The major label industry is dirty. The mechanisms of this record industry are exploitative and detrimental to creative people.
Whatever ounce of passion and stardust pushes professionals into this career quickly vanishes, only to be replaced by distant cynicism...
The major record labels are systemically out-of-touch.
The who, why, and what of that story is far longer than this article. Today, we're just going to outline the top 5 reasons why you should put signing with a major label out of your mind for the next two decades.
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He's the Founder of Indepreneur. He makes websites. He sings soul music. He teaches marketing to thousands of independent artists every day. He manages several music careers. He's an absolute weirdo. Orlando Weekly describes his voice as "the real deal".
In the days of vinyl, shipping music across the country could easily result in a few broken records.
So, record labels charged artists a 20% "breakage" fee...
That means that the record industry was claiming that 1 in every 5 vinyl records created would break in transit!
I call bullshit, but it gets a lot worse...
Obviously, vinyl is far more delicate than a cassette tape or a CD in a big plastic case. Even still, record labels continued to charge a 20% breakage fee when the industry largely shifted over to tapes and CDs.
Luckily, streaming and digital downloads represent a majority of revenue now. So, the day's of bending artists over barrels for a 20% breakage fee are over...
Oh wait, they're not! Record labels still charge 20% fees for breakage and what they are now calling "digital breakage".
Your royalty is calculated out of profit - that is, any expense your record label deems necessary in the process of creating your album can be written off against your revenue.
So, while you may only need your band mates and a good sounding room to record an album, your label will be saddling you up with songwriters, expensive studios, top producers, session musicians, and more just to make sure you're making something that THEY deem to be marketable.
You don't actually have much say in this process. You can't just tell them you don't need a songwriter so that you can keep more money...
If your A&R says you need a songwriter, you're getting a songwriter.
Now, pile all of those costs on top of your entirely recoupable album advance, tour support, and independent radio promotion (see: institutionalized bribery) and the chances that you will ever make any money off of your recorded music drop to a definitive 0%.
In fact, you may end up OWING the record label money, even if you sell millions of albums.
But surely it's worth it right? Because you couldn't possibly market yourself online and make money all by yourself...
A label is going to give you access to massive exposure and marketing strategies that can help you blow up worldwide...
Getting Offered A Record Deal Is A "Catch 22"
Unless you are able to build a sizable following all by yourself, a major record label probably won't be interested in signing you. If they do, your contract will be awful...
Whether you have a product yet or not, your chances of marketing success fall dramatically when you try to market your product to an entire age group or gender.
This is a big reason why 99% of those signed to a major label deal are shelved. It's also why most of the financial wins in the music industry are represented by some of the most forgettable music in the history of artistic endeavor.
A product that "isn't for everybody" is a marketers dream...
...and a major record labels worst nightmare.
Major labels aren't looking to develop a business around a profitable product. That's not specific enough...
They are looking for blinding, obscene, almost nauseating levels of fame and success.
So, they are willing to churn and burn 99 creative souls in order to find 1 artist they can test against hundreds of others.
They don't care to help you grow a profitable business with your 10-100k fans.
So what are they hoping to find?
Well, you need to be good looking, that's for sure. America's musical stars are, by and large, fairly gorgeous people.
There aren't a lot of ugly ducklings in the Billboard Top 100.
Then, provided you are bright and shiny enough, a huge section of the population needs to be able to relate to you and your sound.
This means that your sound cannot be wildly different from anything that is on the Top 100 right now. As explained in this article, the Billboard Top 100 gets more and more generic every single cycle.
Labels spend so much money employing this mass marketing method that they are butt-clenchingly terrified of trying anything new.
If you get to major label contract level, chances are they are going to double down on whatever got you there (while simultaneously fucking it up).
Just ask Kid Ink or Chamillionaire.
4. Record Deals Have A Devastating Failure Rate
30-year music business veteran and formally noted expert on the subject, Moses Avalon, wrote this amazing article breaking down the numbers behind the major label business model.
It should come as no surprise to you that getting signed to a major record label is like winning the lottery...
...in the sense that most people don't win it and those who do usually end up right back where they came from.
I don't mean to make this whole thing all "doom and gloom", so let's just look at the numbers:
According to Avalon, 1 in 42 acts submitting to record labels do get signed.
This number is a liberal estimate, as not all the acts signed in a given year actually submitted demos; some are scouted.
But, pending that you actually are one of the lucky acts that do get signed, you still face a treacherous road of disappointment, failure, and abject consequences.
Avalon goes on to explain that, these days, 99% of those actually signed to major labels each year never get to release their first album. They get shelved.
In fact, only 0.2% of acts signed to a major label manage to avoid getting dropped from that label in the process of fulfilling their contract.
This can be for many reasons. As explained in this BuzzFeed article, sometimes labels are acquired, merged with other labels, or unceremoniously shut down. All the artists in development at that time are usually caught in the shuffle.
Sometimes, A&Rs get fired and their signees go on the back burner.
Sometimes, labels are only signing you to make sure you never release your music...
5. Artists Do Get Intentionally Shelved
You won't find a whole lot about this on the Internet.
You'll hear mentions of it in interviews with label veterans; you may read about it in books involving the music industry...
But almost every other shitty thing that record labels do has been covered extensively in some article or another.
So, it's time that this information be made as public as possible.
Out of the 99.8% of artists signed to a record label and dropped before fulfilling their contract, a certain percentage are intentional failures.
That is, major record labels will intentionally hold up an artist's release and prevent them from ever seeing the light of day.
The crime is almost unforgivable...
But, the logic is pretty simple:
Let's say, for example, it's the year 2008, and you're a teen pop singer. You're white but vaguely urban, bright, shiny, ready for the big time...
Posting cover videos on YouTube, you start racking up millions of views and getting a loyal following.
All of a sudden, label execs are starting to call your Mom asking about you.
Next thing you know, you're flying all expenses paid to LA for a week of meetings with major record labels.
You and your family are excited for the bright future that is unfolding before you...
You meet with RCA and they seem excited about your future, too. They offer you a 5-album deal with a huge advance.
The next day, Atlantic offers you even more!
Then comes Island Records...
Island offers you more money than your family has made in the past 5 years. They promise you the whole world. They walk you through their massive plan, step-by-step, to turn you into the biggest pop star since Michael Jackson...
They have a 10-year plan that puts you in the drivers seat of the most successful music career of the 21st century...
And you and your family sign on the dotted line.
What you didn't know, was that for over six months, Island/Def Jam has been developing Justin Bieber: a young, white but vaguely urban, bright, shiny pop singer. You aren't the biggest artist of the 21st century, he is...
You're just a threat.
When you started poking your head out of the ground, your fate was sealed.
Island could have ignored you, yes. They could have left you and your family alone...
But, with you making waves on YouTube, one of their two competitors would definitely have signed you. Then, you would be in direct competition with their shiny new pop star.
To Island/Def Jam, Bieber represents untold billions in revenue.
So, they are more than willing to outbid their competitors to get you into a gigantic record contract.
We're talking dictionary sized, player.
Island throws enough paper at you to keep you from recording, releasing, or even publicly performing a single song for the next half decade.
Plenty of time for Justin to get a stranglehold on the marketplace.
Does this happen?
Yeah. It definitely happens.
Maybe, for some of them, the label had every intention of giving them a fair shot.
Unfortunately, as many have scientifically documented, the Top 100 sound becomes more homogenized every year.
So, if you're getting signed to a major label, you probably sound like someone they care a lot more about than you.
Am I saying that all 3 major record labels are shady?
Am I saying that every contract they write is a scam perpetrated on creative people?
Yes, yeah. Definitely. That is absolutely what I am saying.