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How a Hit Becomes a Hit

October 25, 1987|Robert Hilburn

SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROCK 'N' ROLL STAR? A warning: There's no sure way to the top, even with connections. Industry power players can only enhance and promote what you bring to them. If you don't have the talent, drive and vision, no manager, attorney or record label is going to make up for the deficiency.

Your first step should be finding a strong manager (normal charge: at least 15% of concert, publishing and record grosses), but be sure to let an attorney review the contract before you sign (an hourly rate of $200 or more).

The next step is the record company. A typical beginning deal with a major label is $150,000 for one album, with options on the part of the record company for seven more. Your starting royalty rate is about 12% of retail (about 85 cents an album). Don't, however, think that the advance is all yours. Most of it will go to recording costs, including the producer's fee.

You'll work at the label with an artists-and-repertoire representative (the more familiar term is talent scout) on creative decisions, including the choice of a producer. The producer's royalty can amount to 21 cents an album, with a guarantee of $20,000 to $100,000.

A video -- essential in rock because of MTV's importance in breaking new acts--will cost between $50,000 and $70,000, often charged to your "running account" at the record company. The company may also help underwrite a tour, which can easily cost $5,000 to $10,000 a week for a new act. Don't count on this support; most labels no longer subsidize tours the way they did a decade ago.

The company's publicity department will try to get you free exposure through newspaper, magazine, TV and radio interviews, but you may want a private, outside publicist if you can afford it or can talk the company into underwriting it (about $2,500 a month for a beginning band).

The key to getting to the public is radio, which makes the record company's promotion department one of your most important allies. Even with airplay, however, you're not guaranteed a hit or a living wage. Before you start collecting royalties from record sales, you've got to pay back the record-company expenses--which in the case outlined above could easily be $250,000. That means you may have to sell 300,000 records before you start collecting royalties--a figure few new bands achieve. If you break through--like, for instance, singer Bruce Hornsby, whose debut album sold 2 million copies--the money will pour in.

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