Derek Sivers

Entrepreneur, programmer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Show success before asking for help

From 1990 to 1992 I ran the New York archives at Warner/Chappell Music Publishing.

(The music publishing business gives a cash advance to a songwriter in return for owning half the income generated from their songs. The publisher is betting that the songs will earn at least that much, whether recorded by a famous artist or the songwriter themselves.)

One day, as I walked by someone's desk, I noticed she had accidently left out the balance sheet showing every songwriter signed to the New York office, their cash advance, and how much they had earned. I quickly took it to the Xerox machine, made a copy, and put it back.

That night, reading it on the subway home, I learned a great lesson by looking at a huge difference between two songwriters:

There was one writer who was wonderful - a publisher's dream. Her songs were great and easy to pitch to famous artists. She turned in a new song every week, professional and well-recorded. She was signed to Warner/Chappell because one of the managers there heard her and believed in her, even though she hadn't had any success yet. Her advance: $15,000.

The other writer was horrible. His songs were really bad metal that'd make Spinal Tap cringe. Poorly recorded, terribly performed, sent late, and on reel-to-reel tape that nobody used anymore. (I always had to dust off the reel-to-reel machine twice a year when his new demos would arrive.) But in the 80s he'd been in a band with a major rock star, and had 1/16th of a songwriting credit on one song that was on a record that sold over 20 million copies. His advance: $500,000.

The lesson I never forgot:

You have to make your own success first, before you ask the industry for help.

You have to show that you're going to be successful with-or-without their help. Show that you have momentum, and if they want to accelerate it or amplify it they can, but it will cost them to ride your coat-tails.

If you don't do this, then even in the best-case scenario, where someone at the company really believes in you, you'll have no negotiating leverage, and will get the worst deal possible.

If you're just starting out, don't ask the industry for help yet. Make something happen by yourself first, so you have a success story to tell and momentum to show.

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