Do Record Labels Matter Anymore?

I recently hosted a Meetup workshop event for artists focused on the topic of record labels versus going the indie route. I think this is a pretty important topic these days, what with all the loose talk and opinions flying around about the death of the industry as we know it, let alone the plethora of negative stories out there about how labels treat their artists.

I’m not going to argue one way or another for signing or not signing with a label. That has to be the artist’s decision based on their particular circumstance and goals. But I do believe it is worth taking a look at some of the things that an artist ought to think about when coming to this important decision.

To start off, when an artist or band gets saddled with a lousy contract or ends up in a toxic relationship with their label, the first thought that comes to my mind is what role the artist had in it bringing that about. There’s a proper way to going about finding a label for yourself and establishing the relationship, and there’s the ignorant way. I’d lay odds that, in most situations where an artist finds themselves in deep doo-doo with their label, they chose the latter.

There are all kinds of things you as an artist need to do to vet a label before you even sit down to discuss the nuts and bolts of a deal with the company. Then there’s the matter of the contracting process itself, and making sure the agreement you end up signing is fair and reasonable to both parties and protects your interests. That is an art and a skill in and of itself. And, after the deal is signed, you want to make sure you are in a position to be able to hold the label’s feet to the fire. Just about everybody who’s come to me over the years with a tale of woe about their label didn’t do any of those things well.

Labels come in all shapes, sizes and types–as do label deals. Regardless, what in heck does an artist need any kind of label for anymore anyway, when it is so easy with today’s technology to sell and promote direct to the public? Good question. Besides, an act going it on its own clearly makes a much bigger percentage of the pie when it doesn’t have to share it with a record company. Serious food for thought.

At the workshop I held, I shed some light on this fundamental question by using the example of American artist Ed Sheeran. He spent years of hard work building his career as an independent, eventually garnering the number two spot on the iTunes charts with one of his songs, achieving significant radio play, and getting millions of hits on one of his song videos. This, all without the help of a record label. Even so, he finally decided to sign with Warner’s Atlantic/Asylum. Why? He had already proven that he and his long-time producer had what it took in drive, talent and expertise to make it. But he knew he needed the support system and connections/weight in the industry that a label could bring to the table to get him and his music out to even more people and obtain media coverage, placements and so forth. Those things are not so easy to do for an independent. The kicker was that, having proven that what he and his long-time producer did worked, he was able to sign a deal that provided them incredible latitude to do what they wanted musically, because the label had such confidence in them.

Labels have teams of people to deal with marketing, the media, radio, accounting, administration, distribution…not to mention their connections and financial wherewithal.  As an artist, you can’t avoid taking into account the matter of money, time and effort that staying independent will take away from what you really want to be doing, which is being creative and making music. And do you really want the hassle?

Besides all that, if you sign with a label on your home turf, you have a better chance of getting the interest of foreign labels, which could be crucially important if you have your sights set on making an impact abroad. That’s because you automatically have a certain amount of credibility in their eyes if you’ve already got a label on board–almost any kind of label. Plus, they will see your label as a valuable intermediary and support system that will serve to keep you and your efforts focused on what’s necessary in order for them to be able work their market successfully on your behalf.

Yes, much as we might want to gripe about them, labels still have a place. Having said that, I recognize that I haven’t mentioned any of the pitfalls of working with a label, or some of the notable examples of acts that have eschewed the label route and done very well remaining independent. It just helps to know that if you plan on following their lead, you’d be wise to take a reality check on the whole matter to get a good sense of what’s in store.

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