3 Tips For a More Successful Music Industry Negotiation - Careers in Music
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We negotiate all the time. We negotiate when we decide where to get lunch, and when we form a long-term management contract.

We negotiate over who should do the dishes, and then over how our publishing contract will distribute royalties. But to many of us, negotiation doesn’t seem like an important skill.

For a long time, I thought of negotiation as rude or manipulative. Why would I try to use tactics to get the best deal out of someone else? I’d rather just work out a fair deal as friends, or have someone else take care of the details for me. But I eventually realized my error. The art of negotiation is not about getting the best possible deal for yourself.

In most cases, negotiation is about forging an agreement that helps everyone win as much as possible. And that agreement is often less likely to happen if you try to treat the negotiation as a quick agreement between friends or you let someone else make the agreement for you.

Roger Fisher and William Ury are two of the most influential negotiators of this century. According to them, negotiation is simply about finding what each party wants the most and giving it to them.

When you meet with a venue about performing that night, you’re entering a negotiation. In an ideal world, you get paid, but here in Los Angeles that often doesn’t happen. The venue may want you to pay to play, and recoup on a percentage of ticket sales. They may not allow you to sell vinyl or merch. And they may not promote you at all, and will expect you to handle all marketing.

What started as a great opportunity has turned into a loss. But with some simple negotiation, you can turn this conversation around and find a solution that helps both parties get what they want.

1. View your discussion as a problem-solving challenge.

This tip has helped me the most in my own negotiations. Instead of viewing the other party as a friend, or as an enemy, I see both of us as partners in a challenge. The challenge is to figure out what will get both of us what we want, while strengthening our relationship at the same time. That’s the best possible outcome for a tough negotiation: get a fair deal and don’t burn bridges — build them.

The biggest obstacles to this kind of negotiation come from people fighting over positions, like haggling over a car with a used salesman.

They start with an unreasonably high price; you counter with an unreasonably low one. You both painfully advance, position by position, like a WW2 battlefield, towards a comfortable middle ground. But this type of negotiation misses the chance to find creative solutions that will work for both sides. It causes people to dig into their positions and resist change as much as possible. It creates a conflict of wills. The chances of an amicable agreement are low.

The better way is to approach the problem as a team. You are working together to find a fair solution that builds the relationship. That means uncovering the core motivations and limitations that make up each person’s position, and working to satisfy both sides. It means being open to suggestions and to change.

To get into the right mindset, you can use a few simple ideas:

  • Use words like “we”, instead of “I” and “you”
  • Stress points where you and the other party agree
  • Don’t be afraid to share information about why you want a certain item
  • Focus on the future: how would you act if this were a long-term relationship?

2. Understand each others’ motivations.

Understanding what the other party wants is not particularly important. What is vital is understanding why they want it. The hidden motivations and pressures are where you will find the problems you need to solve. Often, when it seems like the other person is being stubborn or hardheaded, it turns out they have a good reason. We aren’t always quick to realize that the people we negotiate with are, most of the time, looking for the same thing as us: a win for both sides.

The venue that doesn’t want to pay you may already be way under budget for the month, and cannot afford another loss. They might have restrictions over what kinds of promotions they can do for artists on social media. Uncovering these limitations can give you an opportunity to bring a creative solution. Perhaps you can film a series of 30-second teaser videos they’d love to share on social media, instead of the same bland promotional tweets.

By realizing the why behind specific demands you don’t want to accept, you can start to find ways around them.

One way to help uncover these motivations is to start off with small talk. That’s because small talk helps people relax and become more transparent. It also provides an opportunity for issues weighing on peoples’ minds to bubble up to the surface. A few minutes spent talking about that one time a band set up a nightmare merch stand at the venue may help you understand why they don’t want you to sell anything after your set.

In negotiation, they might just say, “No merchandise sales allowed.” By understanding why they are against merch sales, you can find an amicable solution.

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3. Use objective standards when there is conflict.

No matter how friendly your negotiation, no matter how profoundly you understand each others’ motivations, there will come a time when your interests conflict. You want the venue to promote you; they want you to handle it all yourself. Your manager wants 20%, you only want to give 15%.

What do you do?

The most common (but least effective) solution is to engage in a battle of wills. Force the issue, and a weak negotiator may cave in to your demands — but you will almost certainly damage your relationship. No longer is it a fair agreement arrived at together. Instead, you’ve strong-armed your way to victory. Giving in to the demands of the other party is an equally-bad alternative.

A concession will make you feel cheated, and the agreement is less likely to get completed. Pitting your will against theirs can only lead to an agreement if you back down or they do.

A better way to solve conflict is to rely on an objective standard wherever possible. Let’s return to the management example. You want to give your manager 15%, but they want to receive 20%. To help with this agreement, you could step away from the table for a moment and look at what’s standard in the industry.

Typically, a manager will take 15% of an artist’s gross, or if they’re an established manager working with a new act that will require a lot of up-front work, they may take 20%. You and your manager could refer to a book like Donald Passman’s Everything You Need to Know About the Music Industry and agree to use his recommendations for your agreement.

This helps remove egos and wills from the equation and refocus on what your objective standard of fairness should be. In turn, it becomes easier to reach an agreement that satisfies both sides.

An article can only get you so far on the path to becoming a better negotiator in music. To help you move forward, I’ve also collected some of the most influential books on negotiation which can help you improve your skills even more. But as you take a look at this list, remember that the only way to really improve is the same way you mastered your instrument or position — practice.

You can practice the tips I’ve written above in even the most simple and low-stakes of negotiation. This practice will help you prepare for when you do have a tough conversation around performance, finances, songwriting splits, writer credits, or any other of the dozens of other negotiations in music.

An article can only get you so far on the path to becoming a better negotiator in music. To help you move forward, I’ve also collected some of the most influential books on negotiation which can help you improve your skills even more. But as you take a look at this list, remember that the only way to really improve is the same way you mastered your instrument or position — practice.

You can practice the tips I’ve written above in even the most simple and low-stakes of negotiation. This practice will help you prepare for when you do have a tough conversation around performance, finances, songwriting splits, writer credits, or any other of the dozens of other negotiations in music.

Good luck!

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