Music Production: Thoughts on Control

Normally I like to engage on semi-music-specific topics, but I thought I’d switch it up today and try something new. This topic is purely observational and speculative, but it’s something I’ve had on my mind for a while. If you don’t like stuff like that, you’re welcome to skip.

Just note, everything in this article is purely opinion and has very little based on fact, just the observations I’ve made in the industry.

It’s become a problem lately in my professional life. One party demanding control and wanting to make all the decisions. Depending on that person’s mindset, it can be either a good or bad thing, but 4 out of 5 times, it’s usually a bad thing. Most of it has to do with inexperience, such as an artist wanting to retain full creative control over their song, but not having the necessary experience to know how to get the sound they want. It turns into a micro-manage fest, btw. Really hard to work with and can be really frustrating at times.

But this “issue” doesn’t just apply to music, it really applies to most artistic industries. And most industries, I guess. People wanting to exercise control over themselves, others, products, arts, etc… it’s definitely a human nature thing and unfortunately there’s not much you can do about it. With lots of study and practice, I bet you can learn to ease up on it a bit, but that’s not something most of us want to dedicate our daily studies to. So… it’ll probably be something you’ll deal with (in your personal and professional life) for the rest of your life, so may as well get used to it and learn how to deal with it.

I don’t know how to deal with it, if you’re wondering. I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s been a big problem with some of the teams I’ve been working with lately, so I’m kind of in the middle of the battle right now. But the reason I bring it up is so you can be prepared for these situations, and thoroughly think them through before you take action. I’m still learning, too, so let’s talk it out.

First, the way I see it, that concept of “wanting control” is present in every person, unless they’ve studied and practiced relentlessly in order to overcome it (if you ever meet someone like this, let me know, because I’d love to talk to them, haha). So you should expect everyone to want to exercise some degree of control over you or their environment. For example, when someone wants to control a piece of land, they purchase it with money and retain full control of what is done there. Usually they’ll use that control to build a house/farm/mall etc. I think everyone naturally likes control, that it’s physically satisfying in some way, so you have to make it worth their while to release things from their control. For example, a landlord will let you live on their property and use the services if you pay them X amount of money. They’re relinquishing control over some of their property in exchange for money.

So why am I bringing this up in a music production blog? Well, because the music industry runs on this same idea. All business industries do. If you’re an artist, a festival will pay you X amount of money to relinquish control over your time/energy/talents etc to play on the stage of that festival. You relinquish control of your schedule to a manager, who takes profits a piece of your profits in exchange. From where I’m standing, control is the fundamental of all negotiations in the industry.

Well, you already knew that, right? “Of course a festival is going to pay me for the time I play on stage! That’s common sense!”. If I give someone something, I expect something of equal or greater value in return. That’s the basic rule of business, right? What does this have to do with control?

Well, everything. I had a friend tell me once about a seminar he went to, where the speaker called someone in the audience up to the stage and started asking him “why” he was making the decisions he did. “Why did you do X? Why did you Y? Why?”. And when he finally got the root of each decision, each decision was, at its root, because of a feeling. I could go more in depth, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

The point I’m trying to make is that everyone, at their core, is motivated by their feelings. Every decision is rooted there. So dealing with people is less about the money and more about how they “feel”. The money is just a tool to get there. So start thinking less about the fiscal negotiation and more about the person on the other side of the negotiation. Let’s pose a hypothetical situation. This one is probably the one I’ve heard from just about every artist I know that had an offer from the big leagues:

You’re an up and coming artist. You’re incredibly talented and have a solid fanbase that you really love. But you’re ready to take the next step. At this point, you’ve been doing it all solo. Marketing, management, booking shows, writing, recording, etc. One day you get a call from someone over at Interscope Records, saying they love your stuff and are interested in making a deal. You agree to meet and hop on a plane to LA the next day.

As soon as you walk into the building, you’re greeted by the agent, who proceeds to walk you through the building and give you a tour of the facilities. Needless to say, the resources are impressive. Then they walk you into a conference room where you begin negotiations.

First situation, they offer you a contract. “We’ll pay you X amount of money for control over your entire project. You write us music, we’ll pay for it all upfront, but you have to do exactly what we say for the next 3 years.”. That X amount of money is quite ludicrous. It’s more money than you’ve ever seen in your life. The offer is tempting, but you decline. You say, “I’m sorry, but this project has never been about money. I’m here because I love the music and fans, so I want to have control over what I give them.” The agent nods and says they understand, tries to renegotiate the offer a few times, but no consensus is ever reached. You fly home the next day, right back to where you started.

So why didn’t this work? You tried to negotiate the contract and redefine some things, but at the end of the day it didn’t work out. Well, what have we been talking about this entire article? Let’s think about it like that.

First, the agent offered you a large sum of money in return for absolute control. For most people, this is a difficult idea to comprehend. For those who are used to retaining all their control, relinquishing that much control is… overwhelming. Sure, it’s a large sum of money, but no amount of money is worth letting go of everything you’ve built, right? At this point, the negotiation is now emotional, since it encroaches on your sense of control. You may think that’s wrong, but let’s talk about the label’s side for a second.

Let’s just get this bit out of the way, first. To the label, you’re not special. The agent may like you, and you may feel like you have a lot of leverage in this situation, but they do meetings like this 10 times a week. To them, you’re a prospect. The little leverage you have doesn’t mean much next to the agent’s years of experience.

But this agent doesn’t have a lot of time. They’ve got 30 more artists to talk to before the end of the month. So they decide to use a little psychological technique called “polarization”. At its simplest, “polarization” is when a negotiator offers questions or negotiations that are “extreme”, in order to provoke a reaction and determine if the other party will be a good fit for their situation. This agent has a lot of people to sort through. They don’t have the time to learn a ton about you before deciding whether or not to hire you. And there’s too much risk involved. Their teams know how to market, manage, record, etc, and have been doing so for years. It makes a lot more sense for them to trust in the teams they work with every day, rather than trust an artist who says they can do these things. So their best option is to propose an “all-or-nothing deal”. During those first few years, they’ll get to know you better while retaining control of your project, so the risk on their side is low. Having control, in this case, is better for them.

And, I’d like to think, striking deals like this gives the agent a thrill. Control seems to provoke a strong emotional response, since people who earn control on a large scale are unwilling to give it up. I’m sure it’s quite invigorating and addicting. I guess that’s why they say “power always corrupts”. But keep that in mind. You’re dealing with a human here. Appealing to emotions like this may be in your best interest.

I’d like to talk about this more, but my time is shorter than usual today. I’ll see what I can do to finish this up at some point this week. Stay tuned!

Good luck, have fun!

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Music producer, mix engineer, and songwriter from Salt Lake City, Utah.

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Danny Demosi

Danny Demosi

Music producer, mix engineer, and songwriter from Salt Lake City, Utah.

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