Don’t hesitate, negotiate!

by   on November 21, 2016

By: Ken Ashdown On Facebook, a friend at SOCAN recently asked her musician friends how they divide songwriting credits. The post generated a wide variety of responses – and, of course, plenty of emotional heat. For songwriting credit, she could easily substitute money, rehearsal time, promotional effort, or any number of other things collaborators share, and the result would probably be similar. This is precisely why negotiation is the most important skill, after musical ability itself, that every musician must have. Unfortunately, relatively few do, and bands often split as a result.

Why bother?

That’s partly because many feel it’s the manager’s job. So why bother to negotiate, or even learn how? First, if like most acts it takes time to find a willing and capable manager, then you’ll need to negotiate plenty of deals for yourself until then. Second, if you’re lucky enough to have a loyal friend or family member assume the role (and who is just as committed to the act as you are), there are probably issues you just haven’t encountered yet. Sooner or later you’ll need to resolve them, and the ability to negotiate will be key. (Attitudes and behaviours have a funny way of changing when money is involved.) Third, studies show that negotiating even modest increases can boost total earnings dramatically over a career.  And finally, negotiation is one of the first, cheapest and most effective means of resolving conflicts between collaborators. What group doesn’t have the occasional internal (or external) conflict? Songwriting credit is just one of many things over which people can disagree, so your first job after forming – or perhaps even before – is to sit down and work out an agreement about how you want things to work.

A business skill – and a life skill

But negotiation is not just a formal business arrangement, or at least it doesn’t have to be. My favourite definition of negotiation is “a problem-solving and decision-making exercise used whenever you need at least one more person to do something.” This means that any time you need someone else’s space to rehearse, to borrow the company van to haul gear, or just have your room mate to clean their dishes for once, you’re negotiating. For many, one of two things tends to happen: either they negotiate ineffectively, or they fail to do it at all. In the latter case, it’s usually due to fear. They’re afraid of doing it poorly, pissing people off, and ruining their relationships and/or reputations. Or they fear others people’s superior negotiating power or position. Maybe they worry that their own emotions will betray them during the negotiation. There are many valid reasons why musicians and songwriters don’t negotiate. However, it’s avoiding negotiation that tends to cause more and bigger problems in the long run. This is because everyone enters the relationship with different ideas and assumptions that never get a proper airing.

Fear of negotiation

Most negotiation fears can be alleviated through proper preparation and applying core skills. Unfortunately, we seldom get proper training, and most approach negotiation incorrectly. Effective negotiation isn’t the old-school, win-lose, us-versus-them contest depicted in film. The music business shouldn’t be a “zero-sum game” where one party wins, and therefore the other(s) must lose. These outcomes harm reputations and relationships. All parties can – and should – win every time. One reason is that despite its global scope, ours is a relatively small industry. In my 30+ years in entertainment I’ve seen many people come and go, only to turn up elsewhere in the industry. Not even the biggest “name” acts (or their managers) can afford to risk a negotiation gone sour.

Doing it right

To do it right you first need to do a bit of homework, starting with a thorough examination of the other party’s interests. What’s important to them? See things from their point of view. A rookie mistake is not fully comprehending the needs of the other, or making incorrect assumptions about them. Go beyond the obvious. Ask questions and be genuinely curious. Imagine you’re negotiating with a pub owner to headline his/her venue. What are their concerns and expectations? Their hopes? Their basic assumptions? What are the potential impacts or consequences (positive or negative) if it works out? What if it doesn’t? Answering these questions accurately is just part of negotiation; you also need to address them in some meaningful way. For everything you’re asking from them, offer them something in return. It’s like haggling over the sale of a vintage guitar: both parties need fair value from the deal. Saying you’ll promote the show to your Facebook and Twitter followers isn’t enough. Clicks aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on (although getting solid commitments in writing is always recommended to close any bargaining session).  How much money could they lose if you don’t pack the place with thirsty patrons? How can you compensate them if they don’t make enough in bar sales? They still have overheads like rent, electricity bills, and staff to pay. They’re in business to profit and you can’t expect them to suck it up and swallow any losses. Business is risky enough, and no one wants to lose another venue. Creatively developing possible win-win outcomes on the basis of everyone’s interests (rather than trying to bridge the gap between rigid positions) is just one of four key principles at the heart of a proven method called integrative negotiation. A complete analysis is beyond the scope of this blog post, but you can read more in our book (Conflict Resolution for Musicians (and Other Cool People)), in the classic Getting to Yes by Fisher & Ury, and many more free resources are on our web site ( Courses are available online, in person, or in blended classrooms. Negotiation isn’t every musician’s idea of a life- or career-altering skill, but it can be. Taking the time to learn how to do it well can keep the band together longer (and happier), ease your songwriting process, earn more money, and even bring additional peace of mind to your home and personal life.   ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ken Ashdown is former VP of PolyGram Canada’s Mercury/Polydor group of labels and President of Fifth House Group, a consulting & training firm specializing in team & leadership development and conflict resolution in the entertainment industry. He is also co-author (with Helene Arts) of Conflict Resolution for Musicians (and Other Cool People).  

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