Why looking for a label is old fashioned thinking

Let’s be honest, we all have that dream of being discovered by a label; having that one email come through giving you the metaphorical key to the castle. But is being signed really the be-all and end-all, or is staying Ms Independent the better way to go?

While I may not have the definitive answer, I do have some words about today’s music industry which may give you something to think about.

A little about me. I’ve been making music for a while now and having picked up the bass almost two decades ago I’d like to say that I’ve seen how the music industry has evolved and progressed over the years. The first band I was in began during MySpace’s prime, a time where having a band required a MySpace page otherwise, who cares? It was my first real experience of the music industry and having that dream of being signed to a label was definitely there. We recorded a demo at a back street studio where the studio tech didn’t use Logic Pro or Ableton, but instead an old digital 8 track recorder. Once we had our CD, we couldn’t wait to show the world.

Cool, right?

Back then distributing music onto iTunes was costly. Spotify and music streaming didn’t exist either. The only way we could get our music online was to upload it onto our MySpace page. The only way we could get that music heard was to share our page with friends and family, post about it on our own personal MySpace pages, have the band page in our Top 8, participate in “follow trains”, post bulletins, and of course have one of the tracks as our profile song.

Oh, and sending these demos to labels. Spoiler alert: we never got signed, in fact, I’m not completely sure we ever actually shopped our demo to labels, but I digress.

Going independent

This trip down memory lane isn’t to share how truly cool I was (I wasn’t). It’s more to highlight that as little as 10 years ago, the music industry was a whole different kettle of fish, one which definitely had bands, musicians, and producers put that dream of being signed to a label right up at the top. But that’s not necessarily the case any more. Sure, it’s still an opportunity to be sought after, but I personally believe it’s not the end-goal any more.

It’s actually now incredibly easy to independently release music across almost every music streaming service at little to no cost. Distributors such as RouteNote and Amuse are giving bands, musicians, producers, singers, DJs, rappers, and anyone else with the ability to create an mp3 file, the ability to have their music distributed to Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and many more, absolutely free. Sure, these distributors take a percentage of artists’ royalties in return, but that’s not a massive issue.

A more premium option, for as little as $30 a year, artists can use distributors like DistroKid which give artists 100% of their royalties and, for the most part, full control over their releases.

Now is a better time than ever to independently release music in my opinion, and I’m not just talking posting a demo on SoundCloud. Excluding costs of equipment, DAWs or editing software, it’s incredibly affordable and easy to get music on platforms that millions of people use almost daily. The only job left to do is for artists to promote and market themselves – which I’ll admit, is the tricky part.

On the topic of promotion and marketing, this is where being signed to a label would benefit. They’ll handle all of the marketing, right? They’ll give you a big cash advance to cover the aforementioned equipment costs? Maybe, but not necessarily. Why? Just as easy as it is to release music independently, a “label” can just as easily manifest itself and start reaching out to artists, and this is where things get really sticky.

It’s easy to become a label

Independent labels are both a blessing and a curse for the music industry in my opinion. A blessing because they’re often incredibly niche, meaning they stick with one specific genre or type of music and they’ll be more likely to get artists’ music to the right ears compared to a Jack-of-all-trades label. A curse because there are a few bad apples that spoil the bunch, taking advantage of artists who have that dream of being signed.

A shady tactic I’ve noticed a lot recently are “labels” promising hundreds or thousands of dollars in contracts which they state they’ll use for promotion and marketing. Except, artists will never see that money, in fact, that money probably doesn’t exist at all. It’s just the bait to reel in glassy-eyed artists in order to feed off of their 30-40% split by adding them to bot-filled playlists.

Contracts are specifically being worded to make it seem like the $500-$1000 they’re promising artists will be put to good use while adding that they won’t actually see any return until that $500-$1000 has been recouped. Makes sense, right? The label is putting money on the line and using artists’ royalties as collateral if things don’t go well.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. I’ve noticed a number of shady labels leveraging playlists which are being either listened to by bots or are pumping ads for the playlist until that money has been recouped. Then artists are just ditched like an old rag with little to no communication thereafter.

Your time will come, but for now, have fun!

My honest advice to anyone looking to release music online is to put that dream of being signed by Warner Music Group, Roadrunner Records, Def Jam Records, EMI, etc etc, on the back burner – for now. Instead, go independent, work on building a brand and building a genuine fan base. It’ll be hard work, but worth it in the end. Especially when artists can send their demo to their dream labels who’ll be able to see the footprint they’re already leaving behind.

There are so many opportunities for artists to make a name for themselves thanks to the sheer reach of social media alone, and why would you want to give a percentage of that hard work to a label?