How to Survive as a Rock & Roll Musician in the ’80s

Triumph Rocks Blog

How to Survive as a Rock & Roll Musician in the ’80s

Written by Gil Moore, How to Survive as a Rock & Roll Musician in the ’80s was intended to share some of the secrets of the rock & roll trade with Triumph fans. Please feel free to share your thoughts on Gil’s guide to the world of rock & roll on the Triumph Discussion Boards.

NO ONE EVER SAID IT WAS EASY (Looking for a pan to flash in)

The toughest question that I get asked by musicians starting out trying to hit big time in the rock n’ roll business is: “What’s the secret to ‘making it’ .” To this day, I wish I knew. I am sure many 16 year-old musicians feel “He knows but he won’t tell,” and I feel guilty that I can’t hand over the formula. The truth is, achieving success in the rock and roll business is a multi-faceted problem.

When I first started out as a roadie at the age of fourteen I had a vague notion that you needed “connections”. Word on the street was that some high powered agent could wave a magic wand and presto – “The Rolling Stone”. Experience over the years has proven to me that this is hogwash. There are more managers with superstar groups, who can’t break a second group than I can count. Why? Because all the “connections” in the world can’t produce the magic that makes the public go for one group and not the other.

So then, how to compete in the musical jungle? Here is what I describe as the basic fundamentals for success.

1. QUALITY AND HIGH STANDARDS (Am I a musician, or am I a cab driver?)

How many really excellent musicians do you know who are unemployed? I don’t know any. How many musicians do you know who become pros because they really want to play and make a career of it? How many think of it as an easy gig that makes it easy to pick up girls, get drunk and do drugs? As time goes on many players drop by the wayside. Music, like anything else, is fiercely competitive.

Some musicians claim scale is too high and they must play under scale to survive. Baloney! Inferior products sell for cheaper prices; this is true of anything not just musicians. A band that can draw crowds can demand a high fee. Bands that don’t draw and audience should analyse their problems, not whine about no being paid enough. Nobody owes musicians a living. My advice? Listen to successful groups, look at successful groups. Try and figure out why people like them. In my early years, I watched “The Mandala” and “John and Lee and the Checkmates” among others. No one could have convinced me they were the top bands in Toronto for simple reasons like they’re good musicians and they’re good entertainers. That answer was much too easy.

If you want to score goals and play in the NHL, watch Wayne Gretsky as much as you can. Simple, right? Somebody out there snickered “That’s not original.” Oh yeah, how many white kids from the suburbs do you know that play “original blues.” Albert King played your lick backwards and forwards twenty years ago. The key to originality is being able to expend musically on all the collective musical input you have absorbed over the years.

If you want to score goals like Gretsky then watch Gretsky. He probably watched Gordie Howe is his early days. If you want to be the next Pink Floyd don’t spend your time watching Flip and Blips at a local pub, watch the guys who have already made it. To get to the “Big League” you’ve got to think “Big League.” Combine solid musicianship with the right attitude and you’ve made your 1st step in the right direction.

2. DEVELOPING A STYLE (But can they play “Stairway to Heaven”?)

How much original material should out group play? The bar owners and our agent want us to play the Top 40 Hits. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, there are two types of musicians:
Type A) I’ve got to get a pay cheque ever week.
Type B) I want to do my own thing.
Between these two extremes is a better place to be.

The jobs that new bands get are largely a result of supply and demand. If an audience obviously doesn’t like an original song, then there is not much sense in playing it. I think the best way to go is to sneak orginals into your repetoire gradually. Triumph got started playing Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Orginals were added one by one. When I first saw Rush at the Gasworks years ago in Toronto, they played lots of covers. Now they are one of the most musically original and artistically unique groups in the world. If Rush had played “Tom Sawyer” at the Gasworks back then it probably wouldn’t have worked. An audience needs time to accept a group for their own music.

Don’t forget, mass exposure comes via the airwaves, and when you’ve reached that level of success, nobody outside of your home town will know that you didn’t start off playing 100 per cent original material. If you do start off playing 100 per cent original stuff, don’t expect too many jobs to begin with. If you start off playing 100 per cent Top 40 Hits, you can expect to wind up in The Hav-a-Nap Motel Lounge somewhere in Lower Dogpatch within six months. In summation, to be successful you must be original. You must achieve originality gradually. Always remember something isn’t good just because it’s original. Music is sometimes like premium Scotch whiskey, it takes twelve years to come of age.

(Heavy duty sweat for heavy duty gear)

Yeah, okay, enough preaching about music, but how do I get super-duper equipment?
1. Negotiate a loan from Dad.
2. Break you back doing jobs for awhile.
Once again, no easy answers.

Forget about “Backers.” Backers are called “Backers” because they will either:
1. Stab you in the back
2. Back out
Seriously, I do not believe in backers. They are not in the dictionary or in real life. Don’t go any further than Dad, the bank or the Musician’s Credit Union for loans. They are not loan sharks.

Good equipment is a necessity. I always found that the guys I played with that wouldn’t spend money on equipment always had excuses. In most cases they are the same guys that I described as Type A earlier. If you want to take a shot at the bigtime you have got to be willing to sweat it out. If that means two jobs and no beer money so that you can pay for thousands of dollars worth of keyboards, drums or P.A., then that’s what you do. It’s been described as Street Car Named Desire; if you are not prepared to push yourself to the limit, don’t bother to get on. Lower your ambitions and get a nice safe gig.

In TRIUMPH, we call it “Going for the Jugular.” We started the band with a Musician’ Credit Union loan and took almost no salary for a year. Virtually every cent went back into paying for gear except for our survival money. You’re the one that wants to be the rock star, nobody is forcing you, so if money is tough at first, grin and bear it. If you’re lucky the big payday is down the road.

Okay, okay I’ll mortgage my future. Now, what about gigs to pay for all this equipment?

(Dirty deeds done dirt cheap)

Personal managers are, in most cases, a necessity. TRIUMPH is a self-managed band, but this is a rare. I would only recommend this to groups where one or more members are experienced in some other business, i.e. a law student who dropped out, or a fellow who worked in his father’s business every summer for the last five years. How much should you pay? Let’s go to math class. Most managers work for around 25 per cent of the gross. Twenty-five per cent probably doesn’t sound like too much but how much is it really? Normally, bands’ expenses are about 50 per cent of what they earn; so let’s see how it works with a five piece band.

Week of January 1-7
Gross income from gigs……………………………………………….3500.00
Less Manager’s Commission@ 25% of gross……………………  875.00
Less Expenses @ 50% of gross …………………………………… 1750.00
What’s left over ……………………………………………….. 875.00 / 5 = $175.00

Hmmm. The manager gets $875.00 and the musicians only get $175.00. This is because the manager gets paid on the gross. The musicians are paid on what’s called “The short end of the stick.” My advice? Pay a manager based on the net, not the gross. I suggest this formula because 5 musicians + 1 manager = 6 people, each takes 1/6 of the net.

Week of January 1-7 Gross income from gigs…………… 3500.00
Less expenses at 50 per cent of gross ……………………. 1750.00
1750.00 / 6 = $291.00

Each person would get $291.00. This sounds like a better arrangement to me.

(Dirty deeds done dirt cheap)

Who should you get as a manager? Above all someone: (a) you trust (b) you think is smart – in that order.

 Lots of managers are good guys, some are crooks. Be suspicious of a manager who insists on handling all of the money himself. The band leader should co-sign cheques, at least in the beginning. If not, have the books looked at periodically by a chartered accountant (hopefully the bass player’s Uncle Fred is a CA).

The contract is important, GET A LAWYER (hopefully the guitar player’s Uncle Al is a lawyer). Get Uncle Al to write:
1. An escape clause (ie. one year with mutual options and one year options thereafter).
2. A money clause based on NET (ie. the illustration above).
3. A performance clause in lieu of #1 above (ie. if the band’s earnings do not double every year, the band has the right to terminate).

There are some very successful managers that probably would not sign the deal I’ve described above. Typically, this manager has another group or two that are very successful. Supermanager probably won’t settle for less than 20 -25 percent of the gross, either. In some cases, it may be worth it to sign away a big percentage to a manager like this rather than sign with a manager who is as unknown as your group. My suggestions for Uncle Al’s contract for this type of manager would include #3 above, plus:
#4. An escape clause that comes into effect if a record contract for worldwide (I stress the word “worldwide”) distribution of your records is not forthcoming within 1 year.
I would suggest Uncle Al lets an attorney who specializes in the music business review this contract as well, to avoid hidden “poison darts.”

The supermanager can probably get you on the road to success faster than a manager still operating on a local level. You know the old saying, “On the other hand, all big time managers were once small time managers and many managers are one hit wonders, just like some groups. This is one of a group’s most important decisions because it’s up to a manager to deal with booking agents, record companies, publishers, PR firms and so on.

 Don’t sign your life away – but sign with someone. A group with management is like a ship without a rudder.

(You’ll love this place; it’s only 500 miles north of Sudbury)

A booking agency is something your manager should line you up with. When evaluating a potential agent, two things are very important. First an agent must have a roster of groups that is substantial. Having 2 or 3 successful groups allows the agent to exercise a degree of clout with employers. This is important.

The second thing that’s important is that the agent believes in the group and will fight for the group. Many agents are so afraid of losing clients (employers) that they allow their bands to be abused or undersold. I have always maintained that the group is the client and a smart agent would be more concerned about maintaining his relationship with the group than with the employers. This is not to say that agents should be unfair to employers. On the contrary, agents must be as fair and as objective as possible. After all, business is a two way street.

However, commissions are paid by the group, not the employer, so their first allegiance must always be to the musicians. A good manager will keep a booking agency excited and is always hustling for more gigs and better gigs.

(Could you guys sounds a little more like Styx or Foreigner?)

The record company is another fundamental business consideration best dealt with by the manager. As I have previously mentioned, a manager must get you a recording contract for worldwide distribution or you should look for new management (unless you feel the problem is the band and not the manager – remember, the best saleman in the world can’t sell a lousy product).

What do you look for in a good record company? Excitement. A company must be truly excited about a group to properly promote their record. My first choice in record companies would be one of the big U.S. based labels. They have the big machine and the big budget to sell lots of records. However, many small labels have been successful as well. It’s easier to get lost in the shuffle on a big label. It’s the old story about being a big fish in a small pond or vice versa. This is something your manager must evaluate.

As far as contracts are concerned, I would suggest trying to neogotiate a performance guarantee with a small label to ensure worldwide distribution. At this stage it is important to be represented by a knowledgeable entertainment lawyer, as this contract is extremely important. Get Uncle Al to look it over as well. This would not be necessary with a major label.

Once you have records being released commercially, it’s up to your manager to police the record company and motivate their field staff. As far as making your own record is concerned (if your manager can’t secure a contact from a bona fide record company), this is a complete waste of time and money. Making demos for self improvement purposes is a good idea, but trying to buck the commercial record business and do it on your own is all but impossible.

Once you are making records, a producer is often necessary. Listen to other records that a producer has done to evaluate his skills and meet him in person before agreeing to do an album with him. Your manager should to others who have worked with him. Sometimes a producer can be the difference between a hit or a flop record. On the other hand, some bands prefer to self-produce and are successful at it. This is largely a matter of personal preference. Your manager will hopefully provide some guidance with his “partial ears” in this regard.

(Hey Man, Where’s the Heinekens?)

The one key to success in the rock n’ roll business (if there is a key) is don’t take yourself too seriously. I see some musicians with egos so large they need a roadie and a 14 foot truck just to move their swelled heads around. These guys inevitably alienate everybody from A to Z and end up blowing their career.

Just remember the words of the famous Greek philosopher and part-time band leader Ronnius Hakius who decreed, “Pride goeth before the fall.” The old saying “You’ll meet the same people on the way down that you met on the way up” is very accurate. Keep it in mind. Try not to blame others for you failure and be generous with back slaps when a success has been achieved. Remember that this is a very tough business to succeed in, and you chose it, so be prepared to put your nose to the grindstone.

When the music business gets me down I read a piece of prose by Ron Saul that hangs on my bedroom wall. I’d like to share it with you:
Press On. Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are Omnipotent.


When I first became an Executive Board Rep at the age of nineteen I had been a member of Local 149 for three years. In those three years I learned what all young members learn: the union is something to be afraid of. After being elected to the Board, I realized nothing could be further from the truth. The Late Secretary Gurney Titmarsh (whose ominous signature appeared on my member’s card) spent hours trying to enlighten a teenage greenhorn musician as did all the other board members and officers.

Being the youngest board member was not easy at the time, but it was some of the best training I ever received. At Local 419, the Board was really trying to communicate with the young rock and roll bands and deal with their problems. I had to resign in 1977 when my commitments with Triumph became too demanding but the musicians locals all across Canada are still working towards reaching the young members and playing on the same team. Hopefully this pamphlet is a small step in that direction.

Good Luck – Gil Moore


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