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Pros and Cons of Signing to a Label
by Jef Peace
For the purpose of this article, I'll split "Label"
into three categories; "Independent Label," "Major
Label," and "Private Label (unsigned)." The three cross
the gray area on occasion, but for the most part, independent labels are like
major labels because the generally aspire to be major labels and conduct their
About the author
Independent Label Pros:
Independent labels are generally very artist friendly. They are generally owned
by one person or a couple partners. Independents tend to be owned by musicians
and they can really empathize with the difficulties involved in making a living
Independent labels will not be inclined to sign a band and then "put them
on the shelf." They need to make every band they sign a money-making
proposition and will generally work very hard to get the band into as big a
spotlight as is possible with their limited resources. Successful independents
have learned the fine art of negotiation and diplomacy and are quite effective
in marketing you to select groups which can often develop into a very large
following of loyal fans that will buy almost anything you produce.
Independent Label Cons:
Independents do not have large advertising budgets and the majority of their
marketing is done through rather intimate networking via email, telephone and
cooperatives with other independent music industry businesses. This means that
word of your music goes out to a much smaller group than the majors can offer.
You won't get any MTV airplay or 30 second spots during the Super Bowl if you
sign to an independent.
Independents generally work with finished cds rather than put you in a studio
to produce cds and when they do negotiate production, it is usually charged to
you. This means more out-of-pocket investment for you than with a major.
Independents don't have the clout the majors have. They can't force your music
on the public, you have to earn whatever fame you achieve by producing music that
is worthy of attention.
Major Label Pros:
The main benefit to being signed to a major label is that the majors have huge
sums of money at their disposal and they spend rather freely to promote their
star clients. The trick is being a star client.
Even if you don't fit into their prima donna category, you will still enjoy the
benifits that come from being in their catalog, including easier access to
gigs, discounts on equipment (even free stuff sometimes), and much greater
chances of having your music used in commercials, movies, etc.
Major labels tend to take care of all the details for you. Things like
production, touring, legal issues, etc. As long as you trust your manager and
that trust is deserved, you'll usually have the best chance of huge success if
you sign to a major label.
Major Label Cons:
Being noticed by a major is difficult at best and being noticed only assures a
possibility of signing. Even signing doesn't mean a thing unless they actively
promote you. There is more than one band out there that is signed to a major
label and the members are working at fast food jobs because the label is
"sitting" on them. It's even a fairly common practice among the
majors to sign bands because they fear the competition with a band they have
put a lot of money into.
A significant number of the bands a label acquires is for the purpose of
shutting them up because they are considered competition for one of the label's
stars. No, this is not paranoia, it happens all the time. A band will be signed
and then ignored for the term of their contract. Majors are concerned with the
profit and that is generally all they are concerned with. If you sign to a
major label and you are making money for them, you will be treated like
royalty. If you sign to a major label and do not make money for them, you will
be, at best, ignored.
Last, but certainly not least, major labels are generally operated by people
who couldn't begin to write a song of their own and wouldn't be able to tell
the difference between a melodic song with strong hooks and a two-chord droning
mantra. They simply have no concept of music other than its potential for
making money. They rely heavily on A&R people to tell them what's good.
A&R people are generally so concerned with keeping thier jobs that their
judgement is clouded by what is the current trend rather than what is really
Private Label Pros:
The biggest and only real advantage to being a private label is that you are in
total control of every aspect of your music. You answer to no one but your
bandmates . . . well, them and your significant others.
Private Label Cons:
Imagine climbing a huge mountain of tempered steel coated with vaseline
completely naked with no tools and a whole crowd of people below you telling
you what a stupid thing it is that you're trying to do . . . that's easier in
most cases than becoming noticed as a private label. You will face skepticism
almost constantly and abject apathy more often than not. You'll have to prove
yourself again and again and even then, it will be a struggle.
Sure, there are many examples of successful independents and it is possible to
make a decent living with your music if you spend a lot of time researching the
stories those successful independents tell. Be prepared to spend hundreds of
hours promoting your music; it is a grueling task you face.
Obviously, the most logical choice would be to sign to a major label, but only
if you can be one of their prime groups. Otherwise, it could kill your music,
not support it.
If you want the benefits of being signed to a label, but don't want to risk
being shelved or told what music to make or how to dress, take a look at PeaceWork Records.
You will retain artistic control and their agreement is non-exclusive, leaving
you free to promote your music in other ways at the same time PWR is hard at
work getting you noticed.
If you want to go the independent route, there are two publications I would
strongly urge you to obtain immediately. "The Indie Bible"
http://www.indiebible.com/peacework) contains an incredible list of
contacts you'll need to promote yourself and "How To Promote Your
Music Successfully On The Internet"
(http://www.musicbizacademy.com/bookstore/htpromotemusic.htm) is a practical,
step-by-step guide written by one of those successful independent musicians.
Keep reading articles like this one to get little gems to help you on your
journer, but above all . . .keep making music!
(c) 2003 - Jef Peace - all rights reserved.
: Jef Peace is the co-founder and Senior Partner of PeaceWork
Music Net (www.peaceworkmusic.net), founder and owner of PeaceWork Records
(www.peacework.com/Label) as well as the co-founder and main writer and vocalist for
the band Jazza Diction (http://www.peacework.com/Label/jazzadiction.htm). He has
been writing, composing and performing for over 20 years and has been involved in
the business side of the music industry since 1999.