So one thing that I’ve seen happen to tons of bands that I work with is differentiating between real and bogus record deals. Every day dozens, if not hundreds of bands think they’ve finally made the big time and end up signing a record deal that hurts their reputations, makes them lose money and generally leaves them worse off than when they started. The worst part is that frequently the record labels ripping them off don’t realize what they are doing wrong, which only serves to compound the frustration. So I think it’s important to look at what the signs are for bogus record deals, what legitimate record labels have, and what these scam record labels think they are actually doing as well as why people get involved in this in the first place. I say this as someone who’s seen both sides of the coin. I worked for a bogus label for a while, and now I work for a few real ones, the difference is astounding and it taught me a lot about the nature of the music industry.
So first and foremost you need to be looking at the reviews of record labels and who else they have put out. If the label is at all established then you are probably going to find at least some consumer and artist feedback on the label. This should be the first way which you go out in order to determine if a label is the real deal or not. If you’re not seeing a lot of feedback and not seeing a lot of releases from established bands that frequently suggests that the label is a scam. Now a lot of this ends up happening because artists ignore the most important part of being an independent musician starting out, they don’t know their scene, so they don’t have the ability to differentiate which labels are legitimate and signing bands that people care about. That being said, things can go the other way too, you can sign to a shitty label because it has all your friends bands and then realize you’re all getting screwed over. If you’re in doubt go to scene elders, those types of people love to help.
Furthermore with bogus labels you need to be wary if they ask for money up front. There’s a lot of labels who are not afraid to take the money and run. Or who expect you to front a ton of costs. Now some of that is within reason, sometimes labels do that because they are essentially a glorified distribution company, they perform label services, they help you with marketing, they get your record out there, they have their own PR people and they need to be paid, and that’s fine. However those labels need to be upfront about this, and if you are going to sign to one of them then you need to make sure that they have a good roster and aren’t just doing this to get your money. If they are chasing dollars then they clearly don’t have the big picture in mind. They just take your money, run your product through what boils down to a system and then put it out to minimal acclaim. While labels probably won’t share sales numbers with you they definitely will work with you to prove they are legitimate, it’s up to you to make sure that everything adds up.
I think the final thing to be aware of with the legitimacy of labels is how communicative they are. Some labels will take your product and then disappear on you. They won’t give you royalty statements, they might not even give you a signed contract from their end. They will just put out your record, send you some copies and never speak to you again. This of course becomes a huge issue when you are trying to restock on CD’s and they have exclusive rights to produce your product and you can’t afford a lawsuit. Furthermore, when they are asking for money up front, if they aren’t super communicative then it means they are probably just going to disappear with your cash. You want a label that you can have something of a friendly and professional relationship with. If you don’t have this relationship then how are you going to build up to a better label or take advantage of your labels resources? That’s right – you simply can’t.
Now I also believe that a lot of these labels don’t view themselves as bad guys. While some labels I think are definitely aware that they are just a factory or have no problem disappearing with other peoples money I think that a lot of the scam labels just don’t know any better. They think they have a good distribution deal and that they have connections and when they tell their bands this they genuinely believe it. This is just because they don’t have the context to understand what it really takes to succeed in this industry and it leads to a very negative and weird environment. You have a label asking you for money for a task they can’t properly complete and this only holds you back and twists your band into oblivion. Simply put, if you set yourself up with an ignorant and incompetent group of people then of course you will be hurt. However it’s very rare that ignorant and incompetent people know that they are such, and that’s where things get hairy.
The music industry is a famously sketchy place and it can be hard to tell who is on the up and up, especially since the most successful people often have to resort to some sketchier methods just to get the job done. We are constantly working together to push for a better future, but that’s not always a future that’s easy to deal with. When you don’t educate yourself and buy into the honey tongued lies of so many of these industry scammers you are hurting not just yourself but the industry as a whole. The more that slumlords see these methods work then the more they are going to gout and do them. We need to team up and make sure that people who want to rip off bands have no place and that by paying careful attention to the signs we build towards better and bolder labels.
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