Book Review: All You Need To Know About the Music Business: 6th Edition by Donald S. Passman

A classic of music industry literature, this title has been a must-have for aspiring and working music industry pros since it first appeared in 1991. But with all the new ways music is being made, discovered, and acquired, Donald S. Passman, a practicing music attorney for 30 years, has, not surprisingly, updated the book a number of times. This new edition retains his knack for explaining tricky legal and financial concepts in plain English. Its near-encyclopedic coverage of the music business’s many aspects makes it as valuable as ever, while a goofy sense of humor helps lighten up the proceedings.

Notable among the book’s virtues, the author takes pains to explain both sides of contractual matters that commonly need to be worked out among artists, songwriters, record labels, merchandisers, managers, agents, movie producers and others. Rather than just “Here’s what you should ask for,” Passman also describes the argument against the artist’s position and what he or she should realistically expect based on level of accomplishment (starting-out, midlevel, or superstar).

Passman is a practicing attorney who works with major clients, like R.E.M. and Janet Jackson. Reading through the long section about record deals, the typical musician could be forgiven for wondering whether the book might have been better shelved in the fantasy aisle. The percentage of aspiring musical artists who will ever need the bulk of Passman’s advice in this section is minuscule.

The sections on publishing, touring, and TV and film, however, contain much important information about areas in which the lowly beginner is most likely already working (or thinking seriously about). Many of the issues covered, like what kinds of arrangements band members should make among themselves, do need to be thought out at the beginning, before any major success occurs, even if the chances of that success are low. Anyone making a serious go at a music career will find valuable and necessary information and advice in at least some sections of this book.

Unlike most people I know in the music industry, Passman doesn’t think it’s broken. Noting its history of ups and downs, he believes big music’s current woes are just another downturn, a period of adjustment to new technologies. Such optimism is so unusual today as to seem almost wacky. One suspects that Passman’s own success as an entertainment attorney has stranded him in the rarefied atmosphere of the very top, where artists still sign (or dream of signing) major deals. Other than some rappers, I don’t know any artists who still think signing a major label deal is a good thing (though there must be some out there).

Passman does explain how such deals have changed in recent years, what the trends are, what realistic numbers are for deals with independent labels as well as majors, and so on. He covers current issues like digital downloads, and he gets all the way down to the nitty-gritty of t-shirt sales and other practical matters that come up as artists move up (or sideways). Since in its details the book remains realistic, I recommend it for anyone who wants to climb on the big scary jungle gym of the music business at any level. Not only artists – also pure songwriters, managers, promoters, lawyers, and anyone who aspires to those positions – will benefit. Read through the part about the label deals to learn how things used to be. Read through the rest, substituting – if you’re an artist – “you” for “your label,” and Passman’s advice and inside information remain invaluable.