It is one of the greatest questions that plague the minds of artists everywhere. Should you join a label or stay independent? This question has become more and more of a serious deliberation in recent years thanks to the rise of independent streaming & a big move away from the record label’s control. The simple answer, it’s up to you! But we all know that there are a variety of factors to weigh when making a decision as important as this.
Let’s start with the “big, bad” labels. There has been this stigma about labels for many years that says labels are mean, power-hungry organizations who will suck the life out of their artists at any opportunity that they get. In some cases, this is true. But in many, and I mean MANY cases this is just plain horse-shit. The reason that there are successful artists is mainly the cause of these incredibly big labels.
Why is that?
One big reason: connections to the industry. You see, labels have garnered so much power & prestige because the people that work within the label over the years have developed a sort of super-network within the all-expansive music industry. These connections allow the labels to essentially have an all-in-one power-grip on their artists, simply because they can offer so much upfront. Need a studio to record in? The label’s got you covered. Need to play some shows for exposure? The label has got you set up, no problem at all. The list can go on and on for what the label offers to its artists. Money is another one of those aspects.
As important as it is for artists to make music, it’s also extremely imperative that they can make money while doing it. We’ve all got bills to pay and mouths to feed, right? Well just like having a large network, the labels also have very large pockets. Depending on the contract that they sign, the artist may be able to pick up a pretty advance from the label to pay the bills while their music is taking off. But because we live in a money-hungry world, that advance isn’t free. Many deals require that be paid back through YOUR royalties & revenue; and unfortunately for many artists, if the music doesn’t take off, you have a sizeable debt to pay back. On top of that, if the music goes nowhere the label won’t want to keep you around.
Labels are Hard!
That is exactly why it’s very difficult to get on to a label in the first place. These guys know what to look for and where to find it. The A&R at Universal Music isn’t going to scout an artist with a low social media following, regardless of their musical prowess. As an artist, you have to show a massive amount of potential (potential = money). It’s not JUST the music that will get you somewhere, it’s your business acumen & a large amount of luck.
In today’s current climate, the music industry is SWAMPED with artists eager to make a career out of their music. You could throw a dart at a map of the world and it will land on someone’s home town who is making incredible sounds. Unfortunately, the label system is made for the few. So why not try and go independent?
Let’s define Independent:
In the traditional sense of the word, an independent artist is someone that is not associated with a major record label (or a record label at all, for that matter). They self-released their music & fund their tours, merchandising, etc… These guys are what I like to call “Freelance Musicians.” They understand that they might not make the most money, but it’s the creative control & lack of binding contracts that fuel their fire.
So what’s the big difference?
It might seem obvious to some, but there are a plethora of differences between being independent & being attached to a label. So much so that it would be difficult to sum it all up into one article. But I’ll hit the key points.
First of all, you don’t have a binding contract. The only contract that exists is the one that resides within your mind. How dedicated are you to yourself? Do YOU believe that you can make it as an independent artist? These questions are important, especially for someone who is looking to take on the challenge.
You don’t have anyone to prove anything to…except yourself and the people that you’re making music for. There are no A&Rs to impress & no accountants are breathing down your neck to make more money to pay back that advance. All that you have to do is prove to yourself that you can make it. If you can make it without the help of a major label, more props to you anyways!
Another benefit of being independent is money. All of the money that you make, you get to keep. You don’t owe anybody anything (unless you have a team that you pay). But with that also comes with the fact that you have to put money into it to get anything out of it. You don’t have that label to keep you afloat and loan you any cash.
There are no pre-set connections in the industry. If you want to succeed, you’ll need to create a network large enough to support your craft. If you have a group of people that see your worth, from managers to venue owners & beyond, you’re already set up for success in the small-scale. But you need to grind to make those connections happen. It doesn’t just fall into your lap.
You’re not alone!
If you were ever worried about being a lone-wolf in an empty wasteland, you were very, VERY wrong. The trend of independent artists is growing exponentially as more and more tools become available to those outside of the label sphere. But with that comes a price.
When you have an industry as saturated as the music space, you’re guaranteed to be a small fish in a big lake. It is an extremely competitive industry to be a part of, especially as an artist. Competition always comes with struggles, but that’s not to say that it can’t help to elevate you in your career.
You have to be able to rise above the noise & set yourself apart from all of the other independent artists out there. In doing so, you will become more of an asset for yourself & also for any potential deals that might come along the way.
What if you didn’t have to simply choose one or the other?
There are plenty of artists out there that started independently. I would say that a solid amount of anyone famous now started independently. It’s just the nature of the game.
The game has changed, of course, & now more than ever you as an independent artist has to work three times as hard as the guy at the label. But you shouldn’t just limit yourself to being independent forever!
Here is an example: I know a guy who started his career as an independent artist. He built up enough clout & recognition over the years, had an incredible following, & was making good money doing what we loved. That’s when that fancy label A&R showed up knocking on his door offering the deal of a lifetime. My friend took it, of course, & went on to be 10 times more successful than he was as an independent.
Another friend of mine started independent and got offered a very similar deal. But he likes the independent way of life and told them to screw off. This friend of mine continued his path as an independent and still is just as successful as he sees fit.
It doesn’t matter
No matter how you do it, you have the CHOICE. And that is my main point with today’s post. You can do anything with your career. Choose to stay independent for your entire life if that’s what makes you happy. You can also choose to go the way of the label once you feel like you need the additional support of a larger organization.
So, should you join a label or stay independent? At the end of the day, it comes down to what YOU want. I always advocate for people to look at both the pros and the cons of each scenario. It’s just the same as any other industry in the world. You have the freelancers, & you have the career workers. Whatever floats your both.
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