|Label Deals: The Ultimate Goal...Or Is It?|
by Mark E. Waterbury
The holy grail. The treasure of Sierra Madre. Noah's Ark. You can liken a search for any of these artifacts to how many bands and musicians feel about their quest for a recording deal. From the day when they strummed their first bar chord or sang along to Led Zeppelin while holding a hairbrush "microphone" to their mouth in front of the mirror, fledgling musicians have aimed towards that label deal as the ultimate prize. After all, their heroes who they hear on the radio, watch on MTV or witness in concert in front of thousands of adoring fans instill fairly intensive pipe dreams. The lure of the fame, fortune and adulation of being a star musician has a highly enticing even intoxicating affect on young musicians. So they build nearly their entire careers around that premise, that anything short of a major label deal equates failure.
It is not a bad idea to have goals and dreams, but it can be bad if you are not realists as well. The massive percentage of bands and musicians will never come close to being superstar musicians, or even getting a major label deal. This may be disheartening for some, but you also have to realize that you can make a comfortable living by performing and recording original music, and you don't always need a label to do it. DIY is a more commonly heard term in the business nowadays; the Do It Yourself bands who manage to tour the world, sell CDs and - most importantly, MAKE MONEY! Maybe you won't see them on the cover of Rolling Stone, but that does not mean they are not making a good living, and they are also probably enjoying what they are doing. The bands who get into it for the fame and fortune and then give up if they don't get signed probably are not as passionate about creating music for a living as those who get out there and just play and record all the time, whether they have a label behind them or not. If you enjoy what you are doing and are making a living at it, then you are a giant leap ahead of many people in all walks of life.
One of the first aspects you have to realize about getting a label deal is that in the current business climate getting signed to a major or large indie label does not necessarily mean that you are going to be wealthy and famous. One aspect is that with a record label - particularly the majors - there are too many ways the pie hatoo many wasy the CD sales pie has to be split with only the tiniest percentage of it usually goes to the artist. Of course there are other ways that a label band can make money, including concerts, merchandising and publishing, but you are going to have to divide that up with the label in most cases as well. These days, labels rarely give bands advances against what their first album makes, but if that does happen, one mistake bands commonly make is that they think the advance is free money. An advance is basically like a loan, you have to pay it back, it is called recouperation. The label is going to most likely expect you to use the advance to record or rerecord your album anyway. The advance is going to come out of anything you make in the beginning until it gets paid off, and unless you turn out a hit, don't expect to see very much (if any) money from your first CD until the advance is paid off.
There is no doubt that labels, especially the majors, have the resources to turn you into stars. They have the radio promotion budgets, the PR machinery, and the booking agents that can get your music out in front of millions of fans. The caveat is that labels do not necessarily put the full thrust of their support behind all their signees. If you are one of those bands that receives a less than concerted effort from the label, then chances are you aren't going to make any money and you will probably get dropped after the first CD has run its course. Then there is your recording contract. When you sign your first deal, chances are you are not going to have much leverage to negotiate yourself a more lucrative deal. Many bands and musicians have the mistaken idea that a bad record deal is better than no record deal, and that is simply not true. I will not name names, but some fairly well known bands in their past have made such terrible mistakes on their first contracts as; allowing the label lifetime rights to their merchandising; selling their publishing to the label for one dollar; and giving an overseas label the rights to the entire world. Merchandising and publishing are two sacred avenues for you to make money that you need to hold onto. If you signed a deal giving the label exclusive rights to your publishing, and then they halfheartedly promote your CD before booting you from their roster, they may still retain those publishing rights. They can shop your music to film, TV or other performers on their label looking for songs, and then you get nothing from all your creations. Perhaps the worst backlash of having a bad record deal is losing the rights to your songs that were born of your hard work and talent. If you do get a deal offered to you, it is imperative that you seek the advice of an entertainment attorney before you sign on that dotted line.
So getting a label deal is not all it is cracked up to be in less you somehow buck the percentages and become one of those lucky few that does get the support needed to get your music out to the masses. In order for you to get into a position where you do have a chance of getting a deal that is more lucrative and on your own terms is to go about your career with the DIY attitude. With all the resources available from published guides to the internet to your own networking abilities, there is no reason why you cannot make money with your music if you work hard at it. You can book your own tours, and of course when you first play out you are not going to make a lot of money on your shows, but you can sell CDs and merchandise to make up for it. It's fairly reasonable nowadays to print a thousand or so CDs, and then when you sell them, after you pay off the expenses of getting them pressed, the rest of the money is yours. You don't have to line the pockets of a bunch of suits in some office building with your hard earned pay. You can find your own avenues to pitch your music to licensing and publishing entities. You also have the opportunity to reinvest some of our earnings into the band to gain more attention. Yes, the labels all have their own radio promoters and publicity departments, but if they do not push your album hard enough what good will they do you? You may not have to pay them directly but if you are not making any money that doesn't really matter, does it? You can reinvest some of your earnings to hire outside PR agencies and radio promoters who most likely are going to work a lot harder for you since the relationship will be more personable and neither party will be mired in corporate miasma. They can help spread the word about your music, often on a national level even with independent companies, and the more the word is spread the more money you can make. It's part of growing your band like a small business. You can create your own record label that you release your CDs under, and enjoy a much higher percentage of the profits if you do it yourself. Some bands have sold tens of thousands of CDs on their own, and if you do want to be one of those lucky few that does get a good record deal that will make you a household name, that kind of DIY success is something that the labels really respect and look for. They are much more likely to push your music if they see that you have done such a great job of getting your music out on your own.
Since the odds lay so heavily against you becoming a rich superstar, you have to really look at yourself and discover why you are making music. If you have a love and a passion for it, of course you want to share your music with as many people as possible. If you truly love making music then being able to make a comfortable living off of it should be satisfying for you. People who go into the business solely for fame and fortune often have big egos to go with it and don't have the work ethic because they think everyone will go ga-ga over their music and that will be it. When the fame does not happen for them the way they want it to, they turn bitter and often leave the business altogether. You can be happy and make a nice living and still have thousands of fans, and you don't need a record label in your corner to do it. You just need the good music, proper attitude and work ethic, a good team and a little common business sense.