Rock and Roll and Startups – “We’re getting signed!”

I’ve written three posts about how being a musician and being in a band is a lot like being a programmer and being part of a startup. Scroll down to read them. Now, part 4…”We’re getting signed!”

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Long before there was MySpace and YouTube, bands worked hard to “get signed”. This means a record label signs you to a contract and presumably fronts some money so you can make a record, go on tour, make music videos, etc. While I am keenly aware that the rules have changed in the music business, the model used to be fairly simple: getting signed to a record label meant that you might not be perpetually broke, playing shows for 5 of your friends on a Tuesday night.

In short, getting signed meant that someone else saw the potential in your band that you saw yourself. It was support from someone with a megaphone bigger than your own. It was a partner in your endeavor who provided – if only a little – some stability so you could focus on making music.

This is of course exactly like how raising venture capital is now in the startup world. You build a prototype of your product and go shopping for money. You are trying to find a partner who will open doors and write checks so you can focus on doing your best work. Without VC money it feels like you are in a band that plays the midnight slot on Tuesday night at a cafe in Waco in exchange for free chicken fried steak. With VC money, you’re bumped up to be the headliner on Saturday night at Antone’s.

At least that is how it seems.

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I was only once in a band that ever had any prayer of signing a record deal. Urban Pet Collective (junior year in college) went in to the studio once and recorded a three song demo. By some fate, a guy named Ed Levy fronted us about two grand to pay for studio time and finish the recordings. I didn’t have any part in that negotiation. I only knew that Ed had done the same for a band called “Honeybrowne” and they were starting to get some attention around Texas. So Ed gave us money, we recorded a three song demo, and then basically never saw Ed again until 8 months later when we needed money to record three more songs. I didn’t realize it at the time, but without Ed’s money, there would have never been any recordings of the band and we would have never been able to book shows all over the country and a handful of radio appearances. Having Ed’s support opened doors we couldn’t open ourselves. (This was all before Pro Tools and Garage Band made it possible to record studio level stuff in your bedroom).

After using the demo Ed financed to get shows in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, we applied for the North By Northwest festival in Toronto in the summer of 1998. We were given a slot at 11pm at an upstairs club. The stage was about 10 square feet but our five piece band played great. After the show, a guy from Fish Head Records gave our singer his card and told us to call him for breakfast in the morning. The next morning, we loaded our gear and left town for our show in New York. We weren’t interested in a small label out of Cleveland.

We didn’t realize that just like Ed had helped us get to that point, Fish Head could help us maybe get to the next point.

That was the closest I ever came to being signed to a record label.

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So much of that experience mirrors the startup world. You try and find partners to open doors and finance things. You try to “get signed” by some big, experienced firm that can help you navigate through the muck and mire of starting a business. But most successful bands actually are successful because they build followings one fan at a time, never sign record deals, and self-publish their music. Same with startups – most will never sign a term sheet with a VC. Those that are successful are likely to be self-financed, building their businesses one customer at a time.

There are no hit singles for most of us. There are no sold out shows at the LA Forum. There are no grammy appearances. For most of us, there is one club show after another. THere is a lot of hard work between shows getting every nuance and beat just right. There are tough times when it doesn’t seem worth it. But if you stay at it long enough you might look up one day and be able to say, “you know, there are a lot of people in the audience tonight.”

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