Why Record Labels Still Matter
I’ve started to get an impression from a lot of independent artists these days that record labels are a bad thing. When bands like Radiohead and Metallica started to do stuff on their own people began to realize that they didn’t really need big labels to help make their work well known. This is technically correct, but I’ve also noticed that a lot of people have started to demonize labels and say that they aren’t worth anything. Now that isn’t true at all, I think it’s time to remind the music playing populace that record labels really still are worth something, even if virtually none of them will ever see your record go platinum.
Here’s the thing – at this point, piracy has been the reality of the industry for about fifteen years. This means that someone who graduated college in 2000 to go straight into the music industry is now 37 and is now probably working a fairly high level job. Most of these people understand exactly how brutal piracy is and have been dealing with it for their entire careers. Hell – a lot of people in the industry, for better or for worse, got into music via piracy, I know I did. The point I’m trying to make is that people get it, and they are trying to adapt to it, you’re not dealing with idiots here, these people are making money off the industry because they understand it and love it, even if their paychecks have been cut.
Furthermore, these people all really love music, I can guarantee you that no one is in it for the money these days, everyone is here for the passion, which is in my opinion, a very good thing. What this means though is that almost every record label person that you end up dealing with is probably both very good at their job and utterly in love with music. If you want to be able to carry on the passion is a must. For a few years, it definitely probably was a bad idea to go to a label, because yes, a lot of those people did in fact only do it for the money, but now they’ve started to come to terms with it and the people who have stayed are the ones who feel like they can’t do anything else.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful when picking a label. There are a lot of record labels and distribution companies out there who prey on bands and twist product out of your hands for no return. There will always be crass hangers on who take advantage of bright eyed young people who don’t understand basic financial realities. Yet, if you find the right label, one who have a commitment to treating bands right and who are dedicated to their craft then it’s easy to see why the label system is still very valid.
After all – record labels are the people who are still willing to invest in your band, and the good ones will hook you up with all kinds of services, from promotion to graphic design. Some of this will come out of your pockets (Or rather as a part of your debt to to the label) but the label also tends to get these things at discounted rates and a god label should know how to employ these, and actually be paying people to execute your needs at the highest possible level. Now I know that being in debt to a label can be a little scary – but in all honesty, the money you made for your band should usually just be going right back into the band – for almost every band members shouldn’t be trying to end up by profiting personally off of the music until they reach very high levels.
The other important thing to remember is the legendary Advance. Now, a lot of these are probably a damn sight smaller than they were back in the day, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still amazing resources for your band. If you can swing a five thousand dollar advance then suddenly you have money that can fund touring for years to come, or at least until the next album. Then, if you’re doing your job at all well then you should be able to negotiate your way to an even higher advance for the next record, gradually scratching your way up to the point that you can fund expeditions to all sorts of exotic locales to share your music the the people who need it most.
Now – be aware that I’m definitely not trying to suck record labels collective dicks, again, the vast majority of labels are frankly, kind of destructive, and you need to be very careful when signing a contract. If you get locked in to the wrong sorts of stipulations then you’re already screwed before you get started. It always pays to have a lawyer read over your contract, and in fact most labels encourage it, they could have made a mistake to. I’m not saying that you should hand yourself over, even to big name labels with the blind conviction that you will be taken care of. You still need to do a lot of work on your own after you get signed and you still need to handle all manners of the day to day suffering that so often defines the music industry.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you should always have an attitude of gratitude towards your label. Even if the label is able to have some people working full time there’s probably a lot of folks who do stuff with them for free for no other reason than that they like to work with bands. Sure these people make more money than you do from music, but they are also handling many more bands and have extremely specialized soft skills that you probably shouldn’t ignore. Record labels aren’t out to hurt you, in fact in most cases it’s quite the opposite. Labels most often run themselves into the ground because they were trying to help bands and this screwed their business practices, not the other way around.
At the end of the day – you don’t need a record label to do well in this industry, and you can probably make a living without one. But god damn they can really help and they can guide you towards a brighter future. This is not a task for the faint of heart, nor one that can just be handed off to one member, it’s a full band decision that needs to be carefully considered and worked on. Yet when the time comes, and you dive on in, realize that there is hope, and at the end of the day a good label will take you to places you never imagined possible.