Things I Wish I Had Known As A Musician
Thoughts on teaching a class of aspiring composers about copyright law and the music business generally
When I made my money from writing songs and playing them at shows, my understanding of the music business was limited to the concrete.
If I could get a show at Border Books & Music (because corporate coffeehouses did guarantees for musicians back then), then I could walk away with $100 in cash and another $40–70 if the patrons liked what they heard and bought my CD.
If I got a college show for $2000, that would anchor my tour and I could afford to take my guitar to good venues in nearby cities that might not be able to offer a guarantee.
Back then, I would silk-screen a bunch of blank-top Taiyo Yuden CD-Rs and then burn my albums onto them. Before a tour the floor of my little house would be covered in hand-screened CDs, and as I waited for them to dry, I’d have to hop over them to get to the bathroom or kitchen. Each of those CDs would bring in $10 if I could find someone to buy them.
I didn’t know what a music publisher was and I thought vaguely that my music publisher might be BMI, the PRO I had chosen to affiliate with largely because my friend and personal hero Edie Carey was a member.
I had a hazy idea of what a record label was, but I had no idea how to go about getting the attention of a record label in a way that would actually make a label want to sign me. I really, really wanted a label to sign me. This is how I once showed up on the doorstep of Misra Records, which turned out to be the home address of the founder. Yes, I really did ring his doorbell on a Saturday morning clutching a demo and a press kit. Sorry Phil Waldorf!
I kept my gig contracts and my copyright registrations in one of those expandable file folders that you typically associate with attorneys. The funny thing is that I have never once used an expanding file folder since crossing over to the business side of entertainment and actually becoming an attorney.
Those live shows in my 20s turned my life upside down, and from these tours and gigs I am grateful to have collected enough memories and crazy stories to last me a lifetime. If I could go back in time, I would most certainly do it again, but I would like to do it with a better understanding of the business end of things.
For most, the shows eventually come to an end or come to be less frequent. What persists are the songs we write and the things we record. These intangible things — our creative copyrights — are what people can still discover on Spotify or hear in the background of a TV show long after we’ve stopped silk screening Taiyo Yuden CDs in the living room, long after we’ve stopped touring and long after we’re dead. They are the big picture, and I wish I had understood this when I was making music, playing show after show.
For the last two months, outside of my work as counsel at Loudr, I have been teaching a group of graduate students in music composition and sound design as an adjunct professor for the Academy of Art University. I teach about copyright law and the music business generally. We started at the beginning with the distinction between a composition and master, and have since wended our way through such topics as public performance rights, work for hire, sync licensing, and digital music services, streaming and otherwise.
This is my first time teaching a full class, let alone a graduate level class, and it’s the first time that the Academy of Arts has offered this particular class in the School of Music. When structuring the course, I took inspiration from my friend Gary Chou, who teaches an entrepreneurship class for interaction designers at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. In Gary’s class, the students are required to start a project that earns them $1000 over the course of the semester — without renting out an apartment on Airbnb or selling bodily fluids.
I would have liked to apply the same requirement for my class, but as it turns out, not all students are permitted under their visas to earn freelance income. So instead, students in my class will be graded on their ability to obtain gigs for their services as composers and sound designers, or secure licenses for their music. Each student is required to secure three gigs or licenses over the course of the semester, whether paid or gratis.
I’ve been impressed by the level of professionalism (and interest in the subject) that I’ve seen in these students, many of whom are already working composers. As such, I’ve asked them if I can share some of their portfolios and websites with my professional colleagues and with the public at large.
Are you looking for a young composer to help you with music and audio for a corporate video? Are you looking for some help with sound design? Would you like someone to make some music for your film? If so, I highly recommend connecting with one of these highly motivated students who, as it happens, will need to find some gigs before the end of the semester.
Stephanie Alison Au