For many years landing a deal with one of the big names in music management was the only route to a chart-topping career. Is that still the case for emerging singers and songwriters in 2020?
It’s tricky to attract A&R attention and even harder to get signed. Do you need a record label to succeed as an artist, or is there another way? You can start your own brand and build a following online, but you’ll still need management and distribution.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the future of the traditional label, and identify those artists for whom a record deal is still the best route. We’ll also reveal the common pitfalls you may encounter with or without representation and how to succeed in the industry.
Do you need a record label to succeed as an artist?
The answer to this question is both yes and no. Because it depends on what you’re trying to achieve in your career, your definition of success, your available resources and your ability to be your own PR machine. If you want to be a purely live musician and are not interested in a recording career, then you can absolutely find a degree of success just by gigging. Although if you want to make a sizeable amount of money and get your name known, you’ll need to release an album at some point. And you can have a recording career without signing a deal. But if you want your music to be all over the radio, while you appear on TV and in the press, then a record label is likely to be the only way to fame and fortune.
Why do singers need record labels?
The biggest record labels have a lot of power, endless contacts and bags of money. Smaller ones are also well connected with some money and influence, but perhaps not to the same degree. They also have a wealth of knowledge in the field. This means they can advise and guide your career in the right direction. Labels have the facility to distribute and market your music and get it played on major radio stations and TV programmes. There’s an awful lot of work involved in publicising, managing and developing a singer, which you’ll struggle to do while making music full time. And as a solo artist, it can be really useful to collaborate with more established acts. A record label can arrange that in minutes, whereas it may take an individual a lifetime to make those kinds of contacts by themselves.
Signing to a record label
But there are some downsides to signing to a record label and in some cases, it can actually be detrimental and limiting for your career. You are committing to a legally binding contract when you join them. And whether it’s worth you signing with a label may well depend on the specifics of the contract. The lawyers creating these documents for the label will always be acting with the record company’s interests at the fore, not yours. This is why you must always hire your own music or media lawyer who specialises in the field.
Your lawyer should read over the contract for you, explain what the small print means and request any changes that you want to make, on your behalf. This is key to getting things clear upfront and avoiding any nasty surprises further down the line. Music is a business like any other. So while your work is your passion and creation, be prepared to think and act professionally.
What does a record label do?
Record labels may do more than you’d realised. Columbia Records, known for taking a bespoke approach to artist management, paid for George Ezra to take a sabbatical trip around Europe. It worked a treat as it was during this time he was inspired to write some of his biggest hits, like Budapest.
To ascertain whether you need a label, you should consider what they’ll do for you and whether you could do those things for yourself, or whether you need them at all. Here are some of the functions a record label carries out, on your behalf.
- Delivering your music to the market, via distribution channels.
- Choosing and paying for artwork.
- Getting you appearances on TV and radio, and in the press and written media.
- Upfront funding or tour and recording expenses.
- Landing synch deals for your tunes.
- PR and marketing, including contacting influencers.
- Managing licencing.
- Hiring producers, engineers, roadies, backup singers and dancers and anyone other services or people you might need.
- Read different markets. You may understand how the UK music scene works, But what happens if you want to market your music in the States, or Sweden for example? A label will most likely have international contacts and big able to distribute beyond the British isles.
- Developing you as an artist, including advising and working on your image.
As you can see it’s a pretty big list. And one of the most significant factors is the boost of finance a label can provide. But while there’s a lot of help on offer, you sign away some, if not all of the rights to your songs in the process.
Record labels ripping off artists
This is something you may have heard about in the news, or from interviews with artists. It was a really big deal in the 1980s and 1990s when acts had less option and were less savvy about the pitfalls. Bands like Bucks Fizz and singers such as East 17’s Brian Harvey were left apparently penniless due to controlling contracts. There’s been a number of more recent high profile scenarios where bands or singers have complained of being manipulated by big, powerful labels.
One such recent media storm involved the first lady of pop, Taylor Swift, an outspoken critic of many music powerhouses, including Spotify. Swift claimed that that Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta, co-owners of her ex-label Big Machine, had tried to stop her performing tracks from her back catalogue at the 2019 American Music Awards. She went on to claim via Tumblr, that the music executives were “exercising tyrannical control” over her, also preventing previous performance footage from being used in her autobiographical Netflix documentary, Miss Americana.
This claim was contested by the label, but Swift received some high-level support, including fellow singer Selena Gomez, who said:
“It’s greed, manipulation and power. There is no heart or thought of anyone else. No respect for the words my friend has written since she was a 14-year-old in her bedroom.”
Record labels and streaming
While there are arguments and complaints, almost every big star is signed to one of the major labels. It might have it’s drawbacks, making it to the big time is tough without this kind of backing. And many artists have great relationships with their labels’ A&R and executives.
Things have got better for artists with labels too, and this may well be because artists are less reliant on record companies than they were in previous decades. And that’s largely to do with two things: videos and streaming. You need an awful lot of hits to make any cash with these. But it can be a great way to get noticed and build a fan base. Some singers and songwriters, like Billie Eilish, have found almost overnight success this way – without a record label.
Do artists still need record labels?
Many artists have started their own independent record labels. Drake has ended up earning more money as a record producer than as an artist. Stormzy also has a successful label #MERKY, which he used to launch his own career, but recently decided to enlist the help of Warner Records, signing a contract that gives him a lot of artistic freedom.
Similarly, Ed Sheeran decided to sign with Asylum/Atlantic, part of Warner Music Group, after years releasing via his own indie label. During this time he’d been able to record many EPs without label assistance, get to No 2 on the iTunes charts, get millions of hits on his video for You Need Me and garner support from Radio 1 and 1Extra. Ed’s producer Jake Gosling spoke of their unsigned success and the reason they needed a little extra help from a label:
“What Ed and I had done without a record company had proven to the label that we could do it on our own, that all we needed was help and support and finance, getting us to more people and being able to pull the strings when needed to get us on a TV show – those moves are harder to do when you’re a bit more independent.”
Starting a record label
Not all record labels are the same. There are big ones: Sony, BMG, Colombia, Universal, Polydor, XL, Syco and so on. For a long time, the people behind these companies were fairly mysterious. However, shoes like X-Factor and Pop Idol enable the public to get to know music biz personalities like Simon Cowell and Pete Waterman, with them becoming even more famous than some of their acts.
But there are also lots of smaller independent labels which may work better for you as an unknown name. If you’re having trouble getting seen and heard by influential people and don’t have tons of contacts, you may want to follow the path of Stormzy, Drake and Ed, to create your own label. You can find out how to do this, in this video by Damian Keyes.
Should I start a record label?
If you’re prepared to put in the effort and investment, then there’s no reason why not. Especially if you already record and upload your own tracks. You can always sign with a bigger name further down the line. Another reason for starting your own brand would be a strong desire to keep your own unique identity as an artist. This is certainly something that has driven big names to release music under their own label. Big companies can be more controlling of what you do and how you do it. Which is fair enough, given that it’s also their investment and reputation on the line.
If you don’t want to start your own and want to retain your musical and image quirks, seek out independents, or large record companies like Colombia, who are known for giving a little more freedom. And if you’re part of a band, these kinds of decisions will need to be taken as a group – something that can be challenging if you don’t all agree.
There are many ways you can make money and succeed as an artist and it doesn’t all involve landing a recording contract. While getting signed is a great way to fast track your career and is certainly something you’ll need to consider if you get super successful, you can go far by yourself (with a little help from some good aggregators, PRs, producers, studios and engineers).
Do you need a record label to release music?
Definitely not, and you shouldn’t wait for one either. Once you have some great music recorded, get it onto streaming sites, get some CDs made and distribute your record with the help of a UK aggregator. You may end up getting signed as a result of releasing your own music.
Are record labels dying?
The music industry is one of the most lucrative businesses on the planet. So no, labels are not dying. But they are changing and evolving. And artists are being presented with more options when it comes to launching a career than ever before.
What percentage of album sales goes to the artist?
A recording contract will usually state that 10-15% of revenue goes to the artist. It may sound little, but labels can get you much higher sales. You have to weigh up whether you’ll make more taking less, but with their help. Or whether you’ll be better off keeping the majority and going it alone.
Do you think you need a record label to succeed as an artist? Have you released an album by yourself, or have you signed to a label? Let us know in the comments below.