GET SIGNED OR GO INDIE?
So you want to get signed to the big boys in the biz...?
You sure about that?
Everyone dreams of getting signed to a major label. At least, at first...
It's likely that at one point, every musician in their career has thought something along the lines of, "I can't wait to get discovered, get signed to a record deal, and finally be able to break thru, and become a famous pro musician." With good reason too- Majors take a lot of the business of music off your palate. They generally have extensive network connections, and are capable handling a ton of the administrative and business aspects of releasing music. From mixing and mastering to cover art, promotion, and marketing, a record label is the machine responsible for ensuring the artist gets ample exposure to new potential fans. The budgets allotted by major labels can be enough to make any emerging artist salivate, and the concept of getting an advance can be attractive to musicians that have the proverbial "champagne tastes on a beer budget."
Big budgets, massive marketing machines, private jets, limos, premium music videos... The Works!
Sounds like a dream to any musician who's starting out and veteran artists still struggling to break through. Even if you aren't signing with Sony or Interscope, well known indie labels have a framework for promoting a release that most indie artists simply haven't got in their arsenal.
In addition to the budgets, working with a major, or even an independent label thats big in your sub-genre or micro-niche can be a huge boost to your career. Simply having your music on the same label as big name artist can be advantageous, especially when that label is known as a tastemaker.
However, often these labels want to control or influence the creative, not only in the sound or composition of the music, but in the look of the artists aesthetic. This may be appealing to some, but many artists shy away from sharing creative control over their brand. Additionally, artists must rely on the label to be forthright and honest in their reporting and accounting methods- which isn't always the labels biggest strength, particularly at lower-tier imprints...
There are plenty of advantages to being on big labels- exposure, clout*, etc. - but there are some drawbacks, too.
Obviously, any revenue for your streams and sales are going to be split between the artists and the label. If you're signing your music to ANY label big or small you better make sure they get the metadata correct before it's released, so SoundExchange ASCAP and/or BMI can collect your royalties for streams & sales. Once the music has been released to the DSPs there's little that can be done to correct it if you're relying on the label- they don't exactly have a huge incentive to get it handled unless you're one of their proverbial 'golden geese,' and smaller labels have less influence with the distributors. The importance of ensuring correct metadata can't be understated in the event you write a hit song, you're going to want to collect your fair share of the royalties, and it stings to see your music on Spotify but not associated with your artist profile- I can speak from personal experience on the last part. The song was released in 2019, the error remains today despite best attempts by the label owner and my own part to get it corrected. Be advised! When signing to a major label, the contract is often what it referred to as a '360 deal' which means the label gets a percentage of all revenues generated by the artist- this includes money not directly generated from selling music, but revenues generated thru merchandise sales, tour and ticketing proceeds, endorsements, acting gigs, NFTs, etc. etc. etc. You'll have to decide if having access to their "Machine" up front is worth paying the price on the back end, or attempt to negotiate around the '360" aspect of the deal- which can be difficult for an emerging artist.
Let’s not even get into what can happen if you sign to some shady label... Fortunately for artists, there is another path available to release music in the modern environment- put it out yourself! All of those concerns are mitigated as an independent artist putting out your own music, because as a label owner you are in direct contact with your distributor, and the sole recipient of all revenues generated, less fees for signings, etc. While starting a record label may sound daunting, these days it's much easier than you'd think. Sites like DistroKid, TuneCore, CD Baby, Bandcamp, make it nearly as simple as choosing your label name and uploading your music and cover art with some metadata. When configuring your release you are generally responsible for entering the metadata, so in the event of a data entry error have a much stronger chance of getting the correction made. If you're using, for instance, DistroKid to distribute your music you are paying for a service and it's in their interest to ensure you're a happy customer because you're providing them a financial incentive, and conceivably will continue to do so for years to come. Accurate metadata becomes doubly important if you decide you want to start releasing other people's music, or releasing collabs and features as an independent- and trust me these last two can be staggeringly advantageous for emerging artists- more on that in another post.
Oh, something you may not know about those 'big budgets...'
Another factor to consider is when the label gives you an advance, you won't see any of the revenue the album generates until that advance has been fully recouped, and you'd be very surprised how creative the labels can be about what qualifies as 'recoupable' expenses. For instance, did you know that some labels still manage to charge an artist for 'breakage' even if the artists isn't releasing physical media? How exactly does that work with digital products like MP3s, WAVs, or even MP4s or .MOVs? And this is just the tip of the iceberg... After considering this information, perhaps you're thinking maybe you've got what it takes to be an independent musician after all? Great! If you've decided to bet on yourself, why gamble if you don't understand the rules of the game you're playing? Artists on the come up are passionate, driven, and talented, having dedicated hours at honing their craft, perfecting their technique, assembling the perfect gear stack, and making the best music they are able. This requires hours of focus and dedication. More often than not, this is to the detriment of their 'business skills,' which can result in a quick burn rate on budgets booking studio time, difficulty negotiating rates with session musicians or engineers, hiring the wrong tour managers or agents, not to mention money wasted on poor branding, cover art, social media promo content, or poorly executed marketing campaigns for the release. As an independent artist you'll have more control over and clear insight into the cost of all of these potential expenses, which can result in better expectations, strategies, and projections for costs on your next release, as well as deeper insight into the inner workings of the music industry. The long-term benefits for acquiring this knowledge should be obvious if you plan on making a career in the music biz, so consider the out-of-pocket costs of releasing your own music 'the cost of your education.'
It’s a headache to self release, and requires a massive investment of time and resources- but in the long run you do retain full rights and maintain more creative control, giving you more flexibility in release strategy, additional potential revenue streams via licensing opportunities, and a clear insight into the financial aspect of your streaming revenue. And here's the dirtiest secret of all. You know how all your artist friends are mad Spotify doesn't pay artists well? That's because its setup to pay labels- so why not be the label? This of course means it's your responsibility to promote it you'll need to find a way get your music in front of new potential fans... Do you have a marketing skillset? If not you better learn how, or find someone who already knows how. Thats what we do here at The Clear Media.
Ready to get started working with pros who have done it before and have proven, repeatable results? Drop your info in our Contact Form and we'll get in touch to schedule a call and learn if we're a good fit to work together.
Still need more examples we've got the chops? Check out our Case Studies to see other artists we've helped, or read thru more articles in our blog for some additional breakdowns of music marketing strategy, examples of strategies we've created and executed, as well as cases examined from afar and dissected to determine what made them successful, and other insights gained from 20+ years in the entertainment industry so you can take the shortcut to the Big Show.
More articles on mindset, marketing, and making music to come, stay tuned.