Struggling To Sign

With a lot of up-and-coming artists, the dream is to get signed by a record label. Once they do this they’ve reached their goal, and I find that many haven’t even considered beyond this point. This month in “Words I Manifest” I’m considering the need for a record label, and what the alternatives might be in the music industry’s current climate. As usual these are all just my own thoughts, opinions and ideas and aren’t to be taken for cold hard facts, however I think you will agree that the future of record labels is starting to look sketchy.

For many artists I believe that the need for a label deal really has to do with status; signing with a label gives them some sense of validation. And to a degree this works — if an artist tells you they are signed to a major label, you instantly assume that they are good, otherwise how would they have gotten a deal? However, is there an alternative to this route?

I think it’s important to look at the idea of a record label as b.eing like a bank, rather than a brand or a crew. The idea is that the label invests money into your business venture (i.e your recordings) and you pay back your loan to them in the form of royalties and record sales. The reason you’d traditionally go to a label is because you’d need the cash to create the album, for studio space, access to technology, producers, etc and being that music is such a high-risk business venture, you wouldn’t be able to convince the banks to give you a loan, as they would see it as unlikely that they’d ever get their money back. However, now with advancements in technology, it is relatively cheap to create an album using a laptop and a microphone, and easy enough to get in touch with potential collaborators via social networking sites. Beats can be emailed to artists, artists can record, recordings can be passed on to guest artists for a contribution, etc, and the whole process is very cheap and can produce outstanding results (if done well).

What the label does still bring of course is advertising, marketing and promotion of the album, as well as their contacts, but it is important to bare in mind that for this they instantly take almost 90% of your earnings from everything (including merchandise and live shows if you are in a 360 deal, which these days you most likely would be). The alternative is to put it out yourself (digitally via the usual distributors like iTunes, Amazon and Bandcamp, or if it’s a free release consider specific “hip-hop digital distribution” services like DatPiff or DJ Booth’s distribution service, or for physical releases find a good place to get your album pressed cheaply and sell through an online service like BigCartel, or look for a distribution deal), which requires lower sales figures to achieve the same earnings (since you’d own a lot more of what comes in, depending on what your deals are with producers, featured artists etc, and remember iTunes takes 35%). It is always a possibility to employ someone to market/promote you (possibly even in exchange for a percentage of your royalties/sales, if they are willing to take that deal).

Recent examples of independent success stories are Curren$y’s Pilot Talk II (released independently on DD172/BluRoc) beating the first week sales of Soulja Boy’s The DeAndre Way which received heavy promotion from Def Jam, and Tech N9ne’s All 6’s And 7’s reaching number 4 on the Billboard 200. Of course they are both on labels, but it still demonstrates the possibility of an outstanding response to projects with no major label backing. Odd Future have recently proven how lucrative self distribution can be, selling out tours all around the world due to their extensive free discography available from their website. Even Jay-Z is now signed to a tour promotions company (Live Nation) rather than striking a deal with a label. The music industry has blown open, and the possibilities are endless.

If you do decide to go down the “record label” route and manage to get signed then don’t be fooled into thinking that you have made it and no longer need to put in work (although this is, of course, an achievement and should be celebrated), building your brand/ fanbase, promoting yourself and putting out a ton of music to stay relevant is still your job. The labels generally won’t do this for you, and will probably only become interested in helping out once you prove to them that your project is going to be profitable. It is also important to make sure the labels and their politics don’t take over and ruin your project (like Lupe Fiasco and Atlantic).

I’m not saying avoid labels and don’t get signed, as they are ultimately there to help the music industry and to get music out. What I am saying is that perhaps artists should try to consider other ways of getting their music out independently and reap larger rewards once they do succeed. It’s not all about record labels and getting signed anymore, and this avenue only really seems to benefit artists who have major pop potential, as you need to sell millions of records to see any money come back in…

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