The music industry has undergone an impressive comeback over the last two years, but that’s little consolation for artists who continue to struggle to find ways to make ends meet in a post-album world. There are plenty of bright spots to be found for new and small artists in the current music climate, but the landscape surrounding the music industry remains as volatile as ever.
With so much uncertainty accompanying serious music career today, something that’s managed not to change much is the hallowed status of the record label. Lots of artists still have it seared in their minds that all of their musical and financial problems could be solved if they could get picked up by a label.
Sadly, this unfounded reverence for record labels gets many a promising artist into big trouble. Signing with a label is great for some bands and disastrous for others. So, how do you know if it’s the right decision for you?
Figure out what you can accomplish on your own
A burgeoning DIY culture in music with increasingly better tools for promotion and music production – alongside less favorable deals for artists – might make some musicians rethink signing up with a label. When deciding whether to sign with a record label or not, you should always consider what you’re getting out of the deal. What can a label do for you that you can’t do for yourself? Once you have a good idea of what the label in question can do for your music, do your best to find out how good it is at supporting its artists and more importantly, how much it’s going to cost you.
In response to competing in a world of perpetually diminishing album sales, some labels now ink deals designed to ensure they always turn a profit at the cost of the artist. This means that going with the wrong label could leave you on the hook when it comes to paying for recording an album or contracting an expensive firm to facilitate a PR campaign. Even worse, though, is the fact that a bad record deal could leave you not only in debt but also in a position where a label owns the rights to your music for years.
As nice as it is to think that signing with a label can make every band’s dreams become reality, it’s just not true. But that doesn’t mean you should slam the door every time a label comes knocking. There’s plenty of examples of record labels launching and sustaining an artist’s career. But no two record labels are created equal, and discernment is the only way to tell if one is worth your time.
What exactly is a music label, anyway?
If you’re relatively new to making music, you might not realize it yet, but in theory, anyone and anything can be a music label if they call itself one.
Everything from multi-million dollar taste-making corporate machines down to your little brother’s fledgling Soundcloud roster of electronic artists are now being called labels, though what they can actually do for artists is drastically different. If you’re trying to decide whether to sign with a label, it’s important to make sure you’re working with a label that has the capitol, influence and connections to take your music where you want it to go.
How to spot a thriving label
The difference between faux-labels from real ones is the value they provide to their artists. The best way to gauge a label’s legitimacy is to see what the artists on their roster are up to. If bands on a prospective label aren’t touring and releasing new music, then chances are the label in question isn’t doing much to help their artists succeed. Another metric of a label’s reach and effectiveness is how many plays their artists are consistently getting over music platforms.
In short, if the bands on a label’s roster aren’t at a level you want to get to, what’s the point in signing with them?
Why artists need to ask, “What’s in it for me?”
Again, you should only consider signing with a label if there’s something they can do for you that can’t already do yourself. Your music might be amazing, but people who run labels are most interested in turning a profit and making a living. This means that in return for help releasing and promoting your music, most any label you work with is going to expect a lot from you in terms of money, exclusive rights to your music and so on. When artists sign over the rights to their music, they should be getting something incredibly valuable in return.
If you come to the conclusion that it’s just not the right time for you to team up with a label, try not to get too disappointed. Finding real success in music is still a notably tough gig, but tools designed to help artists record and promote their own music are getting better and better. There’s a huge sense of empowerment and creative freedom for bands who find success in music by going it alone.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.