I recently had a conversation with a singer that is new to the music industry. She was telling me about how she wanted to go viral to get the attention of a major record label. I asked her why she wanted to get a record deal. She din't have a clear answer, she just though it was what she was suppose to do. This is a misconception that many indie artists have. While there are some benefits (not many) to having a major label backing you, the general consensus among artists who have experienced both indie life and major label life is that indie life is much better.
Major Labels Have High Artist Turnover
We all see the artists at the top of the charts, artists like Cardi B and Drake and we think that with a record deal comes that lifestyle. What we don't see is the countless artists who never get a chance to shine. A common misconception is that major labels don't sign many artists. This isn't true. For every Cardi B, a label has signed 5 other artists who were dropped from the label before ever releasing a single note of music. Record labels are no longer in the quality business, they're in the quantity business. These days labels basically sign a ton of artists and see who makes a hit first, then they leave the rest of them high and dry. What really sucks is that whatever music that was recorded under that recording contract is owned by the label, even if it's never released and the artist was dropped. Which brings me to my next point...
The Label Owns Your Music
As musicians, we cherish our music. We put our heart and soul into creating works of audible art. Our music is like our baby and we want to nurture it and care for it and watch it grow. Record labels want to bleed it dry for every dime they can get. Don't get me wrong, we all want to make money from our music. That's the only way we can make this a career. However, we want control of of how we make that money. Imagine seeing a commercial for a company that you hate and hearing your music in the background promoting that company. Chances are the label got a pretty nice check from an ad agency in order to use your song. When you are signed to a record deal, the label owns your master recordings. Since they own the copyrights to all of your recorded music, they can license it out to whatever entity they want to (read more about since licensing here). To add insult to injury, if the label drops you they still own the copyrights to any music that you recorded during the time you were under contract. You may find some labels who will let you buy the rights to your master back, but let's be real, who wants to buy ownership to their own music?
One of the best things about being an independent musician is having total creative control over your music. You get to release music when you want to, release whatever music you want to, work with whoever you want to, etc. There's nothing like putting together something you think is a masterpiece only to have someone in a suit tell you "there are no singles on this record". A girl I went to high school with wanted me to produce a record for her a few years back. We were good friends in high school and always had a mutual respect for each other's music. We never got the opportunity to work together because her project had gone over budget and the label would not make space for the collaboration. They also did not want to share publishing royalties (more on that in another post) and because of these road blocks set by the label, her and I never got the chance to work together. She ended up being one of those artists who signed a deal, recorded a full album, and was dropped from the label. Her album was shelved and she can't get it back. This ended up being the reason she left music altogether.
I was approached by TVT Records when I was 19 years old. Luckily I had a music business professor who had taught me a thing or two about record deals and I turned that deal down. In today's world with social media and companies like CD Baby and DistroKid is there even a reason to sign to a major label anymore? Now artist can record music in their bedrooms and release it to streaming services on their own. With YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, artists can take promotion and marketing into their own hands. You can run an effective Facebook ad for just $20. With our world so much more connected than it was 25 years ago, it's so much easier to reach audiences anywhere in the world. Artists simply have to take initiative and put in the work.