Getting a record deal used to be the number one priority for unsigned bands. Having the backing of a label, with the budget to distribute and market their music, was perhaps the only way to grow and start playing bigger and better shows. But with a shift in how listeners consume music, there’s been a change in what’s actually important when you want to “make it”.
In 2017, Chance The Rapper made history when he won three Grammy awards, despite not selling a single physical copy of his music. In fact, the Chicago-native hasn’t technically sold much music at all, especially not in comparison to his fellow Grammy winners, with physical copies of his three previous albums only being pressed this year. Despite remaining unsigned throughout his career, Chance managed to scoop the awards for Best New Artist, Best Rap Album, and Best Rap Performance.
With a massive feat like that possible for someone without the backing of a record label, it begs the question of whether you even need to get signed. Is this the future of music artists, or was Chance’s success simply a fluke?
Record labels manage your music
To understand why it is possible for independent artists to be successful without a label—and why it used to be more difficult—you need to get to grips with what a record label actually does. The main responsibilities any label has is fivefold. According to MN2S, these are music distribution, rights management, social media, legal and business, and licensing and syncing.
This is the most traditional job a label takes care of, and it’s simply getting your music out to the masses. A label tends to have the connections and budget to distribute music directly to retailers, streaming services, and media outlets the radio or TV. This works for digital recordings as well as physical copies. Known as “The Big Three”, the current major labels—which also own many beloved independent labels such as Island and Def Jam—are Universal, Sony, and Warner, and collectively control around 80% of the global music industry.
The bigger and better a label’s connections are, the larger (and more global) the audience will be. These connections can often lead to getting better manufacturing and distribution deals (M&D deal) which are legally binding agreements between a record label and music distributor. This means that the distributor pays for the manufacturing costs of an album, covering everything from the pressing process to the label printing, before recouping these costs from record sales.
A label is also in charge of registering the copyright to your music and collecting any royalties on your behalf. These royalties can come in from anywhere your music is played, whether during radio and TV broadcasts, internet streams, or over the PA in shops. It’s also up to the label to make sure that these plays are all perfectly legal, and that the establishments using your music have the right to do so.
Legal and business
A label’s legal team is there to make sure that your music isn’t played anywhere without permission, and that royalties are all paid. They will also be on-hand to negotiate the best agreements for the artists and label, and draw up any contracts.
Licensing and syncing
Similarly to the rights, licensing your music is crucial if you’re interested in getting it played on TV and in film. This also works if you want your music released on compilation albums, or exclusive releases from the label.
Often, official social media pages are managed at least in part by the label, and not wholly by the artist themselves. This is to ensure that social media campaigns, like promotions for shows or music, are effectively shared to get the maximum impact.
It’s easier to manage your own music
Of course, many of the things a label does can be done by you. Social media campaigns and promoting music online can be your responsibility if you’re social media savvy, while it’s now easier than ever to get your music out there. Platforms like SoundCloud were initially a way for aspiring musicians to share their music online for free, cutting out any industry middlemen. However, streaming subscriptions quickly took over, once again making existing chart-toppers the priority.
While it is possible to self-publish on platforms like Spotify, you still need to work with a distributor. Now, SoundCloud is working on adding a distribution service to its Premier program. This makes it much easier for indie artists to publish on SoundCloud, and then target the major streaming platforms—Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora—in one go, at no additional cost.
One of the biggest downfalls artists have with major labels is not being able to own their master recordings. Independent artists would famously sign away their rights in exchange for everything that comes with a label, only to struggle to get those rights back once they’re a household name. Taylor Swift famously parted with her label Big Machine, and consequently the rights to her previously-recorded music, in 2018, while Radiohead famously self-released their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, following a catalogue ownership battle with EMI.
Being able to own your masters is something that some of the biggest names in music struggle with. Self-publishing your music through services like SoundCloud could work out in your favor in the long-run, which you may not be able to do with a label.
Indie labels are thriving
Despite The Big Three being in control of a huge majority of music, independent labels have started making waves in. These are classified as labels that aren’t affiliated, or have the same budget, as the global conglomerates like Sony or Universal. Recent figures show that indie labels actually accounted for 39.9% of global recorded music in 2017, while 77% of artists chose to renew their contracts with these independent bodies. And some of these indie labels have some huge names on their roster. Dirty Hit, for example, boasts artists like The 1975 and Wolf Alice, while Glassnote Records is responsible for turning Mumford & Sons and Childish Gambino into household names.
As indie labels are much smaller, you have a much better chance of being involved in the management of your own music. You’re also likely to have much more creative freedom, and won’t generally be tied into a long contract, because the label won’t be able to afford to keep any acts for a long period of time. However, the budget will be understandably smaller than a major label, and you may find yourself having to fund any larger projects yourself. A smaller label may also mean fewer connections, so your music may not have as big a reach as you want.
Indie artists can take control
Any band or artist looking to get their music out there can remain unsigned and still enjoy the benefits. As long as you can record and produce your own music, you can, in theory, set it up for streaming and start earning some money. Another popular platform for new bands is Bandcamp, which gives artists a storefront for users to buy their music digitally and physically, though the website itself doesn’t manufacture products on a band’s behalf. For digital releases, the platform takes 15% of the costs, which drops to 10% as soon as you start making $5,000 a month.
In theory, if you’re considering taking control of your own music, you can do it easily, as long as you take self-promotion seriously. You would need to successfully market your music to your target audience, take control of booking the right venues for any gigs, and carefully promote every show you play.