Several years ago, I started producing music for an electronic project called Weakling. It reached a small level of success but bureaucracy and bad decisions turned it from a personal, creative outlet into an unfulfilling, unpaid job. I thought I’d take a break from writing about design to reflect on what happened and how I naively navigated through the music business.
My first foray into music production was writing songs on my parents’ Farfisa Super Bravo analog organ as a kid. I’d spend hours in the granny flat behind our house combining the sounds of the cheesy synth with the built-in drum machine patterns. I recorded some songs by holding a tape deck next to the synth speaker, but thankfully none of these recordings are around today.
When I was a teenager, I bought an acoustic guitar from a pawn broker with the little money I’d saved and started taking music lessons at school. My parents were supportive of my interest in music, even though they weren’t musicians themselves.
My school music tutor was really enthusiastic and encouraged me to join bands and jam with friends. I spent a lot of my time in school listening to music, learning to play instruments, and programming primitive music on my secondhand Windows PC. Music, art, and programming were my favourite pastimes as a shy, introverted teenager.
A few years after graduating from school, I was working at a design agency and began seriously experimenting with electronic music production using digital audio workstations. After recording enough material to fill a debut EP, my solo work needed a name. The title of the project came to me at the gym as I self-consciously lifted weights next to more apt lifters while listening to the Aphex Twin track ‘To Cure A Weakling Child’.
I launched the project and began regularly DJing live at art shows, house parties, clubs and supported national touring artists. I slowly built a small name around the region through hard work, self-promotion, and consistent gigging. Although music was just a hobby while I worked as a designer, I made enough money from live shows, digital downloads, and physical record sales to inject back into the project and upgrade my music gear.
I’ve played and written music for most of my life and dabbled in other creative things like design since I was a kid. The visual design and identity of my music project was just as important as the music itself. Weakling was not only the name of the project but a pseudonym I made for all the art I made. I wanted to use my project to amalgamate my love of illustration, animation, minimalist design, technology, and electronic music.
Shortly after my first release, Triple J featured the lead single ‘Berkshire Hunt’ on both their Unearthed and mainstream radio channels to my total surprise. Support from the largest youth broadcaster in Australia was the push I needed to take my music project seriously. I invested the next few years into producing a huge catalogue of sounds, delving deep into future beats, electronica, house, and techno. Most of the singles I sent to Triple J were given some airtime on the station.
I released ‘Be Jealous’, a deep house single that received support from Triple J in Australia, but also XFM in the United Kingdom and Rinse FM throughout Europe. ABC TV even interviewed me for a feature short about producing electronic music. A friend then recommended I hire a professional freelance publicist to help reach the right people in the industry so any success should really be attributed to him.
One of the industry people it reached was the A&R manager of a seemingly small indie dance music label. They asked me to submit unreleased demos for their consideration. I complied and sent them a few tracks. They liked them. They asked me to send more demos. I sent more unpolished tracks and they liked these ones as well. They asked for more demos but I told them I’d need more time to produce.
After months of demos flying back and forth, the indie label finally sent me a contract for a development deal that would help build my profile and release five singles with distribution across the world coupled with professional, broadcast-friendly audio mastering. It felt unbelievable, I thought something was happening with my small-time bedroom project. I read through the contract and the terms of the deal were outlined in painstaking detail.
Further to my surprise, the indie label I thought I was dealing with was actually a sub-label of a gigantic, mainstream powerhouse in electronic music. My publicist advised I hire an entertainment lawyer to sweat over the fineprint of the deal. The lawyer I hired was honest and helpful however the final decision to sign was mine.
Overwhelmed by the interest from the label, I overlooked major details in the contract. They say hindsight is 20/20, but the royalties I agreed to were less than 20/80. I got the short straw in terms of royalties, quite literally cents on each dollar. I contractually was meant to receive a small upfront payment from the label for each release but I never saw a dime.
Despite how bad the financial side of the deal was, I didn’t think it mattered because the opportunity was more valuable than money and I thought I had nothing to lose. The exposure was ‘priceless’, I thought. What I didn’t take into consideration was this contract I signed was set in stone for 15 years. I thought it was reasonable at the time.
The contract stated that none of my work could be uploaded or released without the label’s direct involvement or consent, giving them major control over the creative direction. This clause would become the first nail in the coffin as the label became increasingly nitpicky with my tracks. If they didn’t like one of my tracks, they’d tell me to start again and create something with more commercial appeal. I would try to produce tracks that fit the label’s sound without deviating too far from my sound, but there were always issues. They didn’t like anything I’d send to them and started becoming hostile with me, making it seem as though I was sabotaging this mostly unpaid opportunity they’d given me.
When we eventually agreed on a track, the ‘world-class’ mastering engineer I was promised couldn’t pretend to care about the project. Mastering engineers need amazing attention to detail to ensure audio levels mix perfectly and an appreciation for the original composition, but this guy regularly sent tracks that sounded worse than the unmastered versions. Once I phoned him in a panic as he’d sent a track he mastered straight to the label with every hi-hat and crash removed from the mix. I don’t know how this happens but he reluctantly agreed to fix his mistake. I’d often get a musician friend of mine to clean up the mastering on some of these tracks.
A few years and a couple of singles had passed. The project was still progressing and it felt like we were moving forward, despite issues with communication. I’d sold some singles and started to receive some attention but I still hadn’t met anyone from the label in person. I figured we could clear the air in person so I flew down to meet up with the label guys. I wanted to help set a direction for the next release.
This was a great experience as although they seemed incredibly stressed out and overworked, they were nice, cool guys who genuinely loved good music. They were nothing like the short-tempered, passive-aggressive people I’d dread talking to via email or phone. I even spent a day in their studio with an awesome, veteran producer who showed me some brilliant techniques and nerded out over analogue synths and state-of-the-art music gear. I left their offices feeling rejuvenated and ready to create.
The sense of excitement didn’t last though as communication deteriorated further. The label started ignoring my contact or sending one word emails. “Okay”, “Thanks”, “Soon” or “No”. There was no clear direction for the project for over a year, although I managed to sneak out a few self-released remixes.
A label A&R manager told me he would only release one of my singles if he could also get a co-writing credit, despite him having no creative input. I found this very suspicious as I was already aware of the financial issues of the deal and I suspected it would mean he’d get the lion’s share of the already tiny royalties on top of his salary. I had no choice but to oblige and put his name in the title.
In a last-ditch effort to keep the momentum going, I told them I would like to release a single independently at no cost to them. After some unfriendly emails back and forth, they said no and declared they weren’t interested in any more releases. They said they wouldn’t allocate any more time or resources to my project. They washed their hands of me but wouldn’t release me from the contract. I was dumped from the label but they still owned all future commercial rights.
As a middle finger to their decision to block me, I leaked two more tracks for free online, including an animated music video. I didn’t want their business practices to ruin my project. The label were surprisingly apathetic to my releases but threatened to come after any money I could make from these leaks.
As I could be forced to hand over any tiny amount of money from Weakling releases to a record label that don’t care about the project, I’ve decided to put it on hiatus. I was never interested in the financial side of music but the label backed me into a corner and made it difficult to release work. I naively forgot that music is a business and sometimes businesses don’t work out.
Since I was dumped, my leaked music video was added to rotation on ABC’s Rage and I produced a one-hour mix for Triple J’s Saturday night Mix Up show but I can’t release anything commercially as I’m blocked by a contract I can’t be released from.
I’ve since learnt the value of challenging contracts and the implications of signing something that could be too good to be true. I’m still as passionate about music as ever, still playing and producing, but I’m now only focussed on creating it for myself. I may try to revisit Weakling in the future but for now it is trapped in contract purgatory.