‘Independents: The Industry Cowboys’ featured insights from Walter Williams, Sr.

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Music has and will always be like the oxygen in to the veins society. It is permanently embedded into our DNA… a way for ancestors to carry tradition into the future. It is a way to tell their story. It is a notepad for culture. Music is here to stay. It is detrimental to many lives. It is food to the soul.

As saturated as markets have become, being an independent artist isn’t such a bad thing. Sure, being independent may or may not lead to success. It may or may not lead to fame. And, it definitely does not guarantee that you will ever make more money than you would working minimum wage somewhere. But, the ability to be YOU through YOUR own and benefit 100 percent from it… that is priceless.

As an independent, you will encounter sacrifice, empty pockets, lack of fulfilling relationships and the need to over-prove yourself to onlookers, just to show your dedication and seriousness to “the game.” It is a tough game, but it is one that you definitely can win. It is a game that will change lives… many lives for the better. It is a dirty game, and you need to stay armed… dangerous… and ready to jump at every opportunity before you lose every opportunity. This is a game that one slip-up can have you banned for life… blackballed. It is a game that very few actually play — in comparison to the many that aren’t tough enough to make it past the pregame draft. It is a game to be won or lost at any cause. This game becomes your life!

If you haven’t noticed already, “It’s a small world after all,” and being involved in “The Industry” takes more than just talent for one to find success. If you don’t “know somebody that knows somebody that knows you,” you might never get to the next phase in your career. This is a business. This is also a business that is run by many who have come from an “alternative lifestyle” and that has been or is also involved in corrupt business practices and mirror this in their business ethics. There are also many involved in this business that are just great business people and have armed themselves against those who have taken advantage of them in the past, have wasted their time and/or just don’t stand for “BS.”

For many that have no connections in this industry, it is often hard for them to get past the sensationalism that they have industry eyes looking their direction or that they have many fans in the community. They think that they have made it already and do not realize that the game hasn’t even begun yet. Many of these people rely on “stiffing the next man” for free or discounted services because they feel entitled or just can’t afford them. This is where they have already made a mistake. With business comes investment. With good business comes recognition. Besides, that graphic designer you tried to con last week, her godfather is the head of one of the largest record labels in the United States… the one that you have been trying to become part of.

For those artists who have a good work ethic, meaning you work hard to invest in your own craft and then work extremely hard to be the best artist possible, doing everything you need to do and showing a little result, this article is for you.

And, for those who are too lazy to support your own career, always making excuses for yourself — the reasons you don’t support your own career, the reasons you need something “cheaper” than its value, the reasons you can’t take time to write e-mails to the right people or turn in deliverables when asked and still want to give your “promoters” less than 10% of what they get you, when they do all the work for you, this article is definitely NOT for YOU. You wouldn’t last in this business. These artists are already labeled “bad business” and readily avoided.

As previously mentioned, one barrier to entry in the entertainment business is that there are some really awesome, talented and dedicated artists with no connections to the “big guys” and definitely not to the legends. These type of people contribute to your knowledge of the unwritten. They elaborate on the process, and they become mentors. Sometimes they become the key to your success. Other times, they simply exist as a support system and their lessons to you are priceless.

Friendship, motivation and inspiration are some of the most valuable gifts you will find in this industry and without them, some artists never would have made it! For those of you who always wanted some insight on the industry, directly from a legend, you’re in for a treat. AXS.com has spoken with legendary The O’Jays, Walter Williams, Sr., on what it takes to endure in the industry, as well as some pointers that may help you find your “in…” After all, “One song,” according to him, “ can change your whole career!” With multiple platinum selling albums, sold out shows, induction into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and multiple awards, we should definitely listen to what he has to say.

“Independents are the new industry cowboys. Many labels are closing doors. The way of today’s industry is shifting.” This is what Mr. Walter Williams, Sr. opened with when asked his stance on Independent Artists. He went on to explain the industry and that one must study both ends of the spectrum to understand what works best for them, as individuals, and towards reaching their goals. “Majors offer larger amounts of money upfront,” he goes on to explain that this can be invested into making a project happen through more resources. “Independents need to be sure they have good management and a distribution team. Then, it will all work.”

While artists may receive less per album, they may sell more albums and have more opportunities, based on the backing of Major Label connections and reputation. Likewise, artists who have no name for themselves yet, may have to give up more of their own creative freedom. And, if they don’t understand the industry, they may be taken advantage of. The hybrid to this connection may be an independent distribution deal under a major label. And even with those, one must be careful!

“Never trust anyone. Did you hear me? This is the first law in this business… NEVER TRUST ANYONE! Reduce to written agreements, no matter who it is, and make sure that everyone signs it,” warns Mr. Williams. If you know Walter’s past with the O’Jays, you might be able to paint a clearer picture of this from the vantage point of a new and emerging artist. The O’Jays originally wrote their own music, they knew nothing about publishing deals and were often taken advantage of by those unaffiliated with the projects. These people claimed to be co-writers while filing for copyrights and publishing, often selling writes and taking all royalties and licensing for the music. Even their own manager that helped get them their start and indirectly named them tried to sue them at one point!

“Be aware of publishing. This is writing and production, as well as artist royalties.” If you are an artist and want to make a nice income from royalties, aggregation could be something to look into. “Anyway to expose your material and support your earning is a good thing. Also, if you work with an artist, make sure you are making a percentage of ALL deals being made.” This definitely makes sense and is more than fair. After all, you are earning them income by providing your services. This also goes back to Walter’s first law: “Never trust anyone,” because when money is on the table you are faced with “saturation and greed.” “Honestly, your first check should be no less than $20,000 and become $500,000 through investment. Good music lasts a lifetime.”

People will try to control your life. Make sure you make well-educated decisions, base on your personal goals and stay true to your morals and ethics. Make sure any transaction is a formal business transaction. This goes for live shows, as much as it does for recording contracts.

“It’s customer service the whole way through. You just have to talk to them and care.” Walter loves his audiences.They push him to do better. They push him to do a better show each and every time. After five decades, they still pack stadiums and sell out shows… And, many of those fans don’t realize that all the dancing and singing he does is harder than it looks. Walter suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. But, he doesn’t let it get him down.

“You have to feed off of their energy [his audiences]. If they’re not feeling it, talk to them. See what you can do to give them a good show.” Live shows will influence your career and future recordings. “Get to know what your audience wants from you. Get more work.” What you might think sounds good might not sound as good from you, as something else that your audiences flock to. Each crowd will be different. In the case of The O’Jays, he caters to crowds of three generations. His learned knowledge says to: “Cater to your crowd. And, as they say ‘Back your wax.’”

Believe it or not, a lot of The O’Jays career came due to the success of their live shows. Other than their work with the legendary production team, Gamble & Huff, The O’Jays have “Eddie and Walter” and “Cholly Atkins” to thank for their ongoing success over the years. See, the live shows, full of complex dance moves by the amazing Cholly Atkins, is what gave them an “ear to the street” if you will. They were able to duplicate the audience tastes with new and original material. This, in turn, sold more albums and kept audiences interested.

As “life unfolds and a career develops, you can make it work. Start networking and become familiar with larger organizations that control the majority of successful venues. Find your ‘in’ to big touring circuits, and never feel guilty. Closed mouths never get fed. Talent must take the chance if good enough. There is a timeslot to get in that door. If too much time passes, you may never get in. Don’t be scared to give it a shot. Don’t be afraid to fail.”

In continuing his statement on life unfolding and a career developing, he notes that it is wide to “Surround yourself with people you can trust. Never trust anyone. But, continuously associate yourself with those who seem to have your best interests in mind and can instruct you properly — not just for gain for themselves, but for you as well. . Continuously research who they are and what they are doing. They can give you feedback and whether or not you are going where you want to go. They can help you do what you need to do. Remember: ‘Great relationships don’t cramp your style.”

If you are just getting your material together and ready to attack major markets, when meeting with industry executives and decision makers, “have original music and performance prepared. Be prepared to give them a show. Have a cleared schedule. Don’t be shy. Have material ready.”

When the O’Jays first stepped onto the scene, they met with Sid Nathan of King records. Because they had prepared an actual “in-office show,” Sid Nathan gave them a deal RIGHT THERE, RIGHT THEN. Within 24 hours, they had their first album recorded, utilizing in-house producers and musicians, which were summoned immediately after seeing the boys performance! Original material will allow you to have more creative control over a project, having it protected will ensure no theft occurs in such a fast “transaction.”

New or existing artists, “learn to cover and protect yourself. While growing WITH the business, negotiate writing and production leverage. Power your own accomplishments toward your personal goals. Take the lead and fight for the power. It will simply not be offered to you. If you’re talented, insure yourself.”

“Learn all you can learn pertaining to what you do and to what your talent is. Then, learn to back it up. Learn all you can learn about the business. That will enable you to go as far as you can go in this business. Once again, surround yourself with people that give you the proper advice and that can help you hold your situation together. And, certainly, if you have a partner in a group, make sure to have a mediator that holds the group neutral. It will keep the group together.”

Walter emphasises how important it is to have a great sound and a even more wonderful show, but he also advises against one thing. When we have our entourages, when we have our groupies and friends constantly following us on the road, whereas we are paying their way… When we have more group or band members than what we need… We must realize that, again, yes, people will try to control our lives. But, most importantly, “It takes a lot of hit records to make a lot of money to feed the family and to further make a lot of money… Keep in mind, we have expenses versus percentages.

“The band, equipment and road management comes with a price. Most times, a band will consist of seven people! That isn’t even including the soundman or group members, themselves. It can be costly. Be prepared and plan for only the most important elements of your live show to be there. People will run their mouths, but you have to run your business.” That being said, it is most advisory that if they are not part of your live show, just leave them at home. As bad as it sounds and as many feelings as you hurt, keep in mind that they are hurting your investment dollars, living expenses and abilities. As we have demonstrated, the live show is one of the most important elements to your career. It leads to fans, feedback, customer service, sales, etc.

While we sat with Walter for hours upon hours having very engaging and wonderful conversation about the industry, AXS has decided to give you just a few gems that will help you on your way. While every artist and every situation is different, it is always great to have a starting ground. It is suggested to study the route of independent artists, major artists in their beginnings and new/emerging artists. This is also only the begining. You must go further and study the businesses you will be interacting with, utilizing and the resources that can get you where you need to be. In the meantime, subscribe for updated information on the industry, “being independent” and important movers and shakers in the game.

Walter is a very multi-talented, well-spoken, intelligent and caring soul. He gives us this advice from his own experience and with love. If you would like to know more about Walter’s story, click here. It’s definitely a great one!

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