There are a lot of people in the music business who want to help you reach your music goals - even people who make sacrifices themselves to work in music just because they love it. Unfortunately, to find these people, you have to navigate a minefield of people who see your dreams as their personal goldmine. Learn to spot the red flags of a rip off a mile away so you don't end up on the losing end of a bad deal.
Red Flag One - Paying for a Deal:
A manager, agent or PR company should never ask you to pay a fee upfront to represent you. That doesn't mean these people don't get paid - they do, either according to a set schedule arranged between you or on a per campaign basis, but you should never, ever hand over your money to someone who charges you a fee to "get on their books." If someone says they can "make you a star" if you just write them a big check, run the other way.
Red Flag Two - They Found You on MySpace:
Now, don't get me wrong - a lot of people have established legitimate connections via MySpace and other websites, but you should really consider these the exceptions and not the rule. You've seen those movies in which some small town kid heads to Hollywood with nothing but "a dollar and dream," and then someone rolls up to offer them a hot meal and a great way to make some cash? It never ends well, and in MySpace, you are that virtual kid. You should consider people who want to make a MySpace deal with you like that shady character until you have good proof otherwise.
Red Flag Three - You Can't Get Any Advice:
If someone comes at you with a legal contract but they don't want you to seek an outside opinion about what that contract means for you, be very concerned. Note that if someone arranges for you to talk to their lawyer, that's not impartial advice. Unless you all go to a lawyer together to work out a fair deal, you need your own legal reps. (If the other party doesn't have a lawyer involved and the contracts are very simple, one page docs, you don't have to run out and spend the money on one. If they do have one though, you should, too.)
Red Flag Four - Pay to Play:
You may not always get paid to play a gig, and you may end up out of pocket after you weigh up your travel costs, but that doesn't mean you should ever pay a promoter for a chance to take the stage. It's bad form (and illegal in many areas).
There are exceptions - for example, some bands "buy on" to major stadium/arena tours, in essence paying money for the chance to open for a top selling band. For smaller shows, if you're booking and promoting the show yourself, you may have to meet a bar minimum or pay a venue rental fee. However, you should never directly pay to play. And no, it doesn't matter how many clubs in your area operate under that shady procedure.
Red Flag Five - Bad Percentages:
There are many people who might get a cut of your earnings for their work for you, but you should never be handing out a larger percentage of your earnings to any one person than you are keeping yourself. Does that management deal give the manager 70% and you 30%? Don't sign.
Red Flag Six - You Can't Find Your Way Out of the Deal:
Options to renew contracts are a normal part of most deals - they are a safety net to prevent someone from putting in all of the hard work and someone else reaping all of the benefits. But if the options give the person you are making the deal with the power to renew your deal again and again AND the option to leave the deal at any time, while you just have to sit back and wait for them to decide, beware.
Red Fag Seven - It Just Doesn't Make Sense:
If someone guarantees you they can take you from playing music in your bedroom to a major label contract in a month, get their lottery numbers, because they are clearly the luckiest person in the world. (OK, unless they work for a major label, in which case you are pretty lucky yourself.) Having big goals and going for them is important, but in music slow and steady generally wins the race. You want to work with someone who believes you can make it all the way and tries to make it happen, but be wary of the person who thinks they can help you skip steps 1 - 280.
If you're unsure about a deal, don't suck it up and sign anyway - ask for help! Like I said, if the other party has a legal team behind them, you will need legal advice. If they don't, it can be as simple as asking another music friend, "hey, when you booked that show, did you..."
Don't Be Afraid to Say No (or Slow Down):
If things are moving a little too fast for you, don't be afraid to say you need to take a breather and think about things before you go ahead with a deal. If someone refuses to work with you for this reason, then you know you just dodged a bullet. Likewise, if you don't like the way something is going, you can say "no" - doing so will not impact your ability to work with quality people in the future.
Don't Underestimate How Important It Is:
Every single band has a nightmare story of getting the shaft on a deal, and it is almost always the most seemingly insignificant, innocuous deal that ends up being the problem. The deals you make when you hardly have anything going on can come back and bite you in a big way if you make it, so treat every deal as if you know you are going to sell millions of records some day.
I Know They're Your Friends, But...:
This is one is a life's mission of sorts with me - if I had to list the number of friendships I know that have been destroyed by music related "deals" gone wrong, we'd be here for many days. Music lends itself to working with friends, which is fab. But when you are working with your friends - assuming you want to STAY friends - make sure you are on the same page on every point. The easiest way? Write something down. I know, I know - it won't happen to you and your friends, right? Ha! Please call me to place your bets. Treat your deals with friends with the most caution of all.