With a lot of the bands I handle one of the things I have to focus on is managing expectations. I guess this makes sense – there’s a lot involved here and depending on your awareness of the scene and your place in it, we should be able to figure out where each and every one of us fits into the larger scheme of things. I was hoping to use this piece to talk about what you can and can not expect from an indie record label. Remember that this is all relative and really depends n your place in the label in relation to the other bands. Still – there are some general truisms that I think that we have an obligation to recognize and discuss so that you can get some idea of what you’re getting into.
I think that a lot of people undervalue the sheer PR power of being a young band on a label. Being signed to someone like Napalm Records, is good not just because of their PR team but also because labels like them function as curators of taste. So yeah, you will probably get some good coverage simply for being on a label, but it also helps to cement your place in the scene. People know that PR costs money and if they see you getting lots of press coverage but having never been on a real label they might start to get a little suspicious, and for good reason. In the internet age there’s a lot of crappy bands buying PR. That is not to say your band is crappy for getting PR and having no label – but it is something you need to be aware of when handling your image.
You also need to be aware that very few labels offer any sort of salary these days. The primary, and most tangible financial benefit that you are going to see is going to almost always be the advance which is meant to be used for recording. Making maximum use of your advance is important. I usually encourage my bands to record relatively cheaply and then use the money as a sort of ‘nut’ of cash. You can use it to fly out places, make the money back on tour and then find yourself back at home with the same chunk of change still available for touring purposes. Obviously this won’t always work, but the point remains – getting that kind of financial boost from your label and using it wisely can help bring your band to the next level.
By extension – some labels will offer tour support and you should always make sure this is at least an option for you. While tour support definitely dried up for a few years it seems that, as a general rule many labels are becoming more willing to offer it because they see bands selling far more merchandise on the road then when at home, so it makes sense as a financial investment. Everyone makes more money when the band is on the road. (Balancing how much you should be on the road is a lot harder, but that’s a story for a different day) If you’re signed to a label that could afford a decent sized advance you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for tour support – just be aware of what you’re getting into.
Beyond that you can expect the label to help fund at least some merchandise and CD’s/vinyl. Usually with t-shirts and the like, the label has a couple of designs they have exclusivity on and they allow you to do everything else on your own – which I’ve always viewed as pretty fair. As for CD’s and vinyl… well if the label essentially funded recording and printing it makes sense hat they get most of the money from that. Again though – this is a great financial relief for the band. Especially on the indie level the less you have to spend the easier that your life is going to be. The point I’m trying to make is that labels are largely product oriented, and you need to be aware of this going in.
Of course – this isn’t all just magical money that comes out of nowhere. By getting an advance and tour support and merchandise printed you are going to be in debt to the label. The more you ask for the more you owe and the longer it will be before your label derived pursuits start to make you and your band money. Consequently you need to be very careful with the execution. If you know what you’re doing though and you’re careful and smart about it you can usually turn around and start making money again within a year by carefully parsing money from advances and live shows to fund the band until then. It is by no means a perfect system, and people are often outraged when they see how much they can owe labels – but that’s just how it goes – it’s always been this way and no one has really come up with a better option. Even the coolest indie labels are going to ask for some chunk of your debt to be paid before they switch to percentages.
I know that that last paragraph seems kind of doom & gloom and I totally see why you would perceive it that way too – it is indeed kind of terrifying to think about. That being said – there is a reason that most low and mid level bands want a label. Sure some bands make do without and yes, management and booking agents are arguably more important, but having a label to help fund your pursuits is crucial, an important venture that drives us all forward. Labels aren’t made up of people trying to hurt you – instead it’s dudes like you and me who just love this stuff so much that they can’t do anything else and are trying to bring the entire world of music forward. It’s a brutal life, but one we all need to take part in – we have no choice.