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Ethics in the Music Business

The title of this article is not a misprint.

The legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."


Thompson was accurately portraying a small slice of the music industry, one in which incentives are seemingly provided for doing “bad” onto others. That incentive, in almost every case, is quick money. Contrary to Thompson’s colorful description, as a 35-year industry veteran, I’m pleased to say that 98% of my experience in the business has been with professional, ethical colleagues and companies. They realize that in the long-term, treating others with a modicum of respect and consideration will bring in more positive benefits than taking every opportunity to stick it to your neighbor (we’ll get to the other 2% near the end of this article).


Here are a few reasons why ethics, fair play and common sense will get you further in the music industry than lying, cheating or stealing in an attempt to make it to the top.

It’s a Small Industry

Compared to the computer industry, the defense industry, or even the alcohol industry, the music industry is a small market. U.S. record sales in 2005 amounted to roughly $12 billion in retail value. By comparison, packaged alcohol sales represent roughly $80 billion while the current U.S. defense budget is $439 billion.


Due to the relatively small nature of the music industry, people tend to collaborate often on various projects and the old saying, “Burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice, shame on me,” really does apply.


Here’s a hypothetical example. Let’s say you are helping to manage a local band and that the all ages show you just wrapped up provided for the band to receive 50% of the door charge of $5.00. 100 people paid to attend the show and as the club owner is counting out the band’s share, his cell phone rings and he hands you what he thinks is half of the night’s revenue, $250. As he talks, you realize that there is an extra $50 bill. You are holding $300.


Welcome to the world of ethical dilemmas!


What you do at that moment may determine not only how much money the band goes home with that night, but also whether or not you, and the band, will be welcome back at that club or at other clubs in the region. So although it might seem like you are “getting away” with something by pocketing the extra $50, you are probably doing more long-term damage to your reputation than the money is worth.

Why Your Reputation is So Important

Ultimately, no matter how talented you might be as a performer, manager, technician or composer, the values you employ in your daily activities will either make people view you as a trusted resource or as someone who is unreliable, or worse, dishonest.


Now let me share a real world example with you. Sid was an amazing drummer, able to quickly play any style of music, read charts well, and fit into a variety of ensemble settings. Back in the day when I was working professionally as a recording engineer and producer, I hired Sid a few times to play on recording sessions, but quickly found out that Sid usually arrived late, was often easily distracted, and often complained about how little he was earning on the session to the client! It only took a few sessions before I realized that hiring Sid was a liability.


I replaced Sid as my first call with Casey. He didn’t play quite as well as Sid, but he showed up early for every session, went out of his way to stay focused and engaged in the recording process, and made it a point to politely introduce himself to clients and when appropriate, compliment them on their songwriting or musical ideas. About a year later, Casey had moved to LA and quickly became an in-demand session drummer. All based on his reputation as a reliable, steady player.


What about Sid? He’s no longer a working musician. His poor reputation had quite a bit to do with his change of career.

One Career Ladder Up… and Down

As you climb the career ladder in the music industry, you’ll meet a variety of characters, some good, and some bad. There may be a few persons who may try to take advantage of you or secure what might be seen by someone with more experience as an unfair advantage (remember that other 2%?). They may try to rip you off in a variety of ways. The best defense against getting ripped off is learning about how the business of music works. Regularly visiting this web site and learning from the experts on it will help you protect yourself.


Another reason to consider having a sense of fairness and ethics is that the ladder you ascend on the way up your career is the same one you may take in the phase of your career where your popularity or success may decline. So the very same people you either treated fairly and ethically, or unfairly and unethically, will once again be booking you into a club, considering whether or not to play your song on the radio, or to hire you back as an assistant in their office.


Much like “Sid,” if you burned your bridges ethically or otherwise, you probably don’t stand much of a chance of getting any opportunity to work or play because most people have a long memory for those who didn’t act fairly.

A Secret Weapon

Since the music industry is an exceedingly competitive industry, why wouldn’t someone want to take any advantage possible, ethical or not, to “win” at the music career game? Because fair and ethical behavior is a type of secret weapon. Assuming that you have a basic sense of right and wrong, operating ethically, realizing there will be moral dilemmas you will face in your career, and being able to stand up and take the actions that you feel are best for you but also don’t hurt others needlessly, you will be building up an arsenal of good will among other professionals that you encounter.

And when the day comes, and it will most definitely arrive, that you are in a difficult spot or need a favor from an individual or a company, your track record of ethical behavior may be the deciding factor in getting the help or advice that you need to move ahead.


It’s certain that if you’ve burned people, you won’t get the time of day when the chips are down.


So hand the extra $50 back to the club booker. You’ll be going a long way to building a reputation as someone who can be trusted and is in the business for the long haul.


Doing the right thing isn’t always easy.


But it has short- and long-term benefits that make it worth the investment.

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Published: 11/01/2006