Once upon a time, record companies were run by music people and radio stations were owned by local business-people who knew and loved their communities.
In 2012, the major labels are owned by giant multinational corporations such as Sony and Universal who view music as just a part of their overall portfolio, which are far more weighted to electronics, movies, or theme parks than to music.
In 2012, live-and-local radio is tragically often a thing of the past. Most stations in major markets are owned by gigantic radio companies such as Clear Channel, CBS, and Cumulus, and the difference in playlists between stations is minimal.
The corporate bean counters and financial people – not the label A&R folks or the station program directors – have the real power now. These folks are bankers and accountants. They’re the ones with the real power, and their instinct is nearly always to improve the bottom line of their companies in the short term by trimming overhead and cutting jobs.
Companies are sitting on giant hoards of cash now. They’re not using it to hire new people. So don’t expect the unemployment rate to ease any time soon, and the unemployment rate along Music Row and at radio is certainly far higher than the overall national average of around 10 percent.
So what do you do to protect yourself and your job if you’re in music or in radio?
First of all, remember that the best time to find a job is when you have a job. You’re far more attractive to another employer if you’re already employed. Always have an updated resume prepared, with lists of references who have already agreed to speak in your behalf about your employment history and your character.
Friends who are looking for work these days, either in or out of the music business, talk about ridiculous ordeals that potential employers now put them through. One who applied at Starbucks for a barista job said he had to take an online test which lasted six hours, after which weeks later he hadn’t heard back from the local Starbucks store on whether or not he had the job.
Employers hold all the cards now. So except in extremely rare cases, don’t expect them to do much or anything in your behalf. They know there is a huge pool of unemployed folks ready and willing to take your job.
So you need to be every bit as proactive as they are.
Let’s say you’re a country band which has been playing the same club every weekend. You’ve developed a strong fan base, and each Friday and Saturday night you sell lots of CD’s and merch, and you help the club owner sell thousands of dollars’ worth of beer and food.
But this weekend when you arrive to set up your gear, the owner informs you that he has sold the club and this is the final weekend you and the guys will play there.
These days, you need to be constantly prepared for that eventuality. Happens all the time. Even though you give your heart and soul on stage for a particular venue for months or even years, don’t assume that venue will still be open next week.
So be ready. Long before you’re informed that the club is closing, being sold, being turned into a gas station, or whatever, you should have been talking with other area club owners.
Play these other owners your CD. Invite them to your shows. Ask them what they would pay you for the same show that the current owner is paying you $1,200 a night for.
Look, if the companies that are employing you have no loyalty to you, what do you owe them? You and your band are doing the hard work on stage every weekend, dealing with rowdy fans, tough travel and tour schedules, PA systems that often fail, and other real-world nightmares.
There are exceptions, of course. There are still a handful of club and station owners who are live and local, and still care very much about their customers and their employees.
But remember the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.
By Phil Sweetland (October/November 2012)