It seems to be the general consensus among the misinformed that once you get signed to a record label you’re all set. Nothing else for you to do. “Big time here I come!”
For those of you living in this bubble I’m afraid I’m going to be the pin who pops it. The truth is considerably different to the assumptions. But then, isn’t that usually the case with everything?
You see much like the advice I would give to a brand new singer or band hitting the streets in search of an artiste manager, you need to have some things in place BEFORE you go looking to get signed by a record label.
The problem is usually a lack of understanding of what a label actually does. So in helping you decide whether or not you need to get signed to a label let’s start there:
Do You Understand What A Label Actually Does?
As always my first piece of advice to people wanting to enter the music industry is to learn how it actually works. I’ve got a lot of information right on this website but I also encourage you to buy books and take courses to truly equip yourself for the road ahead.
A record label plays a very important function in the chain of elements you’ll need to build a career out of your music – music distribution.
Of course in order for you to need access to music distribution you’ll need to have completed songs with a potential to become hits. If you haven’t even started to record yet then you don’t need a label.
A label will leverage its network of contacts to get songs onto the various distribution channels they have access to. These can include:
- Radio stations (terrestrial and digital)
- Physical CD stores (more of a “back in the day” kind of thing)
- Digital music distributors – quickly being replaced by…
- …Music streaming services
- TV networks
- Video distribution channels
The label’s other primary function is to provide funding to send artistes to TV stations, radio stations and the offices of print publications to do promotional interviews and live performances. This is essential and cannot be skipped.
Ever noticed how Beyonce seems to be everywhere at once? It’s not an accident.
Popular performers become popular because they spend a lot of time travelling all over the world promoting their music through interviews, photo shoots and live performances.
By the way these live performances are usually non-paying gigs because the objective is to give the radio/tv/publications a free performance/interview in exchange for exposure to their audience. This is far more valuable than a mere paycheck because it can lead to more streams and paid gigs.
Are You Ready To Get Signed To A Label?
As I mentioned briefly above, you need to have many things already in place in order for a label to have any interest in you at all.
Gone are the days when you simply needed to impress a room of record company execs with your live audition or audition tape to get offered a deal. With the advent of email anyone off any street in any part of the world with internet access can do that now so it’s hard to stand out like that.
The script has kind of flipped now and instead of labels competing for you to sign with them, artistes are now having to compete with all the other talented singers/bands from all over the world.
Ever heard of “The X Factor” or “America’s Got Talent”? In spite of appearances these aren’t merely TV shows. Before they existed the process more like this:
- The A&R from a record label would spend their time visiting clubs and festivals
- Their primary objective was find talent to potentially sign.
- This required a lot of travelling, a lot of time and a lot of money.
- …but that was then.
Now with these TV shows performers from all over the world (literally) flock to one venue at their own expense and make the A&R’s job as easy as turning on the TV and picking the talent from a menu.
I don’t know what the specific arrangements are between the major labels and these TV shows are but I’m sure they prefer this process considering it’s not just cheaper but far more profitable and much easier to have the talent come to them for a change.
Labels are now looking to jump onto a train that’s already on the tracks. Bands that:
- have an existing audience
- perform regularly and
- put on a good show…
…are much more attractive than someone who can sing really well but hasn’t performed or recorded anything. If you already have a few songs recorded and playing on the radio that’s even better.
You’re now someone they can partner with to scale your current moderate success to a much larger audience. There’s potential for everyone to make some money so a meeting is definitely a good idea.
Now a meeting is a great start but keep in mind record labels generally prefer to have meetings with a manager NOT an artiste so if you don’t have one then that’s another strike against you. If you haven’t put any effort into image or focusing on a particular genre that’s another one.
These days talent alone might not even get you through the door.
Are You Willing To Give Up Your Masters?
“Masters? Slavery ended a long time ago”
When you record a song and make it available for sale, that particular recording is called a master. If you later decided to re-record the same song then that’s another (different) master.
When you sign a recording deal with a record label one of the stipulations will be that the label owns the master to any recordings they release on your behalf. Makes no sense to me either but that’s been standard practice for decades 🤷🏽♂️
If the label owns the master of a particular recording you can’t decide to re-release the same version of that song again without getting permission from the label. I’m not a lawyer (so check this for yourself) but it’s also my understanding that, assuming they agree to let you re-release the song, they will be entitled to a percentage of the earnings from this re-release whether they help fund it or not.
This was apparently one of the main sources of contention between megastar Prince and his label. He stated in interviews that according to his recording contract with the label, they even owned the rights to his stage name. Ouch!
Now I’m not saying that all labels are evil. They can be an excellent source of promotional money, marketing know-how etc. Their greatest value is in the vast network they can tap into to get your music in places you’d never be able to access on your own.
Having said that you need to be very careful when considering doing a deal with a label. Their lawyers objective is to get the best deal for the label – not you – so be sure your manager is employing a capable lawyer who is able to do the same for your interests.
If you decided you don’t want to give away rights to your songs in exchange for the access to a labels distribution channels then you do have the option to start your own label and distribute your music yourself.
Keep in mind this will mean a few things you might not enjoy will now fall in your hands. Things like:
- Building relationships with radio stations and TV stations across the globe
- Building relationships with print publications so you can secure interviews
- Doing market research to help determine what types of songs will do well in various markets
- Signing with and managing streaming services
- Funding EVERYTHING yourself
- Etc. etc.
Now of course there are those who have done this and done well. Just keep in mind they may have had access to investor funding and usually made a ton of expensive mistakes along the way.
Is This The Right Record Label For You?
Believe it or not all record labels are not created equal. You need to spend time with your manager figuring out which market/genre you’re really going after and find a label with relationships and experience promoting music there.
Here are a few things to consider:
Money Isn’t Everything
Don’t be blinded by the promise of a huge advance. A lot of this money will be needed to cover recording expenses and ALL of it will likely be recoupable.
“Recoupable” means you’ll have to pay that money back BEFORE you start seeing any other earnings from music sales.
There are also labels started by people who happen to have a ton of money to spend. Sometimes they’re former singers themselves, other times they have no experience in the music industry.
In my experience I’ve only ever seen couple of these end up launching successful careers. And now that I’m trying to come up with examples the only ones who come to mind are Alanis Morisette (signed to a label co-owned by Madonna) and Justin Bieber (signed to Usher’s label).
That’s only 2 successes I can think of so this is definitely NOT a strategy to bank on.
Are They In The Right Genre
If you are an R&B singer with great silky smooth vocals and mostly mid to low tempo songs then a label famous for its successful country singers might not be a good fit for you. There are of course exceptions but further investigation will definitely be required.
Many major labels will have the resources to promote music in completely different genres and do quite well in all of them. We were on a label with a roster that included acts like Mary J. Blige (R&B), Blink 182 (Pop Rock) and Shaggy (Reggae).
These deals can be quite hard to come by however, and you have to be very careful you don’t end up in a position where you’re competing for promotional funding with artistes in completely different genres on the same label.
Smaller independent labels tend to be more focused on one (maybe two) genres so you have to be sure to pick one (or a few) that have a track record of success promoting music in a genre that your music will fit in.
They’re also less likely to have the funding and contacts a major label would have access to. If they also have a large roster of artistes you can again be faced with the problem of competing for money and attention if you’re not one of their more successful acts.
What Is The Label Actually Offering You?
When considering a recording deal with a label you need to be very clear on what they’re offering you and what you’ll be expected to give them in return.
You’ll need money to cover recording costs and promotional costs. This is especially true if you’ve already started to do either of these things at your own expense.
This is a very expensive industry to succeed in so be sure to discuss this at length with your manger before making a decision either way.
Deciding whether you should get signed to a record label or not isn’t something to take lightly. Deals that work well can produce incredibly successful, long term careers that create a legacy that outlives any of the original collaborators.
Poorly conceived deals can seriously stall and even destroy an otherwise promising career in music. The time it takes to get clear on what you want and need is definitely time well spent.
As always seek help from the professionals when navigating these treacherous waters. “There be shark in them thar waters!”
Now over to you. Do you agree with the points I mentioned above? Did I leave anything important out? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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