If It Ain’t in Writing, It Ain’t Happening (The Most “Must Learn” Lesson in All of Business That I Bet You’ve Never Learned)
“If it ain’t in writing, it ain’t happening.” So goes one of the hardest, and most valuable, lessons I’ve ever learned in business.
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THE AMERICAN MUSICAL DREAM
Years ago (circa 2005-2007), I, as hip-hop artist Cory Crush and the owner of my own fledgling record label, BattleScar Records, set off to do what many an aspiring rapper does—to record some good music, put it on a CD (or, at the very least, online), and perform and sell it at some live gigs, all of which I’d intended to book myself (thereby making seemingly great use of the Associate’s Degree in Marketing I earned in 2003).
In the beginning, I’d considered my musical plan a success, namely because I’d been able to quickly book some gigs all over the state of Wisconsin and throw what I’d thought were some great shows with a bevy of other local artists (including my cousin, Undecent, who, by the way, just did his first show in four years at Milltown Still and Grill in Appleton, Wisconsin, which you can watch here, in its entirety). Unfortunately, however, I soon came to realize what every so-called “starving artist” inevitably comes to know, which is that performing live, in and of itself, doesn’t pay the bills.
Like many musicians, I had a “day job” at the same time that I was trying to make it in the music world—specifically a full-time job, working Monday through Friday (and on the occasional Saturday morning) at an insurance company—and so a lack of money wasn’t a problem for me necessarily. What was a problem, in my view, was that I wasn’t being paid for the musical gigs I’d been doing—at least not in cash (payment to musicians, in case you are unaware, in the form of free drinks and drink chips is quite common, assuming musicians allow bar owners to get away with it)—and so, one day, I decided to change that and to start asking for between $200 and $400 a gig, depending on the size of the venue I’d be performing at and the crowd I thought I could pull.
FOR A FEW MONTHS, I WAS ON A ROLL (THAT WAS, UNTIL THE WHEELS FELL OFF)
To tell the truth, that plan went great for a few months and I was very satisfied with my results. But then, on one mid-summer’s night in or around, I believe, the year 2006, my cousin and I, along with two other local rappers from Wausau, Wisconsin, showed up at a bar in Oshkosh, Wisconsin (which was about a two-hour drive from where I’d lived at the time) with a caravan of people, including my twin brother, his then-girlfriend, and a few people I’d brought along help me sell merchandise (hats, t-shirts, etc.) and CD’s, plus my van full of my own musical equipment (including multiple speakers, wireless microphones, and a whole DJ set-up for playing our tracks), only to find that the bartenders at this bar (which will remain unnamed, for the sake of me not promoting it), which I’d negotiated a $300 payday with and sent promotional fliers to weeks earlier, had absolutely no idea that a show had been booked for that night. Not only that, but the bar’s typical live music stage wasn’t set up and, adding insult to injury, a heavy pool table was situated where the stage should have been.
To say that I was livid would be an understatement, to be sure.
A VERY IMPORTANT DECISION TO MAKE
After bringing up my concerns to the bartenders, getting no help from them, and being told that the only thing my crew and I would get paid with was free soda and rail drinks, I had a decision to make: I could either pack all of my equipment, merchandise, and people up, chalk the gig up as a loss, and go home, pissing off my entire crew in the process, or I could try to make the best of the situation (like I normally do) and do the gig anyway and hope that someone–nay, anyone–would show up to see it.
Although I’d promoted the gig very hard on MySpace (which was the undisputed king of all social media the time), I hadn’t had enough Oshkosh connections on the site to push the gig as hard as I’d wanted to (at least not on the extremely local level) and I’d been extremely dependent upon the bar to come through for me and my crew by, at the very least, posting some fliers on the outside and inside of the bar. But alas, and much to my disdain, the bar couldn’t even have been expected to do that, and when I’d arrived for the gig, I’d noticed immediately that there hadn’t been a single flier posted anywhere; not on the front door, not near the stage/pool table area, and not even in the bathrooms.
Ultimately, despite me secretly seething and wanting to burn the place down rather than benefit it in any way, I decided to do what I thought was the “right thing” to do and did the gig at it anyway. As far as the performances went, they went as well as could have been expected, and as you can see from the photos below, a few fans of me and my cousin’s music did show up, but overall, the whole thing turned out to be a major disappointment, because, as I said earlier, free drinks and drink chips don’t pay bills.
With that, I left the gig that night having learned one of the hardest and most valuable lessons any entrepreneur or musician could ever learn about business:
IF IT AIN’T IN WRITING, IT AIN’T HAPPENING
In other words, if you enter into any sort of a deal, and if the exact terms and conditions of that deal are not spelled out in writing—as in, in a crystal clear, written contract, signed and agreed to by all parties affected by or involved with it—then whatever you thought you were going to get out of the deal, is not happening.
As a result of me having learned this lesson on that ill-begotten night in Oshkosh, I have since painstakingly sought to do all of my business deals in writing, and if a business owner or contractor I intend to work with should happen to object to such terms, I have no choice but say to them, “Sorry, but ‘If it ain’t in writing, it ain’t happening’, because one of the primary rules of running a successful business is protecting yourself—that is, your own financial and business interests—and you can’t do that through a hand-shake deal or by taking someone “at their word”, regardless of how reputable you believe they may be.
Case in point: If you haven’t yet heard the story of Ray Kroc, the “founder of McDonald’s”, then you need to watch the new movie about it, entitled The Founder (starring Michael Keaton, formerly of Batman movie fame, as Kroc), and you need to observe as Kroc expertly and with no remorse…how do I put this…f*cks over the actual founders of McDonald’s, essentially steals their business right out from under them, and then does the dreaded “hand-shake deal” with them (backed by his seemingly good word), thereby promising to pay them royalties for life, which—and here’s the kicker—they never see a penny of.
Because the deal was never in writing, and thus was never happening, especially with a shrewd, merciless, and, I would say, unscrupulous businessman like Ray Kroc.
YEARS LATER, HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF (ALBEIT IT NOT FOR ME)
Sadly, despite my cousin being right there with me as I was unceremoniously screwed over (albeit it on a much smaller scale than the McDonald’s founders) by the aforementioned bar, and despite me months ago having told my cousin to watch The Founder (so he learn from either Kroc’s dirty tactics or the McDonald’s founders’ epic mistakes in dealing with Kroc), he went into the aforementioned first live gig of his in four years (quite unbeknownst to me at the time I attended the show) with a hand-shake deal of sorts done via Facebook with another local rapper (the headliner of the show), which had apparently involved him getting paid for the gig. Accordingly, and despite the deal being somewhat in writing (on account of it being done on Facebook), my cousin never did get paid. Why? Because again—’if it ain’t in writing (as in, in an actual written contract, physically of electronically signed by all parties to it, then it ain’t happening’, and I told my cousin so after the fact, when he came to me to vent about his situation after his girlfriend had apparently grown weary of hearing about it herself.
I specifically advised my cousin that, going forward, he needs to do his deals on paper (or at least electronically, via PDF contracts that can either be printed, signed, scanned, and emailed back to him or signed electronically), in a—and this is key—legally-binding and enforceable way, which can thereafter be enforced in a court of law (say, in Wisconsin small claims court, for example). By doing business in this way going forward, I assured him that not only would he be protecting himself, but he’d be protecting the other people he does business with as well, many of whom, by the way, are so legally-unsophisticated and/or lacking in business savvy as to assume that they, themselves, don’t need to do their own deals in writing.
Sure, an insistence on doing all deals in writing could drive some people (stupid people, in my opinion) to not want to do business with you, but you know what? Missing out on a little bit of illegitimate business with some very illegitimate business people is far better than missing out on some money that you thought was coming (and which, as in my cousin’s case, was most likely needing to keep food on your table or the lights on in your house) but which, in reality, was never coming to begin with, because why? Say it with me, one last time:
If it ain’t in writing, it ain’t happening. End of story.
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