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Musicians: Are You Better Off On Your Own? (Record Labels Pt. 2)

Last week, we took a look at what record labels are, how they work, and what they do for an artist; i.e. distribution, production, promotion, marketing and so on. But labels have been around for so long! They've been part of the music industry since the early 20th century. It's no wonder that people have started to question their worth in the modern musical landscape. But how valid are their criticisms? Why even change the way music has been working for so many years now?

More and more artists are choosing to stay independent rather than sign their catalogues away at the first deal they get. In this post, we’ll go over some of the reasons why record labels are being seen as less popular, often not the right choice for an artist, and sometimes, even evil! Taylor Swift’s dispute with her former label Big Machine Records, is one of the most recent examples of when a deal can go horribly wrong.

First, let’s see how a label might actually do more harm than good for an artist's career:

  • Losing Ownership: Typically, signing a deal with a record label involves handing over master rights to them. This means that they have full ownership of your music, and can do what they see fit with it even if it clashes with your own ideas and intentions.

  • Less Individual Attention: Most large record labels have huge rosters of artists. This means that smaller artists, or those deemed to be less ‘profitable’ than others, may lose out on the benefits of being part of a label. Therefore, even though a label can have many resources, they are often not spread out evenly.

  • Less Money: Traditional label deals take ownership of an artist’s songs, and in exchange, the artist will receive a share of the royalties earned on their music. However, unless they’re highly successful, it’s likely that an artist wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves on this source of revenue.

It’s easy to see why an increasing number of musicians don’t trust labels to do the right thing for their music. Staying independent is often associated with ‘indie’ artists, who typically have far less resources and financial backing than major artists signed to even bigger labels. However, there are several compelling reasons why artists decide that they would rather not place their music in the hands of someone else:

  • Full Creative and Financial Control: Independent artists not only retain full ownership of their songs, but can also control every aspect of what they can do with it. They aren’t reliant on labels making decisions for them, and can instead go their own way. Furthermore, they receive the full amount of money they make off their music.

  • Choosing Who to Work With, and When to do What: Even though independent artists don’t have the same kind of access to producers, collaborators, lawyers and marketing teams, they can ultimately choose how many people they want on board and specify what kind of people they want to work with. This may not always be an option with a label. They can also decide their own schedules for releases, tours, promotional campaigns and more, rather than having to follow a schedule set by someone else.

  • Doing Music For the ‘Right’ Reasons: Music isn't always about constantly chasing the next pay check. There are countless artists who engage with music as a hobby, or passion, or something to express themselves through. Record label deals tend to introduce a commercial value on an artist's music, which is something that not everyone is comfortable with, or even in agreement with.

So if you’re a musician, what should you do for your music? Take a risk with a record label, or do it on your own? Luckily, as with most of life, there’s a middle ground here too! Stay tuned to find out about how traditional record label deals are changing and other kinds of agreements that fall in between giving up control to a label and being fully independent.

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