Record labels these days probably are almost never going to offer you an advance, nor are they going to offer you an exceptional percentage on royalties to make up for it. Of course, they can help you pay for merch and getting CD’s out, but even that isn’t that exceptional these days, when more musicians than ever have real jobs protecting them and allowing them to fund their music. So, where does this leave the record label? What makes it worth working with them, rather than just putting stuff out on your own? The answer my friend, is brand affiliation. We’ve talked about how labels are curators of taste in the past, but now they have also become important for a similar, but still separate reason. There is a very real significance to being on a label with a strong reputation. It helps to establish your brand and elevate the discussion around your work to a new level.
This circles back to that idea of controlling the narrative, that we have touched on time and time again. Sure, people in the industry know that having a label doesn’t really mean all that much in this day and age, but people on the outside don’t need to know that. If you can get signed to a label with a hip name but not really getting any money for it, it’s still probably worth it. Why? Because you’re getting pulled into something greater than yourself. For example, if you have an option to sign to SubPop with no advance you should still probably go for it, even if the percentage is subpar. In the long term that contributes to who you want to be and gets people talking, a lot more than if you just put a record out with your buddies independent label.
That being said – you want to make sure that whatever label you end up going with, even if it is just for brand affiliation purposes isn’t going to gouge you. That’s a whole separate conversation but one that I feel needs to be touched on at least briefly. You ALWAYS want a lawyer looking at your contracts to make sure you’re not screwing yourself over. A lot of labels will sell you on this idea of brand affiliation and then only hurt you. You need to be extremely careful when signing a contract where one of the main incentives is associating with a label and nothing more, it could certainly elevate the narrative but it could also screw up your career for years to come. That’s an intangible and perpetual struggle you’re going to have to face with your band when the time comes.
When considering brand affiliation you also need to consider what it means for your bands brand to be associating with that label. You want to have a mutual benefit situation, you don’t want your label to be benefiting more off of your brand than you do off of theirs. This is not often the case, but you need to be careful you’re not hurting yourself. You are going to want to make sure that if your band is a hot, up and coming group that you don’t end up affiliating with a label who people view as slow and dying. Again – it’s a very hard balance to strike but it’s one that makes all of the difference in the world. You need to get into the habit of asking more established musicians and industry folks for their opinions on various labels to make sure that when the time comes you don’t end up affiliating with a crappy record label.
Like I said though – this is VERY case by case. The best thing you can do is to find someone with a lot more experience in your particular scene and ask them for advice as you try to find a way forward. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust your own judgment to, but in something as focused on popular opinion as independent music it pays to get as many opinions as possible. Some folks just want ‘yes men’ you don’t want that. You want people giving you well thought out and developed ideas that will help your band to grow and connect with record labels who will help expand what you are all about with their connections and brand rather than anything else.
I don’t want to make it sound like you can’t trust record labels for anything, but unfortunately you can’t. That’s just the way it is. The only thing that you can count on from your record label is their name being affiliated with you, at least for one record, if not multiple. So if you do trust them for stuff beyond that then you are setting yourself up for disappointment. There is literally one good thing left about labels that they are forced to give you, and that’s their name. It’s very hard to twist their arms for other things, so until you get to that level just go out, rage, and let brand affiliation be your guide as you navigate the weirdness of the music industry.