I’ve always been obsessed with pop music, but growing up in the countryside I never considered working in the music industry as a viable career option. When I finished uni, to my surprise and delight, I quickly found myself working in music. I had no relevant qualifications or knowledge of the business, except for what I’d picked up through being a fan and blogger, but I had the passion and relevant skills and I learned the rest on the job. Most people I know in the music industry have followed a similar career path, and while music business courses can be beneficial, most agree that work experience is much more valuable.
When you first start working in the music industry, it can be quite daunting, especially if you haven’t studied it and feel out of your depth. I tried reading books such as All You Need To Know About The Music Business, and they were interesting but quite serious and in-depth, and rarely relevant to my actual job. I would have loved a simple guide to the industry as it is in the UK right now, and a cheat sheet of the mysterious terms that come up in day-to-day life, on subjects such as marketing, live and recording. So that’s what I’ve put together here, and I hope it will be useful to anyone who is now in the position I was a few years ago.
If you think I’ve missed any terms, or want to suggest something that begins with Z so I can make this a true A-Z, please tweet me @Poptastic. If you’re an up-and-coming artist, or representing one, you may also enjoy my ebook How To Make It In Pop.
When an artist signs a record deal or publishing deal, they are given an advance, which is an amount of money that they can live on until their music career becomes profitable. The artist gets an advance at the beginning of each album cycle. It may feel like free money, but it’s not. The advance is recoupable, a term I’ll explain later, but it basically means it’s a loan from the label – an investment made because they believe that the artist is going to earn them money.
In a live performance, the backline is the equipment typically found at the back of the stage, including amps and drums. Some venues provide backline, but many don’t, which means acts have to bring their own or rent it. If they can afford it, an act will employ a backline tech, whose job is to transport and set up the backline, and check it’s working properly. Backline techs are often also known as roadies.
Next time you’re watching a support act on a big tour, make sure you give them a big cheer, cos they’ve probably paid a lot of money to be there. This payment is known as a buy-on. For a major arena tour, a buy-on could be around £20k or more, and that money doesn’t cover any of the costs of touring – it’s simply a payment made by the support act to the main act in return for the opportunity to perform on the tour. However, if the support act is well-known, they may have avoided paying a buy-on or even be paid to perform, as adding them to the line-up helps to sell tickets.
BVs is short for backing vocals. It’s sometimes used to describe backing vocalists, but since few artists have them these days, you’ll hear it most often to describe the volume of backing vocals on the track that the artist is performing to in a live performance. It’s quite common for pop acts to have 80% or even 100% BVs, which means the full track is playing while they sing along. This makes the live vocals sound stronger and helps to cover up tuning issues. It allows artists to sing live, rather than mime, but still sound as good as the studio versions.
D2C stands for “direct to consumer.” If you’ve been on an artist’s website and bought something from their online store, you’ve bought from a D2C store. The reason it’s more direct than stores such as iTunes, Amazon or HMV is that the artist gets to choose the prices and how to present the products, which usually include merch as well as physical and digital music. Artists often offer exclusive special deals, such as bundles and signed CDs, on their D2C store.
Not a technical term, but a funny name for a genuine problem that A&Rs and artists have to deal with. If you’ve listened to a demo recording of a song a lot and fallen in love with it, it’s hard to appreciate the final mixed and mastered version. The new version just doesn’t sound right! But to someone who hadn’t heard the demo, in most cases the final version does sound better. And usually when you go back to the demo a few months later it sounds weird, because you’re now used to the finished version!
Front of house
There are two types of sound engineer that artists usually take with them to a gig: the monitor engineer (see below) and the front of house (FOH) engineer. Front of house refers to the area where the audience sit or stand during the gig. Therefore, the front of house engineer is positioned at the back or centre of the venue, so they can hear what the crowd are hearing, and they use a mixing desk to adjust the audio as necessary. Their role is important throughout the performance, as it’s their job to ensure the performers are sounding as good as possible and to solve any audio problems that occur during the show.
When a new single is released on-air on-sale, or is already available to fans as part of an album, the label will select an impact date to work towards. This is the week when they are aiming for the song to peak in the charts, and their marketing spend and strategy is targeted to create most buzz and awareness of the track on that week. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to manufacture a sales peak like this, and it’s quite rare that labels pull it off.
If you are granted a mechanical licence for a particular song, that means you can reproduce it, for example you can cover the song, recreating the melody, lyrics and music. However, you can’t sample a previous recorded version of that song unless you have been granted a licence to use the sound recording, in addition to the mechanical licence. Copyright law is very complicated, but basically, it is difficult and unusual for an artist to prevent another artist from covering a song. However, artists have the right to block samples of their music, and to ask for any amount of money in return for the use of a sample.
Mixing and mastering
I had to look this up – I knew mixing came before mastering, but I didn’t know the difference. Mixing is the last part of producing a song, making technical changes such as adding effects and equalising. Mastering is like giving a song its final polish, making sure the volume is right (so it doesn’t sound louder or quieter than other songs) and making it sound like a professional recording you’d hear on the radio. It’s possible to master a song yourself, but there is an art to it, so it’s better to pay a professional to do it.
Monitors allow performers to hear the sounds they and the others on stage are making, even when the crowd is loud. The different types of monitors are stage monitors (the black boxes you see at the front of a stage) and in-ear monitors. Professional musicians tend to prefer in-ear monitors, as they allow each performer to hear a different mix of vocals and track/instruments. However, they are expensive to buy as they ideally need to be moulded to fit the performer’s ear, though generic in-ears are also available. A monitor engineer is the person who sets up the monitors and makes sure the performers can hear what they need to hear to perform well.
Most favoured nation (MFN)
If you are offered a sync deal (see definition below), you’ll often see the term MFN mentioned in relation to the fee. MFN stands for most favoured nation, and it means that all parties who stand to benefit from the deal will get the same amount of money. This includes the master holder (usually the record label, unless the act is unsigned and therefore own their own masters) and the publishers of any writers who have a credit on the song. MFN can also be applied across different artists whose music is featured in a film, TV show or game. For example, if Beyoncé is featured on a film soundtrack along with your new act, your act will get the same fee that she receives.
If a song is released to download stores on the same day as it is premiered on the radio, this is described as on-air on-sale. While a pre-release promo window of around six weeks used to be typical, online piracy made labels question this tactic as they were losing sales when fans couldn’t download their new favourite song legally. Now we’re in a strange stage where some songs are released on-air on-sale, while others use pre-release promo to build up anticipation and boost the first-week chart position. Both ways have pros and cons, but most industry experts believe on-air on-sale will eventually become the norm.
When an artist is making a new album, their A&R will send out a brief to publishers explaining what kind of songs they’re looking for. Publishers then put these briefs together and send them out to all the songwriters and producers on their roster, informing them of the opportunity to submit songs for these current projects. Briefs often say whether or not the artist is accepting outside songs. These are songs that are already finished and wouldn’t involve any co-writing from the artist.
If you’re filming a live performance of a song, for example a pre-recorded TV performance or an acoustic session for YouTube, each time the song is performed is known as a pass. It’s quite common for an act to know in advance how many passes they will be allowed, especially when performing on a TV show where studio time is limited and there are many other segments to be filmed.
Songwriting royalties are divided into percentages known as splits (explained below), but for the producer, there is a different system. If a producer works on an album, before they begin work they will agree with the A&R how many points they will have. The more points the producer is given, the more they will earn from album sales. One point on an album is worth 1% of the royalties of the album. Alternatively, producers are sometimes given an upfront fee, instead of points.
This is a meeting held by the record label where everyone involved in the artist’s current or upcoming single or album campaign gets together to update each other on their progress. If the label head is present, they sit at the end of the table and oversee the meeting – if not, that job goes to the product manager or marketing manager of the campaign. People who are expected to attend and present their progress to the team include the national and regional radio pluggers, TV plugger, print and online PRs, digital marketing, regional press, and sometimes the booking agent. The artist’s manager will be present to represent the artist and feed back on any ideas and opportunities discussed, but artists themselves rarely attend.
A plugger’s job is to present the artist’s new music to TV or radio decision-makers and secure playlist additions/upgrades and performance opportunities for them. They also attend all major TV/radio interviews and performances to ensure they run smoothly. Some labels have in-house pluggers, while others pay external companies to do this job. To work as a radio or TV plugger, you need to have very good contacts and strong relationships with the gatekeepers at the most influential radio stations and TV shows/channels.
Have you noticed that certain photos of artists get used over and over again: online, on posters, in magazines etc? That’s because they were taken at a press shoot, which is organised to provide a set of press photos. An agreement is made with the photographer that these photos can be used freely by the label and artist for promotional purposes. These images are sent out with press releases and provided to journalists to include in interviews and other articles about the act. However, if the label or artist want to use the photos for profit-making purposes, such as printed on merchandise, they will need to do a buyout. This means the photographer gets an extra fee in return for giving away the right to use the images in this way.
Any activity that an act does to promote their music without being paid is a promo activity. This includes radio and TV appearances and press interviews. The record label will generally cover the costs involved, such as travel, food, hair and make-up, and production costs if there’s a performance, because they are the costs of marketing the music. These costs are not recoupable (see below) but instead paid from the marketing budget.
An artist who writes their own songs will usually look for a publishing deal, either before or after they sign a record deal. By signing a publishing deal, you sign over the copyrights of the songs you write to a publishing company. Some of the big ones include Warner Chappell, Sony ATV, Universal, Imagem and Kobalt. In return for an agreed percentage of royalties, the publisher helps the artist to make more money from the songs they write, for example through sync deals, arranging co-writing sessions, and placing songs with other artists. Songwriters who only write for other artists, not for themselves, can also sign publishing deals.
The business year is divided into four quarters: Q1 – January to March, Q2 – April to June, Q3 – July to September, and Q4 – October to December. Record labels must report their earnings at the end of each quarter, so they strive to ensure they have big releases scheduled throughout the year. The most profitable time of year is Q4, as more people buy music at Christmas, and big artists schedule their new releases for this time of year. For a music fan, Q4 is an exciting period, but for the record labels it’s extremely busy and there’s a lot of pressure to make as much money as possible in those three crucial months.
If a cost is recoupable, that means that the label will pay for it, but they will make a record of what they paid and take that money out of the artist’s future earnings. However, if the artist doesn’t make money for the label, this means they remain in debt to the label. If the label thinks they’re unlikely to get their money back they will often drop the act. Dropped acts usually aren’t expected to pay off their debt. Examples of recoupable costs include the artist’s advance, music videos (50% recoupable, 50% covered by the marketing budget), tour support and A&R costs. If an artist doesn’t earn back the money the label spent on them, the artist is unrecouped. This is surprisingly common, even with popular acts, especially when the label spent a huge amount of money which they could never reasonably expect to recoup.
At the end of a songwriting process, when the song is complete and all parties are happy with the result, the co-writers will agree the percentage of royalties they should each receive. Sometimes it’s split evenly between co-writers, to avoid arguments, and other times it’s split depending on how much they each contributed. Controversially, some artists demand a certain percentage of royalties on their songs, regardless of how much they contributed. If the artist is well-known, their co-writers may agree to this, even though it’s unfair, because they want a cut on a song that features on a big album.
A splitter van is a long vehicle which carries the equipment and instruments to a gig, along with the crew and musicians. It’s called a splitter because it has two different sections, like a people carrier and a van merged into one. The splitter is usually driven by the backline tech, who may or may not play Shaggy songs when he picks you up at 5am to drive to a festival.
If a radio station isn’t sure whether to put a new song on their playlist, they’ll give it a spot play, or a few spot plays if you’re lucky, to gauge the reaction of their listeners. If the response is positive, they will add it to the playlist. If not, they’re unlikely to play it again. If your artist gets a spot play, you must obviously text the radio station pretending to be a dedicated fan.
When a song is licensed for use on the soundtrack of a TV show, advert, film or video game, this is called a sync (short for synchronisation) deal. Record labels and publishers both have sync departments whose job is to get sync deals for their artists/writers. Some artists, particularly those whose music is very sync-friendly, also have external companies pitching their songs for sync opportunities. The decision on which songs are used is down to a music supervisor, who chooses the music that best matches the visuals. The artist behind the music is also considered, for example using a song by a popular artist to soundtrack an advert can help to promote the brand.
The topline is the combined name for the melody and lyrics of a song i.e. the vocals, not the track. In pop, dance and hip-hop music, it’s common for the track to be produced first, before a topline is written to be sung over it. Often when an instrumental dance track becomes popular in the clubs, it is then sent out to songwriters who are asked to submit a topline. The aim is to create a vocal version of the track, which has more commercial chart potential than an instrumental. The best topline submitted is recorded and released.
When an artist first starts performing live, they are rarely paid a large enough fee to cover the costs of performing. Therefore, if they are signed to a record label, the label will often cover the costs to ensure the act can perform and build up a fanbase through live shows. The costs have to be approved by the label, and they are recoupable.
When we talk about how far away a single or album release is, we don’t say “it’s out in two weeks” – we say “we’re two weeks upfront.” The last week before the release is one week upfront. Unless you’re releasing a single on-air on-sale, the song will usually go to radio around six weeks upfront, with the video premiere either at the same time or a few weeks later, depending on the marketing strategy. The label set KPIs (key performance indicators), which are targets for measures of success such as pre-orders and video views, and they have expectations for each KPI depending on how many weeks upfront they are.
Closely related to weeks upfront, windowing is a strategy which has become controversial in recent years. The window is the time between when a song premieres and when it is available to buy. Traditionally this was a month or six weeks, but now for some artists, it has decreased to just one or two weeks, or even zero, as the on-air on-sale approach becomes more popular. Another occasion when the term “windowing” is used is when songs are available to stream some time after they’re available to purchase, a tactic which seems to be less popular now that streaming is incorporated into the singles chart.
Many big labels have smaller labels within them, which typically release less mainstream music, such as dance or indie records. Examples include Positiva (Virgin EMI), Chess Club (RCA) and Asylum (Atlantic). Sometimes the small label was set up by the bigger label as a way to release certain records under a different name, and other times the small label was bought by the bigger label. If an act or song released through one of those smaller labels becomes popular, it is often upstreamed to the larger label. This means the act gains access to the larger label’s resources, becomes a bigger priority and benefits from the association with the well-known larger label.