Featured Column: Making the BandMajor Labels Can Be Bad For You
Around these parts we’re big fans of the do it yourself idea. When it comes to your music and getting it heard, nobody ever’s going to care as much as you do. But if you do have some measure of success, eventually you won’t be able to do it all. Record label, management, booking agent, publicist. When to invite outside people to help you with these roles, and who you invite, could be the biggest decisions you make in your musical life.
Over the next few columns I’m going to address the pros and cons of giving up your independence, based on what we’ve seen ourselves. Starting with the record label. I have never signed a major label deal, but have many friends who have and have yet to meet anyone thrilled with the experience.
It’s common for reasonably successful independent musicians to profess a desire to remain out of the reach of the "corporate" major labels. But I imagine this is often (though clearly not always) an easy way to not have to explain why the major labels aren’t bidding for our services. For our band, we have not been interested in pursuing a label, and have never once sent an unsolicited package to any record company. To be honest, however, I’m not sure if that isn’t at least in part a result of our belief that we’re not really the type of band a major label would know what to do with. In fact, we are currently working on a new album for fall release and have been shocked to get out of the blue interest from labels we didn’t know knew we existed. We aren’t chomping at the bit to go this route (for the reasons contained in this article), but we did return the calls.
The labels do retain an allure (in part due to hype, but also in part due to what they could hypothetically do for a band), but we don’t regret remaining independent and not even sniffing out major label options up till this point. There are obviously a ton of success stories to counter this, but most bands who sign to labels seem to eventually regret it.
One of the more frustrating things seems to be the loss of control of your own timetable. The label will release the record when they think it’s appropriate, and any number of factors could lead to a release date that makes no sense to you, or unexpected delays from the scheduled release. If you are a band that makes your living from touring, this can be very problematic. You may find yourself with an unwanted touring hiatus. Or if you do keep touring, your general strategies may be compromised. It may prove difficult, for example, to set up a proper, ground-swell building, CD release tour. Maybe you find yourself in a sort of holding pattern, playing some shows but trying not to over play markets so that you can still try to launch a successful major tour in support of the new CD (that is coming out in… well, you’re not really sure when). Meanwhile, you’re touring an album that all your serious fans already have. They’re clamouring for something new (and maybe don’t quite follow how that record deal you excitedly announced is now the problem), your merch sales are tanking, and your new songs (you know, the ones you like to play) aren’t quite taking hold cause nobody has the CD.
This is all assuming that the record actually gets released. I know two bands that basically ground to a halt while waiting over two years for the record that was in the can to be given a street date. Both bands, who had great buzz and growing draws at the time of their deals, dissolved without the record seeing the light of day.
Even if the record does get released, most bands are given very little marketing support from their label, at least initially. This is not always the case, but often the labels wait to see what gets a little momentum before deciding where to invest the promotional dollars. Some friends of ours signed to a Vancouver-based label renowned for creating hugely successful acts based on relentless touring and grass roots marketing. The dream label for a band like us, we think. But this band was given money to make the record, saw the record get an official release, and then was completely left alone by the label. It was up to them to get something going, and when it didn’t happen, the band split.
Another frustration is the revolving door at label offices. You may be working with someone excited about you and motivated to work your record, only to call one day and find they’re no longer with the company. A relative of mine made three records for a label, and for each one the company was headed by a different president. While recording the third record, she called the label with concern when her A&R rep had not checked into his hotel or shown up at the sessions, wondering if he had gotten lost or had travel problems. Turns out he had been fired. The label had forgotten to mention this, and then left her alone to make the record without any input or apparent interest from the company (despite their six figure investment). Of course, when she turned the record in just as the label was getting another new team at the highest management level, the new fellers in charge did manage to remember to get executive producer credits listed in the liner notes.
And other factors besides the personnel shuffle can have the same effect (artist neglect). Another Northwest band was poised to be the next big thing on Geffen Records when label mates Nirvana suddenly took the world by storm. Suddenly the marketing team and their budget had a new focus, and the first band was relegated to bridesmaid status.
All these problems are compounded by the fact that bands inevitably feel they’ve arrived when they get the record deal. There are a couple Vancouver bands that come to mind who were very popular right across Canada on the club level. When they got the record deal, everybody expected they would explode. After an initial round of good media, things just kind of fizzled out. When no radio play ensued, and the numbers at shows didn’t noticeably increase immediately, one of the bands folded and the other pulled back to being a part-time band that basically only played local shows (at increasingly smaller venues). Both bands likely would have kept going strong if they had stayed independent, seeing their numbers slowly grow (as they had consistently done up to the point of the record deal), and perhaps achieving independent success equal to what they were hoping to get from the label.
It’s strange that a band would last years and years slugging it out, only to give it up almost immediately after this one unsuccessful experience. But it happens over and over. Bands expect everything to be easy after signing, and when it doesn’t happen maybe they find they’ve lost the edge that kept them going through the tough early days of the band. Or maybe they’re just broke.
Which brings up the biggest reason to not sign to a major label, particularly if your band is already your job: you probably can’t afford it.
Starting just with CD sales. Most bands will not see dime one from CD sales for the entire duration of their recording contract. You can’t sell from the stage any more, which for most indie bands (definitely us) provides much of the operating capital. Yes, your recording costs may be covered, but your records were always profitable for you before so financially that’s not a good trade. And even if you get a reasonable advance (beyond recording costs), chances are you’re going to spend that upgrading something about your touring setup (your personal gear, in-ear monitors, better van/bus, whatever). So assuming you’re not one of the lucky few who become a star as a result of your label experience or don’t see huge increases in your performances fees, you’re going to be down cash (and I’m assuming you weren’t rich to start with).
Another option is a licensing-style deal, but while these are better financially they are hardly perfect (and have less potential upside, generally). One band I know was with a major indie-style label. They were lucky in that they were at least allowed to continue to sell their records from the stage. And the label charged them a relatively reasonable $6 per record. (Again, this is not a typical label situation, as there was no advance and the band made the record with their own money. But it is worth looking at as this seems about the best you could hope for.) You can easily make your own CD’s for about $1.50 a piece, so even with this (relatively) sweet deal our friends’ band was out about $4.50 per CD. Let’s say you’re in a reasonably successful indie band and sell 10,000 copies of your disc. That’s $45,000 you’re going to be out. And if you’re like us, you don’t have an extra $45,000 kicking around in the band bank account right now from all that extra money you made on your previous CD. Which means that $45,000 is going to either come out of what you make, or you’re going to have to find a way to spend $45,000 less on the band’s operations then you previously did. Not easy. In fact, the opposite is likely to happen. You are likely to find new ways to spend your money. As you get into the bed with the "big boys", all of a sudden you find yourself with the big deal manager who takes 20% of everything. And all of a sudden you’re doing a tour opening for The Mighty Clouds Of Joy (okay, not The Mighty Clouds Of Joy, but somebody) and you get, say, $150 per night, five nights a week, for five weeks. By the time you get home, you’re flat broke. If you’re also getting the feeling from the label that they’re disappointed with how the record is performing, if the shows were average at best, if you owe the label a bunch of cash that makes record profits seem 100% ouf of reach, if the big publicity and touring push for the record has passed without much action, radio isn’t biting, maybe you just throw in the towel. That seems to be what many bands do, and can’t say as I blame em.
Well, maybe I blame em a little bit. For signing the deal, and for thinking somehow it was going to be a magic pill that made everything easy. But it’s understandable, too. Nobody signs a record deal expecting to flame out, and certainly the labels aren’t likely to offer a pessimistic (read realistic) view of the likely outcome of the deal. And for the few acts who see it all work out, label deals obviously take your music places it could never have otherwise gotten, so maybe it’s worth the risk…
Some labels have enough clout that even without achieving the holy grail of radio airplay they can hype your record into people’s awareness. You just can’t do that yourself. If the record takes, either through airplay or publicity, all of a sudden the days of playing to handfuls of people in new markets are straight-up gone. And we can all see the beauty of that.
Even if it’s not enough to make any money from the sale of your CD’s, if you do get some kind of buzz going from the label’s efforts you’ll make more in publishing and presumably your touring career will get a boost. Then just hope you get dropped by the label and you can take that momentum and do what you will with it!
Overall, though, success stories are just too infrequent. It’s not the label’s faults per se, they’re a business and they’re doing what it’s in their interest But most of us have grown up thinking of the major label deal as being the ultimate goal (business-wise) of a band. Even though I believe everything I’ve written here, there’s a little twinge of envy whenever I hear of a group getting a deal. And as I said, we still return the calls we get from labels.
Every situation is different, but there are two basic scenarios where I think it might be in a band’s interest to pursue label interest. The first is when a band has almost nothing going on. If you’re just starting out, have no draw, no money, are washing dishes at Denny’s between band practises, and you make a demo that grabs label interest, you may as well pursue it. If your band implodes it’s still a downer, but at least you haven’t blown years of work. Try it again with another band. It’s probably worth the risk anyway.
The second situation is when a band has so much buzz that it can choose from different labels and get a deal far more favourable then the standard offer. In that situation, you can get a deal that involves more self-control and better financial terms, greatly reducing your risk. Additionally, your chances of having a successful experience are far greater both because of the buzz you already have and because the label will have to make a larger than typical investment in you and will be more motivated to promote you so it can recoup.
Ultimately, though, regardless of where we are in our careers, most of us are likely going to be tempted any time a label comes sniffing around. The idea that some of the hardships that come with being indie could be in the past is a pretty powerful one. And straight-up, who doesn’t want to tell their parents or friends that they were just signed by Capitol Records?
So go ahead and listen to what the labels have to say. Just remember, you’re allowed to pass. And if you do decide to sign, try and do it with your eyes wide open. Make sure you’re not signing your band’s death warrant.
Next column we'll look get into managers, publicists, and/or agents (space permitting). If you have input on those topics, or feedback on this one, or an idea for a future column, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.