The myths and misconceptions around record labels are a well-trodden path for all artists and musicians. Everyone has an opinion about this and, lets’ face it, on the whole, record companies get a pretty hard time from many of us.
Artists love to proclaim loudly on social media and in the press that they have no use for labels these days, and that they are better off managing their careers by themselves. But just like life, the realities of labels, what they offer artists and the pressures they face themselves, are not pictures rendered in black and white. The truth is often more complicated.
We’re not saying that you have to be signed to a label, or that being a signed artist is necessarily better than being independent – different situations will always work better for some than others. But in the interest of balance in these highly unbalanced times, we’ve collated some of the more common myths surrounding record labels and attempted to answer them for you here.
You’ll find people who take a different view, or who can point to examples that contradict what’s written, but if you were to spend time with a record company executive this is pretty much how they might respond to some of the most common myths surrounding record labels.
1: Record Labels are an outdated model these days
Let’s deal with this one straight away. We all know of many established artists who choose to no longer work with labels, and many breakthrough acts who have done so without label support. Streaming and social media, plus the lower costs of production, make the DIY path more of a realistic possibility than ever before.
But you also need to be honest with yourself if you go down this path. We’re talking about production, marketing, shipping, storage, project management, radio, tour coordination and more. Can you really manage that and stay focused on your creative path? A successful music career requires a lot of juggling, and that’s something record labels are very good at.
Streaming is certainly the biggest musical phenomenon in recent years. But vinyl sales are still huge, and even CDs can still have their place. Who’s selling to the distribution companies for you while you’re busy in the studio or on tour?
In fact, who’s your producer? Who’s mixing the tracks? Who’s pitching you to radio?
A recent Neilsen study in the US found that while 27% and 25% of people discover new music through streaming and social media respectively, 49% still discover new music via the radio. This will matter to some genres more than others, but if you’re an ambitious young artist you probably don’t want to shut yourself out from such a huge audience. Likewise, gaining access to arena tours and the festival circuit is also much harder without label support. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is.
If you’re a local artist trying to get your music heard by a bigger, more international audience, having no label support can make that process a lot harder. And at this stage, you probably need to be open to anything that can help your career.
2: Established artists don’t have any use for record labels
It’s true that if you are an established artist, with easy access to funds and expertise, it’s much easier to run without a label these days. Even if the reality is that most of these artists do have a label in all but name, they just employ a team of people to do all these things for them.
Even so, established artists have an awful lot to deal with on a day to day basis. And this is all made much harder when they spend most of their time travelling.
When you’re on the move, in airports, up in the sky or sat in the back of a car or bus, it’s very difficult to keep constantly in touch with your team, especially if you’re doing all the negotiating for things like clearing synch rights or publishing yourself. Labels play an important role in managing all these processes, allowing artists to get on with being their fabulous creative selves.
3: Getting a record deal; it’s not about what you know, it’s who you know
We’ve all heard of the guy who landed a big fat record deal who just happened to be good friends with someone who happened to be living with the A&R who signed them. There’s no doubt that having contacts in life is a valuable thing indeed. Make them whenever you can.
But any label exec will tell you that to sign any artist (whether they’re sleeping with your flatmate or otherwise) they have to pass two pretty crucial tests:
1. Do we love their music?
2. Do they have an identity that we connect with?
Nobody can afford to sign an artist without having that belief. Knowing someone who knows someone might make that easier, but it isn’t going to get you over the line.
4: All labels are full of people who are only in it for the money
As popular as working in the music business is, let’s be clear: most of the people who do so could be making a lot more money doing something else. Your average record label is made up of slightly odd people who are driven by a visceral passion for music. They are not places where you’ll find Wolf of Wall Street types throwing money in the air and partying 24/7. Maybe back in the 80s. I don’t know (unfortunately, I wasn’t there).
When you’re speaking to people at record labels it’s worth remembering that their no1 motivation is the excitement of discovering new artists and new music. Always.
5: All labels are rich
The truth is most labels struggle with high costs and small returns. This means that when it comes to everything they do when signing new artists, such as recording, mixing, mastering, pressing vinyl, shipping, PR etc. it’s all a big financial risk. When a label takes on a new artist they are often putting the health of their business for that year on the line. Never treat them like an endless tap of resources.
6: Labels don’t take risks anymore
As we’ve seen above, when a label takes a decision to invest in an artist it is an expensive act of faith. However much they might look for a ready-made fanbase to help them project what kind of returns they might make, they are still placing most of their hopes on the belief that they have in your tracks.
And just like any creative industry, whether filmmaking or book publishing, you’ll find that a lot of labels use money from the more commercial and safer ventures to fund the riskier stuff. Ultimately, a label that doesn’t take risks is a pretty pointless and self-defeating entity. They exist to find the best new music out there. It isn’t possible to do that without taking the odd chance.
7: Labels only sign acts with a lot of momentum behind them
Labels would like nothing more than to sign an artist before anyone else has heard of them. When an act has momentum, it leads to inevitable bidding wars. Whilst this might be exciting for the artist in the short term, it creates a lot of pressure as bigger advances mean that the deal has more money to recoup, which can create a lot of unnecessary stress.
In an ideal world, a label will find you and offer you a record deal long before anyone else does (this is part of the reason Spinnup exists!).
8: Once you’ve got a record deal you’ve made it, let’s party!
If only! Once you sign to a label a whole team of people are going to kick into action on your behalf. They are going to be working around the clock to make sure that their faith in you pays off.
They’ll be supporting you, but they’ll be expecting you to work twice as hard as anyone on the team. You’ll be expected to get out there and engage with people independently. You’ll be expected to tour a minimum of 150 dates per release. They’ll be working around the clock, but only to keep the bright lights shining on you while you do even more.
Want to party? Get a bar job.