It seems like every day there’s a new way to listen to music as a fan. As a musician, you want to ensure your music has the opportunity to be heard on all new platforms. Luckily, or thanks to a lot of hard work by many people, major record labels are not the gatekeepers they once were. You no longer need to sign with a "Major" to get music out to the masses in a massive way.
These days, anyone can use a digital distributor to get their music on streaming platforms and into digital music stores; however, record labels still do have clout. They have leverage in the industry including because the major labels have many of the major stars, and cash to spend to try to create more stars.
As an independent musician, it might be tough to determine what is the best long-term path to growth and success. When it comes to distributing your music, there are three broad options: a major label (Universal, Sony, Warner), an independent label, and going the DIY route.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to find an audience, and monetize your music independently, without the assistance of a record label of any size. The more success you find, however you’ve found it, the more likely record labels are to reach out.
If you land on influential playlists and your numbers shoot up, you might be contacted. If you go viral on Tik Tok, expect a call. Big labels will want to capitalize on your success, invest in your career and help take that Tik Tok love into much bigger arenas, figuratively and literally.
You may have many questions when offered your first contract from a record label. You can seek advice from a music lawyer, like me, or one of many other talented music lawyers in your country, or not. Even if you do hire a lawyer, this lawyer suggests that, before you pay for advice, do as much homework as you can. Research labels and label agreements, talk to people in the industry who may have valuable insights, and learn what you can about the label in question.
A key recurring question is what kind of artist are you, and where do you see yourself best represented in the Major, Indie, DIY continuum? Where artists like you are making it is one factor to consider. While most artists have fewer options earlier in their career, if you have the choice, then you may consider picking the option that fits your style best.
Here are a set of questions to consider when thinking about signing a record deal:
A major label has many more people working for them than an indie label. More people means you are less likely to work with the same person throughout your time at the label. Major labels have many experts in different areas (marketing, promotions, playlisting, radio tracking, distribution, etc.) compared to an indie, where fewer people take on more roles. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. It’s a matter of understanding what’s offered. Know the family you’re about to marry into, regardless of its size.
1. Who are these people?
The most important part of any contract (music or otherwise) is who is on the other side of the deal. Do your due diligence. There is more risk if you’re the only artist on a label, or the label is run by people who have no experience in music. There will likely be other people on the label’s roster, so talk to them to get a sense of their experience. See if you can find out who left the label, too.
2. Who am I actually going to be working with?
Now is the time to ask “who is behind the curtain” and “who will I actually be working with”. The answer may either give you confidence in the label or lead you to walk away. You want to work with people that get your music, and who seem eager to take you to the next level.
3. If a certain someone leaves the label, is that OK?
If you only sign because the label employs one particular person – possibly someone in the A&R department who “discovered” you and is your champion – and that person leaves the day after you sign, are you going to be OK with that? Are there ways for you to leave the label early if that person leaves?
Record label commitments
Generally speaking, a major label has more financial capacity for marketing and recording than an indie label. However, just because a major label has resources does not mean that you will get the benefit of those resources. If the major label decides it would rather invest its funds elsewhere, you might even be worse off. A major label has a larger roster of potential collaborators, but that doesn't mean those artists want to, or are able to, work with you.
4. What are they going to do for me regarding… recording costs?
It’s important to ensure you know the cost of the music you plan to record and release with the label. If you expect the label to cover some or all of the costs, you want that commitment in your contract. If the label agrees to pay you up to $10,000 to record a project, that is not a commitment of $10,000; rather, it is a commitment of anywhere between $0 and $10,000. Ask: what is the minimum recording fund?
5. What are they going to do for me regarding… marketing costs?
Possibly one of the most important reasons to sign with a label is to get the label to market your music. What are they committing to do – both regarding both internal resources and third party marketing spends covering digital ads, third party publicists, radio trackers, etc.? Ask: What is the marketing commitment?
6. What are they going to do for me regarding… promoting my music on playlists?
Another big reason to sign with a label vs. the DIY method is the promise labels have to get your music on playlists. What’s their pitch on how they can get you on those playlists? Do you believe it? What have they done, specifically, for other artists in your musical lane?
7. Are they going to connect me with other artists for collabs?
Yet another great reason to sign with a label is the network of other artists for you to work with. Ask about this in advance and don’t make assumptions about the access you will have to the other artists on the label.
8. Are they going to send me to writing camps?
While this is more of a publishing agreement perk, some labels will put money towards sending you to relevant cities to work with relevant people, or to writing camps to write new music with others.
The answers to these questions will depend in part on whether the offer is from a major label or an indie, with majors far more likely to make these kinds of investments; however, indies sometimes believe it is reasonable to offer the same kind of deal as a major label. This may be reasonable or not depending on the circumstances.
If you decide not to sign to a label at all, you’ll have complete control over the direction of your music. You also have complete control over your marketing, and the free will to say "yes" or 'no" to any opportunities that come your way. However, your resources, as well as your access to different connections may be more limited.
Coming up next in this series, we’ll go over how money and royalties work for artists who sign a major or an indie record label deal.
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Byron Pascoe is an entertainment lawyer and partner with Edwards Creative Law – Canada’s Entertainment Law Boutique™. The firm works with Music, TV/Film, Interactive Digital Media, and other creative clients. One of Byron’s main areas of focus is music law, working with recording artists, producers, composers, managers, music service businesses, and festivals.
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