For the sake of this article I am addressing the Artist/Band/ Singer-Songwriter (home recordist) interested in avenues after they’ve finished their recording project of original compositions. If you’re like most aspiring recording artists, the dream of ‘making it big’ looms always, elusively, on the horizon. Many magazines offer article after article on the “Overnight Success”, the “One-in-a-Million” shot at stardom. Add to this the hysteria created by shows like American Idol and you get the sense that anything is possible in the entertainment world—almost...
Far be it for me to burst anyone’s bubble. Everyone’s had those same dreams early in their full- or part-time music aspirations. But then reality sets in. It’s cold, hard reality. The tough work starts, and basically, never stops. If you’re up for that kind of challenge then you might have a chance at grabbing that brass ring. If not, well, you too can find your own level of accomplishment and success, without selling your soul to the Devil.
So, after the master recording of your project is completed—where do you go from here?
A look at labels
For the last ten years I’ve read story after story claiming the demise of the record industry as we know it. I’m here to tell you that it is alive and well.
Getting a major-label deal has long been viewed as the ultimate reward. Getting signed to a major-label contract has its benefits. Nobody does a better job at marketing, promoting, generating hype, and getting airplay and press coverage than a major label. If they only want to, that is. It appears, however, they “want to” less and less. Rarely do they develop new artists. And under no circumstances do they accept unsolicited tapes. You’ll need an entertainment attorney (or someone like that) to open that door.
A more realistic ambition is to try to get an independent label to consider your recording. The indies have been doing better than you might think and are poised, perhaps, to take the place of the majors.
Perhaps you don’t care about label deals and are interested strictly in DIY? I’ve included a section for you. Finally I conclude by reviewing a few of the record deal categories.
Major label downsizing?
Don’t get fooled—they’re still out there. There has been much said about the downsizing of the major record labels for a long time now. I remember the early ’90s being a time when (especially with the success of indie rockers Nirvana) many where hailing the demise of the major labels (Warner/Electra/Atlantic, Columbia, Capitol, RCA).
Well, it didn’t happen. The maturing of the Internet in the mid-’90s brought about renewed claims of the major labels going down, amidst new-fangled technologies that were sure to give the independent musician or band a shot at their own freedom of determination, launching their own websites and making their music available for downloading, resulting in instant financial success without any label being involved....
Fast forward to present day—what we find is that the major labels are still around (and well, albeit being purchased by multinational corporations) and have become distributors of recorded music. Many labels decided that with the decline of CD sales and the rise of music file sharing they would wait it out on the sidelines. By closing Artist & Repertoire (A&R) offices and focusing on signing acts that were basically prepackaged (with finished masters ready for duplication), all that they would focus on was marketing the product and ensuring its distribution.... for both of which they still have the keys to the castle.
A&R: Does it exist anymore? Artists and Repertoire (A&R) was the department in a record label responsible for finding new artists, bringing them to the attention of the higher-ups, and signing the artist to the label. The independent (indie) labels now have the duties of A&R. Indies live and die by the decisions made by their A&R people who, in many cases, are also label president or vice president.
Major labels have made marketing of recorded product an art form and a science. They know the same techniques that apply to all advertising are absolute. It takes deep pockets to ensure even a small to medium market campaign for a new artist. They do this better than anyone. Who else could convince their own peers—The Recording Academy—to grant Milli Vanilli a Grammy Award? They all believed the blatant marketing scam.
The independent labels
I just spoke to a client who returned from the recent SXSW (South by Southwest) music showcase in Texas and his feeling was that the indie labels are becoming what the old major labels began as. With artist development, nurturing and career building, the larger independent labels are filling the hole left when the major labels essentially stopped searching for and developing new artists. The indie labels can’t afford the massive budgets that majors had for marketing and promotion and have to rely on street smarts and unique business approaches to accomplish the same end. This is how they do it....
A niche market is a specialty or subgroup market of a unique customer. For example “Sports Music” is a niche market that appeals to fans of particular sports teams. Other niche markets include New Age, Blues, Jazz, Classical, Progressive Rock/Jazz, Punk Rock, Experimental, Found Sound, etc. In all these classifications of niche markets you can find sub-markets such as: Acoustic, Electric, Folk, Vocal, etc.
Niche labels survive well on comparatively small sales numbers for their releases. These labels can easily turn profits after the first few thousand disks are sold. A client of mine wrote, sang, and home-recorded a novelty football anthem CD. When the team was on its way to the Super Bowl, he sold 50,000 CDs, did talk shows on TV and radio all over the state, and was interviewed on national TV and radio programs. A success by any standard.
Do It Yourself (DIY) labels
Why do it?
The best bet in ensuring maximum return on your investment is the DIY approach. This means you (the artist) act as the record company. You show quick profits and maintain expense controls directly. If you are a performing artist/musician who gigs regularly, my feeling is you’d be crazy not to become your own record company. I have many clients who sell 10–20 CDs per gig with ease. I also have clients who can sell upwards of 100 CDs per concert. In these cases being able to easily make an extra $150 or $1500 is just good business sense.
With the wealth of distribution vehicles available to the artist (CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes, etc.), it is easy to bring your CD to a wider audience than just your locality. And you get to reap all the benefits of the sales directly.
Why not do it?
You will have to generate the marketing and promotion of your product. You’ll have to stay dedicated to the process of marketing and selling yourself and your CD. Generating press and exposure is tough business in a world of so many new artists wanting a shot at success.
Labels (indie and majors) have the mechanisms in place to market product to their audience. They have the relationships established with press, concert promoters, showcases that can be used to market a new artist and their CD. You, well... you don’t.
About record distributors
It used to be you couldn’t live with or without them. They are the vehicle used by a record label to get product placement in a retail store. They have the market sewn up. There used to be a joke that went something like this: “It is easier to get a herd of camels through the eye of a needle than it is to get paid by a record distributor.”
Most distributors will only take product on consignment and pay only when they have the need to restock. In other words, if they don’t need to restock after your first order, you’ll have a hard time getting paid. If you must work with a traditional brick & mortar distributor, at least limit the consignment of your product to small numbers. That way, when you don’t get paid, it won’t hurt so badly.
About finished master recordings
A few words need to be said about the final master that you either submit to a record label or use for your own replication. There are reasons for and against making it perfect, as well as reasons for and against leaving it in raw (demo) form.
Why make it perfect?
If this is your one shot at making it in the music biz and you believe you’ll never have a chance like this again, you might opt to make the first record as perfect as you can make it. Usually that means hiring outside help to make this happen: the use of a studio other than your own, hiring a producer or engineer to help with both the production, recording and mixing of the record. Remember, perfection is hard to achieve and even harder is knowing when you’ve achieved it without destroying the song.
Why leave it raw?
I can’t tell you how many times the demo of the song ends up being better than the final produced version. Over and over again. Call it the innocence and magic of the moment. Call it purely inspired and uncontrived. Call it happenstance or an accident... Whatever you call it, these raw songwriter/band demos, more often than not, contain some magic that later is hard, if not impossible, to re-create.
My suggestion is to seriously consider those demos. The wisdom of choosing the version that best represents the song is a discipline with which even most veteran recordists have trouble.
Do your research, describe your music
It is important that you find artists or bands that sound like what you are striving for. Using the Internet to find these examples is a great way to research where your music is likely to be categorized. Hopefully these artists and bands are commercially successful and can be used as model for your own success.
Artists need to identify their styles as it exists in the larger universe of styles. This is essential in being able to describe music in online music catalogs like cdbaby.com, allowing potential customers to type in search criteria (example: “Emotive, Rock, Ballad” or “Funky, Groove, Party, Hip-Hop”).
Finding like-sounding artists to describe your style is important and cannot be understated. If you don’t know what to call it, neither will anyone else and it becomes impossible to find a market for an artist whose work defies description.
So here is a basic rule: Your music will need to be defined and described. If you define it (accurately) it is likely that others will agree with your description. It is amazing to see how many times a reviewer will agree with your description of your music (if it is even a slight reflection of your style).
Resources are in no small supply. Books like the Indie Bible have current contact information that is updated with each printing. Websites abound that specialize in specific types of music. Just type the music style that represents your music into a search engine to see what I mean.†
The Internet makes available tons of resources. The job is in wading through the information, separating fact from fiction. There are plenty of swindlers lurking around corners waiting to jump on the next unsuspecting artist who wants to believe the hype. No matter what they say, there are no guarantees for radio airplay. They can’t promise that your record will be added to anyone’s play list.
Send letters asking for approval to send a submission for consideration. Try to be as specific as possible in describing your music. Indicate that your music sounds similar to one of the acts on the label’s roster.
Many labels will reject any submission sent to them without prior approval, thanks in part to the lawsuits that started taking place when an artist submitted a demo tape to a label then later claimed that they stole his idea by using something from his demo in one of their releases. Since then most labels will flatly return to sender any submission that has not been cleared beforehand. It will usually take an entertainment attorney to make the proper communication with the label by representing you as their client to the label of interest.
Music attorneys and deals
Finding a music attorney with a track record of dealmaking in the record business with the type of music you are making is a job in itself. Check out any attorney’s credibility with clients they have represented in the past. Ask to call on those clients as referrals. Speak to more than one. Hiring an attorney to represent you can add up to lots of money quickly. I always recommend that a credible entertainment lawyer review any contract language before it is signed.
There are so many versions of record deals that it would take a book to describe them all. New mutations of these deals continue to evolve with the changes in technology and music delivery systems.
In a licensing deal the mechanical right to manufacture your music master is sold to the record company. The record company now owns your master recording. You no longer have rights to your master unless it is specifically agreed upon. Furthermore, the rights to the master recording are usually not returned to the artist. These types of deals were typical with major labels and record companies of the past.
In a licensing for distribution the record label will license the mechanical right to manufacture your music master for a period of time. After such time, ownership of the masters reverts back to the artist. The record label distributes and markets an artist’s record, just like a pure licensing deal. This is usually the best of both worlds. It allows you to retain the right to manufacture your own CDs after the license period ends.
Both exclusive and nonexclusive distribution agreements exist. In a distribution-only agreement the artist supplies finished goods (CDs) to the distributing label, which then uses its distribution channels to get the records out to the retail world. Like distributors, they may be slow to pay until a reorder occurs. The benefits are that you continue to own the mechanical rights to your master recordings.
In a nonexclusive agreement the artist is free to find additional distributors of his product. The risk is that the distributor does not have the same incentive as an exclusive distributor. His incentive to move product will probably be limited to the calls by retailers asking for your record.
In an exclusive relationship the distributor knows that (for the term of the contract) he will be the only source for your records. The incentive that he will benefit from all sales of your record makes it more likely that an additional effort will be made on his part.
More options than answers
There are many options available when it’s time to decide what to do with that masterpiece you’ve just recorded. You can try shopping for a record deal with a major label, though you’ll need an antertainment attorney’s help in doing so. After researching the marketplace for other artists like yourself and what indie labels they are on you could opt to shop your record to those labels in hopes of finding interest in your record. Or you can do it yourself (DIY), assuring the maximum return on your investment. If you DIY, there are ways in which you can get your record distributed by traditional brick & mortar distributors and by Internet distribution channels like cdbaby.com, amazon.com, and iTunes.
No matter which way you intend to go, remember that your master recording is the most important calling card you will have. Don’t forget to make the qualitative decision on which versions of your songs are the better representations of your material before you submit the CD for consideration. Overproduced, over-recorded, perfect takes often lack realism and believability. Make certain your demo isn’t better in those respects than your polished master, and don’t be afraid to recognize this.
Gary Tanin is an engineer and producer in Milwaukee.