In the information age in which we live, falsehoods, myths, and misnomers about today’s music business are prevalent. But if you want to get ahead and achieve your goals, focusing on the realities of the business is essential. There are some universal truths that all cannot be ignored.
I am crediting Bobby Borg from Sonicsbid for much of the input for the following:
1) If you don’t DIY (do it yourself), you die – Music industry professionals (manager, agents, labels, publisher and more) are attracted to musicians who take initiative and accomplish a great deal on their own first. Given the numerous tools available today for artists to promote their music, there’s simply no excuse for bands, solo artists, and songwriters not to build a story about their careers and generate a small buzz. Remember that no one is going to come save you and whisk you from your garage to superstardom, no matter how special you may think you are. If you want to get to that next level of your career, you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Attract the attention of those who can help you by first helping yourself.
2) There’s a quicker path to wealth than a career in music – Don’t be blinded by the media hype or glamour you see and hear in music videos, music magazines, and news shows. The expensive houses, yachts, carefree attitudes, and overnight success stories are often spun to make it look like the music business is an easy path to the good times. The truth is that these “riches” that artists flaunt are often leased, loaned, advanced, or purchased via other businesses and investments just to look the part. Make no mistake: if you’re in it for only the money, you’ll likely have a quicker path to success by being a money manager or a stock broker. As a musician, it could a very long time before you start making a comfortable living in the music business. Thus, be sure that you’re focused on the right things, like making quality music that you’re both proud of and can help you cover your bills. The rest, as they say, is gravy.
3) What you learn is as important as what you earn – It is amazing how so many musicians are interested in what they’re going to get paid before they even have any experience. They grumble about pre-selling tickets to their own shows, recording a song without getting paid, or playing another student’s recital for free. But as I see it, experience is a form of payment. Remember, the more stripes you have on your belt, the more respect you’ll get from more seasoned musicians and industry pros, and the greater chance you’ll have to get paid fairly. So at least in the beginning of your career, it’s not about what you earn, it’s about what you learn.
4) Music is never free – You spend several years writing your songs, thousands of dollars recording your music, and several hundred dollars packing your music for the marketplace. When all is said and done, you’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours of your precious time. So stop devaluing your music by giving it away for free! Rather, from now on give your music away “at no cost to the customer” and build value for it. Pursuing a career in music requires blood, sweat, and money. Nothing’s for free.
5) Contracts are meant to be negotiated – After years of hard work, the day will eventually come when contractual offers are presented to you. Congratulations! But don’t be so quick to jump at every deal like it’s a “take it or leave it” situation. First, you should never sign anything that you don’t understand or that you feel rushed or pressured to sign. Second, remember that most contracts are form agreements that are always drafted to favor the other party and are used as starting points for negotiations. That’s right! Most companies (labels, production companies, etc.) expect that you’re going to read, analyze, and ask for contract revisions. In fact, based on their desire to do business with you, and based on your strengths and accomplishments, many companies are prepared to make reasonable concessions. So slow down and remember this: In business (and that includes the music business), you never get what you deserve – you get what you negotiate for.
6) The value of a label – With all of the independent artists that are out there today making a living, and all of the resources and educational tools that are available for them, it seems like staying a free agent is the ideal option (especially with all of the record label horror stories that go around). However, record labels big and small have resources that independent artists have to work much harder to gain access to; there are still benefits to signing that contract if your record doesn’t get shelved.
International distribution – To this day, even artists who make it big independently often recruit the help of a major label to expand their distribution to a larger marketplace. Though independent artists can still get radio play (especially on college radio), it’s very difficult, and record labels are better than anybody else at getting artists on the airwaves and into the ears of everyday listeners. Having label distribution also makes it much easier to get copies of your record all over the world, greatly increasing your ability to tour internationally if your album sells well overseas. Of course, all of this is possible to do on your own, but it’s much more difficult and time consuming. Record labels specialize in distribution and have all of the contacts to make it happen.
Help building your team – In order to get any attention from a label whatsoever, you’ll generally need to have already started building a strong team around your brand. This includes people such as booking agents, publicists, lawyers, managers, and anybody else who helps handle the business stuff. Labels have big staffs of these very people on board, and when you sign on with one, they will often fill out your team with anybody you’re missing. Like with distribution, labels also have contacts overseas, and will help you build a team to have successful international tours (something that is, again, quite difficult and time consuming to do on your own).
Advances – Having a successful career making original music is definitely a full-time job plus overtime. In order to make it work, a lot of original artists ditch their day job before they’ve reached financial stability in their music career in the hopes of putting in all of their time and energy to jumpstart it. What ends up happening is many artists essentially living on the road, touring around and around and around the country in order to stay afloat (you don’t have to pay rent on a van). However, they have to stop and take a break somewhere eventually. But if you’re only ever breaking even on the road, what happens when you stop? This is where labels can help you out. If they sign to put a record out, they will often advance you a certain amount of money (though it’s not even close today as it used to be). While the label does get reimbursed for this directly out of your future record sales (and possibly all of your other streams of income, if you sign the dreaded but common 360 deal) having this money up front can at least allow you to survive while you’re off the road cutting your record. Of course, advances often backfire. If you don’t sell enough records to cover your advance, you’ll actually end up in debt to the label, which could make your future music career difficult. But if you’re one of the lucky few who get signed and actually sell enough records to stay out of debt, having an advance is a luxury that can keep food on your table when you’re off the road.
Legitimacy and reputation – Despite the way the recording industry has been evolving over the last decade or two, record labels are still power players in the world today. Perhaps it’s more out of tradition than respect, but being on a label will still grant your brand a certain sort of legitimacy that’s hard to attain otherwise. Signed bands get attention. Label affiliation is one of the first things that press, booking agents, promoters, talent buyers, and all sorts of other industry professionals will look at when you reach out to them for the first time (especially if it’s you who’s reaching out, rather than a member of your team). In fact, there are some folks who won’t even work with you if you aren’t affiliated with a label, unless you somehow are able to work your way into their inner circle or are selling out huge venues on your own.
Income potential – It’s entirely possible to make a living as an independent artist, and even a comfortable one. Though it’s hard work, the goal has never been more attainable than it is today, and people do it every day. Getting help from a label doesn’t guarantee that you will make more money than you could make independently. However, those who are able to take full advantage of the label’s benefits can reach levels of success that are still almost completely inaccessible to those who work independently. For example, what if through the label’s worldwide distribution, your record blows up on multiple continents, leading to multiple successful large-scale international tours? You may be able to work up to that point on your own, but it’s still something that’s much more realistic when you have the “machine” backing you. The chances are admittedly extremely slim, but if the stars align just right, you can end up making much more money than you ever could have independently. It’s a matter of risk vs. reward. In the end, it’s impossible to say exactly what could go down if you sign the contract. But even in today’s music industry, you can’t deny that labels still carry a ton of power and can be a resource for your success.
My very dear friend, Judson Spence, that I tour managed for back in the day when he was on the charts with the strong support of Atlantic Records, has been on the “big ride” for years with the majors to the independents to now just playing music for his own enjoyment. To support himself, he is a prolific song writer who writes for some of the biggest country and contemporary Gospel artists out there.