting in a park watching people go by.
- I’ve adapted an approach where I work when I’m not really working. For instance, going to the gym is fun and social, and it keeps me healthy and looking a certain way for press photos. Going to a record store and browsing through albums is relaxing, but it also puts me in a place where I may spot some new magazines for which I might be able to contact the editor for a book review. You get the idea?
In one of the advice essays in your first book, you talk about how important it is to help yourself by helping others. At a lot of these music conferences, you see industry people up on stage talking, and when they’re done, they get bombarded by audience members, pushing their CDs and business cards on to them. That obviously can’t be the right approach. Can you give some tips on how to network in the music industry, since it’s such a relationship business?
- Musicians have to get out of the mindset that the world revolves around them. That it’s all about what someone can do for them. How about turning this around a little bit, and figuring out what you can do for someone else?
How? Give us some examples.
- Well… let’s take you for example. You’re a gigging artist and songwriter, and yet you’re not sitting here pushing a CD on me and asking how I can help you. Instead, you’ve found a way to help me get the word out about my book by conducting an interview. In turn, this is only going to strengthen our relationship. I’m more likely to think about you if someone asks me to recommend a band or asks for a piece of music for a film.
- Musicians may also consider interning for a company, where they can provide their services to a management firm or record label for free, while simultaneously making contacts and seeing how the industry really works. - Bottom line, artists need to stop banging on front doors, and check back doors or side windows for an opening.
How do you practice this approach in your career?
- No matter what level you’re at, we all want to move forward. I’m no different. For instance, I ask people to review my book and to give me a spot on a SXSW panel. But I understand that these people are being asked for things all day. So what I’ve created is an appreciation day, where I thumb through my book of contacts and invite someone out to dinner. I chat with them about sports or about what they are doing, but I never talk about me. I try to do more and more of that as I go on in my career. I don’t always have the time, but it’s one of the things I’ve taken upon myself to do more. It’s not about being calculative at all – it’s about being grateful to people who’re extending a helping hand to me.
Nikki O’Neill is a singer, songwriter and guitar player in Los Angeles. She’s the front person for the Nikki O’Neill Band, an original rock and soul band. She currently writes with lyricist Dave Burn in England, who she met through MySpace.
She’s the founder of Women’s School of Rock, teaching guitar, bass and songwriting. Her teaching brought her to Sweden as a guest teacher at an all-female rock college, and she taught the only university-level class in the U.S. on women’s contemporary rock and blues guitar at The New School in New York City. Finally, she’s a former student of Bobby Borg’s publishing and DIY marketing classes at UCLA.