Four Essential Books for the Indie Musician

So, you're an indie musician in the 21st century. You're probably working at least one McJob, rehearsing a few nights a week, furtively writing lyrics on your lunch break, and trying to placate your girl- or boyfriend, who thinks you spend way too much time cooped up in basements, garages, vans, motel rooms, or whatever cramped spaces your need to play music forces you to inhabit. This means you have tons of time and energy for reading, right? Not likely. And, when you do, you're probably looking for escapism. So, you curl up with your kid sister's copy of Twilight (tucked inside an old, half-read copy of Crime and Punishment) and let your mind go.

However, there's this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that your music career is stalled and there must be something you can do to get it jump-started. Well, it's time to set aside Bella's love triangle for a while and dive into some books on the music biz. Getting to the next level involves more than just writing songs and playing shows. It means navigating a messy web of hiring the right people, sorting through legal issues, and planning for the future. What a drag! Fortunately, there are some great guides for how to get the most out of the music you love to make. These four essential books will get you moving in the right direction.

Two well-known titles give comprehensive overviews of the ins and outs of the music business. One is slightly more thorough and detailed, while the other is better laid out and oriented more toward the layperson. The first, M. William Krasilovsky and Sidney Shemel's This Business of Music, has been in print since 1964 and is now in its 10th edition. Obviously, the book has proven itself highly useful over the decades. However, it's a serious and weedy text, perhaps overfilled with data and dry sections, like the "Accountings and Auditing" portion of the chapter on "Foreign Distribution Agreements." Kill me now, right? Also, in terms of usefulness to most musicians, it's arranged backwards, beginning with a detailed analysis of major label contracts and saving valuable information on "Agents and Managers" and recording and demo submissions for the book's final part, the offhandedly titled "Other Aspects of the Music Business." This Business of Music is far from a poor choice for a topical overview, but it's not the best.

Much more user friendly is Donald S. Passman's All You Need to Know About the Music Business. The book has been around for twenty years and is in its seventh edition, so it too has been well vetted. Before marching into the thickets of record label contracts, Passman smartly begins with "How to Pick a Team" (as to the selection of groupies, "you're pretty much on your own," the author jokes). Passman's style is accessible, but also precise and very well-informed. In each part, he lays out the basics in early chapters before delving deeper further on. For instance,"Copyright Basics" is the first chapter of Part III: Songwriting and Music Publishing, while "Even More Advanced Copyright Concepts" is saved for last. Other major parts include Touring, Merchandising, and Motion Picture Music. These are all vital components to a musician's career in an era where album sales have become a meager source of income. Though mentioned, television and video game soundtracking feel a bit tacked on, given their rise in relevance – and indie world acceptance - over the last decade or so. Still, this is a minor quibble about a majorly great text. Reading All You Need to Know About the Music Business is like attending a lecture from your favorite professor on a subject you really care about. It should be the number one title in every musician's home library.

Even more casual and aimed squarely at the DIY musicians is Bob Baker's Guerilla Music Marketing Handbook. This book is full of great tips that a musician of just about any level can implement right away. The advice is solid, even if the chapter titles sound like the names of seminars at an airport Holiday Inn. In "13 Low-Cost, High-Impact Music Promotion Ideas That Work," for instance, Baker suggests you "hold a contest related to your band or release" (e.g., a radio quiz where listeners have to guess the origin of your group's name) or "sponsor a college or community radio show." A lot of the author's "201 Self-Promotion Ideas" hinge on the phrase "give something away." With the low expense of CDRs - and lower still of MP3s - this is a great idea. You may feel like you're cheapening your songs by making them freebies, but fanbase development (and maintenance) is vital to your career. Plus, if you pull in listeners with a giveaway EP or a free download, they're more likely to lay out cash for the full-length CD.

The vast majority of indie bands and solo acts perform their own songs, but they think of these songs primarily in the context of entries on their albums and setlists. At some point in your burgeoning music career, however, you'll need to think about the world of music publishing. Just like an author or a poet, you've written words (and music) that are potentially profitable. Enter Randall D. Wixen's The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing. The author owns a music publishing business and is a university lecturer on the subject, so he knows whereof he writes. The book covers everything from copyright and royalties basics to the ins and outs of karaoke licensing. While Passman covers a lot of this same territory in All You Need to Know About the Music Business, Wixen's text makes navigating the subject a breeze. Plus, he includes a helpful appendix containing shorthand summaries of a variety of publishing deal scenarios. There's also a glossary that, by itself, can teach you a ton about sync licenses, ephemeral use, recoupable advances, and the good ol' controlled composition clause. Until you, or your lawyer, know what these terms mean, don't sign any contracts!

Okay, you've been doing some close reading of some thorny topics. We'll finish off with a bit of light reading that will still offer plenty of insights about your indie music career: ">Our Band Could Be Your Life. Written by Spin and Rolling Stone journalist Michael Azerrad, the book chronicles the 1980s U.S. punk scene and its key players. At the center of this movement was SST Records, founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn. What began as a mail order electronics part shop mutated into one of the defining labels in punk rock history. Azerrad's book is a fun and informative journey through the underground '80s, and includes highly entertaining, anecdote-filled chapters on Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and other seminal acts from the era. At its heart, Our Band Could Be Your Life is about working outside the system to get your music heard. It's indie to the core.

Whether you're looking for inspiration to keep marching on, or you need cut-and-dry details on the weedy realm of recording contracts, these four books will help you take your music career forward:

1. All You Need to Know About the Music Business
2. Guerilla Music Marketing Handbook
3. The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing
4. Our Band Could Be Your Life



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