Answers For Greater Understanding Of How this Musical Life Continues On (And How You Play A Part)

Posted on October 30, 2005 by Sara Hickman. | 9 Comments

You really should read this all the way to the end.


Because…I often get asked questions in relation to radio, distribution, publishing, licensing, and anything else you can think of that has to do with the record (now cd soon download only) industry. For reasons of sanity, I will continue to refer to it as the record (or recording) industry until further notice.

Here’s the deal.

Major labels: You get discovered. You get signed. You receive what is called an “advance.” If you are smart, and you have wise counsel, you will sock that money away because as you see later on in this description, you will need that money to live on.

You go into a studio, make a record, the label (in most cases) decides the following: which song (or songs) will be the single, your look (photographs, marketing), which radio stations to promote to, how long to promote. The publicity department sets up television/radio/internet interviews. Your manager/booking agent sets up touring. The label owns your recording in perpetuity…that means forever. You get paid after the label is reimbursed all their costs (your advance, recording costs, which includes producer fees, studio fees, musician fees, mastering and replication fees, costs for video (if you get a video), tour support (which can get expensive if you aren’t careful), etc…)

So, to make it easy, if a label spends $250,000 on your album (which would be unheard of nowadays, but let’s pretend), they would pay themselves the full amount of what they make after the stores/online sites take their cut. So, to round it off to an easy number, let’s say after the distributor takes $2, that leaves the label with $5.50, because they sell it around $7.50. (Unless they are distributing themselves, an entirely different story). So, now, the artist goes out to perform on tour and radio and tv and chats on their blog and has their website current and works their tushie off, and the label is pushing the record, let’s say that artist sells 25,000 units. Multiply 25,000 times $5.50, and that equals $137,500. The label is still short $112,500. And the only way the artist starts to see money is AFTER the label has “recouped”, as they say, their investment.

So, you would think that the label is recouping out of those aforementioned sales, like I made it seem. No, the label recoups off of the ARTIST’S promised royalty monies, which is anywhere between .80 (new artist royaties) and 1.10 (Madonna royalties) PER CD sale. So if this is a new artist, you would have to sell 312,500 units BEFORE they start to see a dime, literally. Meanwhile, the label has now made $1,718,750 before the artist makes their first .80 on the sale of the 312,501 album.

This all sounds easy to some people. “Oh, I could sell 312,501 cds!” or “If I had a label, it would help out so much!” Yes, having a label behind you can be glorious, with the right people and the right timing; or not. I know some really, REALLY big names that you know who have only sold 4,000 cds. It isn’t hard to find out what people are selling these days….(you’ll find out how if you keep reading on….)

The music industry is going through hard times. Nowadays, it is easier for the consumer to download a song than to plop down $16.99 for a cd.

At another point I will discuss what artists (I should say the songwriter) receive out of that .99 cents you just paid.

Ok, so indie labels. The same concept as the above major label except smaller monies doled out. You would think the law of averages would swing in favor of an artist on a smaller label, which can be true. If an indie label artist has a hit on radio, and sells, say, 50,000 copies of a cd, that would be a big, big deal for an indie label. They would recoup their costs, and the artist would see some monies themselves.

Then, there are the independents. Ani di Franco being the most notable and successful. And she doesn’t even get hardly any radio play. But she has toured long and hard and relied on the success of her live shows to make great money and sell tons of cds. Word of mouth and college radio have been her best friends.

So, I am independent. I have been so since I started creating children’s music. “Faithful Heart” was my first adult release on Sleeveless, my label.

What does this mean? This means I pay my own way. I pay for the cds. I pay for any publicity you might read about me. I figured out ways to take care of my family when I stopped touring (like singing on commercials, playing family/children’s shows, still performing around Texas, selling cds on line…) I have investors who believe in me and want to see my music shine….

And, now, I have this album, “Motherlode”. A new adult album with two cds. In the industry, a double cd is considered suicide because unless you’re Barbara Streisand or Melissa Ethridge or some gianormous name, in a time when record sales are at their all time low, who would dare put out a double disc set, especially by a 42 year old mom with two kids?

Well, I am going for it. I am working feverishly here at home with my assistant, Teresa, and figuring out how I will come back out into this crazy world and tour again. I am asking around and trying to find a booking agent. How do booking agents decide who to take on? By record sales. They look at how many records an artist has sold through a company called Soundscan, which tallies the numbers you read in Billboard magazine’s Top 100 charts. You can see where this leaves me.

A touring agent is important because they help you book a tour, but also represent you in an industry that is swamped. A booking agent could get me a slot as an opening act for, say, Neil Young, who also has a new album out, just by picking up the phone and saying, “Mr. Booking Agent calling on behalf of Sara Hickman, here…” and whoosh, you’re in cuz that dude has connnections. Worse case scenario, Teresa and I will book the entire tour ourselves, but remember…we’re two women. Not an entire agency. So, if you see me at a show and I’m smiling but lookin’ a little haggard, slap me on the back (gently), and say, “My God, you’re one tough cookie, sis.” Oh, and don’t forget to say, “Great show, tonight. Yowza! You blew my socks off!” Then put your socks back on.

Then, I need an independent publicist. I am working on that, too. I think this will definately happen; I have a lot of faith and have gotten some good feedback here, so this is just a matter of time.

And, lastly, I have to sell the cds. Distribution is set up, already, I have that ground work covered. However, when I put cds in stores, that is a slow mammoth. It is like sending your child on an exchange program: you won’t see them for a year, and you hope the results will be astounding. That’s how it is with cds you put in stores: I won’t get paid for awhile, and that is merch I could be selling from the stage (immediate recoup) or online (some sites pay weekly, some pay monthly, but that is money you can count on.) Nothing exasperates me more than having someone come up to me and say, “I couldn’t find you in the store.” To explain it all would be ridiculous, and, in essence, it makes me feel like I’ve let someone down. I’m not making 50,000 cds to sell. I’ll start out pressing up 5000, and hope to sell the 4500 that are for sale (I use the first 500 for press, for tv, for charity, you name it…those are the freebies, but I have still had to pay for them all, you see.) And most distributors are going to want quite a lot of your product to place around the U.S., 1000 to start with, so now I have 3500 cds to sell and pay back my investors and myself so I can support my family. (But, remember: I will be paying for publicity, for a booking agent (they take anywhere from 10% to 15%), the band, travel expenses, my office assistant’s time, phone, fax, new socks….)

And I have you. I have you who ask, “When will we hear a new cd?” and “When will you come to Tulsa?” and “How can I get you to play at Club Passim?”

And, so, here’s your chance. This is your chance to really get this moment electrified. Visit my site and see where I’m playing and come out and support my music. When you show up at a show or buy my cds, that keeps the whole wheel turning. When you tell five of your friends and they tell five of their friends, this whole thing should work.

My committment to you is to make a great record and my dependence on you is that you will show up at the prom. You’re my date. I can’t dance without you all.

I will always try to answer questions or tell you whatever I can about how this process works. I will always be on panels trying to encourage other artists/songwriters because I believe in dreams. I believe we all have the right to express ourselves and share that form of unique expression. I will continue to be active in this format, and stay after shows to talk with each of you, and draw pictures for kids at my kids shows because I love what I do. I really do.

And I need to see you in here. When there is any activity in here, it makes my heart happy. But aren’t there more than five regulars? Are there more of you out there? Are there only five people who will be buying “Motherlode” or will I have to give all 4500 copies away as coasters next Christmas? Tell me that isn’t so! OH, I’m going to faint…I can..hardly…..breathe…..must…..crawl… vent…….for…….oxygen……passing……out…….lack……of……huma….n……………gasp………….gurgle………………….

(Ms. Hickman cannot currently come to the keyboard; she is lying on the floor, passed out in her sunflower robe, awaiting assistance from the world of reassurance……)

9 responses to “Answers For Greater Understanding Of How this Musical Life Continues On (And How You Play A Part)”

  1. Bob Martin says:

    Sara . . .

    I am a relatively recent fan. I first saw you at the Plano Ballon Festival where you blew me away with your singing, playing, dancing and relating to the children in front of you.

    I saw you a few months ago play at Linda Silas and Tom Noe’s House Concert in Wylie. You were incredible. I bought a few of your CDs.

    Your Big Kid album is a favorite. I am buying a number of them for grandkids and for a couple of preschools around Plano. I play the album at least half of the mornings when I am getting ready for work. My favorite on it is “Cantelope”. It always puts a smile on my face (where else?) and gets me ready for work.

    What I really like is that most of the songs on Big Kid are very singable. I wish that you had an album similar for adults.

    I also enjoyed your writing regarding what it takes for you to put out a CD and the business side of your endeavors.

    Thank you for your music, your words and for just being.

    Bob Martin

  2. David says:

    ZenLaLa is new to me but you are not… Posting on any blog is even newer (I’m shy). Just wanted to chime in (b/c you sorta asked) & remind you I (& many of us) am out here (but I know you know). So, b/c of your encouragement & your break-down of information — not just about the industry & how that works (or doesn’t) — but in general (about life) — thought I’d ante up that it’s all worthwhile to me & I do share of you often & partake of you as much as I can in any/all ways possible. I love how much you are out there & how much energy you have (even though you are tired/always working/have insomnia). I’ve appreciated everything you’ve done & encouraged & I know we all (including those more shy than I) have been inspired by your sharing… Keep on Keepin’ On Soul Sister!
    – your friend in DC db

  3. Hi Sara!

    I’ll be sitting right in front, cheering you on, in Dallas at the Granada Theater on November 20.
    I can’t wait to hear you with your new band!
    I just listened to “Let Go” for the bizzilionth time!!!! It’s a great song for healing what needs to be healed. Sara, just remember those famous words from Aunti Mame: “YOU GO GIRL!”

  4. sean says:


    I have been a fan for 20 years since I lived in Dallas in the early 80’s – i think I personally gave equal scary people to about 20 of my friends as Xmas presents – Hell, I even turned my conservative log cabin republican partner onto you – he may not love your politics but he loves your music

    Plan to fly in for your show at the Granada and definitely want to hit the “Motherlode”

  5. Meredith says:

    We found you and your music at the local library. We started with the Toddler cd and my son loved it so much it became a staple in the car. So we bought it and now it rides with us everywhere we go. Then we checked out the Baby cd and my 2 year old decided he needed to keep it in his room to sing him to sleep. You guessed it, we bought that one too. Now at nap and bedtime he says, “Mama, I need Hush Little Baby. You can go now.”

    I found your blog while searching online to see where you will be playing in town and feel the need to comment here. Your cd’s are on heavy checkout rotation at the Will Hampton library and I know of other people who are buying them after their child finds he or she cannot live without them!

    So we’ll be all over a double disk. It won’t matter to my son that it’s meant for adults; he’ll hardly notice I’m sure.

    Thank you for your beautiful music!

  6. Michele says:

    Hi Sara…hooray for a new cd!!! Please come to Houston for a children’s show. I have loved your music since Equal Scary People, and my daughter and I both love the kid’s cd’s. Thanks for staying with the music and sharing it with us.

  7. Jim and I are still here, Sara. : )
    We always will be. And we’ll buy TONS of your new CD!!!! We miss you. Hopefully you’ll be able to come to St. Louis soon. If not, I definately understand now!!!

  8. Howdy, Sara! I’m a Dallas native who used to follow you all around town. I think I played your Equal Scary People cassette until it was dust. You have an amazing talent and I visit your blog weekly. I loved your music and your disarming charm in the late 80s and I’ve loved discovering your new music and your soul, nearly twenty years later. Consider this a pledge to do my part to spread the word around about you up here in the Washington, DC area.

  9. Margo & Judy says:

    We are still here too, Sara! We will buy your double cd! We will travel to see your show! Golly, you can even have a concert at our house if you can’t find an agent to book you in Indiana! Hang in there….breathe!…

Upcoming Shows

Laramore House Concert
Murphy, Texas
October 22, 8:00pm
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Songbird Live!
Cleburne, TX
November 12, 7:30pm
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The Backstage at El Mercado
Austin, Texas
December 3, 8pm
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Open Door Coffeehouse
Arlington, TX
January 14, 7:00pm
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