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Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
Nik Frost is just inches away from the ever-elusive record deal that can make him a household name and maybe provide him with a house on the beach. Though he’s currently in the catbird seat fielding offers from competing record companies, this affair didn’t happen overnight. Frost and his suitors are courting now, but there was a lot of behind-the-scenes participation by other people that helped bring this Hollywood dog-and-pony show to its present stage. As you will see, the word participation plays a rather large role in this story.
The best shot an artist has at making it is to convince a benefactor, or a series of them, that he’s worth investing in, and, hopefully, they can then enter into what is known as a development deal. The different kinds of deals vary widely, and whether they’re initiated by a producer, A&R man, manager or label, they can often lead to long, happy, secure careers, or miserable, contentious relationships that waste years in litigation. Some deals are done on napkins, some are done on legal paper, while others might be written in blood; whatever the case, it’s about an individual party’s agreement to help finance the evolution of an artist in the hope that he/she will be the new sensation.
According to Glenn Davis of Nik Frost’s legal team, Myman Abell Fineman Greenspan & Light, development deals can be as simple as they sound in concept, but when put on paper can be extremely lengthy documents. “These are the types of deals,” he says, “where you can sit in a class for three hours, read textbooks for five, and you still might not understand all the information.”
The everyday music consumer might not have a clue about what “points” or “recovering costs” are, and, as in the motion-picture industry, there’s a lot of legal jargon, but here’s a basic outline of the most common deals:
The Producer or A&R
Whether it’s an agreement made with a producer or an A&R rep, the function of a development deal remains the same: The goal is to put the artist in the studio, produce a demo that’s slick enough to present to a record company, and then make sure that the artist is ready to “showcase” his wares for solicited label people. This process might require a lot of time and money, as an artist may need a rehearsal space, equipment, studio time and, in many cases, little items like cell phones. If the producer has a studio, great; otherwise that has to be paid for, and these costs will all add up and be recouped when the artist is successfully “shopped” to a label.
The A&R (Artists & Repertoire) rep works for a label, and there are non-label freelancers who work in a similar capacity, which is to bring artists and labels together. No matter who laid out the cash, there are myriad ways that the producer receives what are known as “recovering costs.” There are producer royalties (for demo tracks that end up on the finished product), shares of advances (from the label) and an “override royalty” (sharing the royalties for an album or two). The producer would also “participate” (get a cut) as the overseer of the recording, and receive additional moneys per track. The freelance rep is often paid additional fees by the record company just for hooking it all up.
Though it’s more common with the boy-band phenomenon, there are instances when a label will bankroll the entire project, from soup to nuts. “There are labels out there who will put an artist in the studio on a handshake, just to have the first opportunity,” says Davis, “but there are others who will require what they call ‘matching rights.’ What this means is that, if the label puts you in the studio and finances your demo, only for you to be courted by another label, they have the right to match whatever deal you could get just to keep you in-house.”
While having a label believe in you from the start sounds wonderful, there are cases where the music machine is like a bad episode of Fantasy Island, leaving the artist begging to go home, only he can’t go home because touring is an essential way to earn back some of the money he’s in for. There is also that horrible situation where the artist believes he’s getting “paid,” only to figure out that three square meals and a little per-diem money isn’t shit when (as Kool Keith warned) “you got your manager’s name on your credit card” and ends up coming home not only with less than he would have earned working at 7-Eleven but in even more debt, which raises the stakes and puts more pressure on the next album. For all intents and purposes, the label becomes The Man, and you become its bitch.
MEET NIK FROST:
How the industry handles you as an artist might be determined by how you have used the industry. Nik Frost didn’t wait for a Svengali of Lou Pearlman proportions to manipulate his good looks and strong voice and throw him in boy-band school; he was out creating his own markets with cutting-edge artists the world over. Shying away from typical pop music and foot-sleeping “alterna-rock,” the L.A.-born singer/multi-instrumentalist fled to Europe and immediately found work with producer Malcolm McLaren, and signed his own deal with the president of Warner Bros. Europe. Under this agreement, Frost was free to work with McLaren in his electronic hip-hop project ON. He went on to collaborate in several other electronic projects, ranging from trip-hop to electro and drum ’n’ bass. Frost’s growing résumé included vocal and instrumental work with Ninja Tune’s Wagon Christ and Coldcut, and singing on highly successful projects with Sly & Robbie, Air Liquide and Reis$$dorf Force.