Being on a label means many things: Most of all it’s a status symbol, a badge saying “someone believes in my music enough to pay their own money to put it out.” It’s an ego thing as well; a validation. And I’d be a massive hypocrite if it wasn’t fun to say “Oh, my label’s putting out my new CD in March” to zillions of people.
But, really, do you need a label, and what do you get out of it?
Labels in this genre (and I’ll assume most genres where you’re selling less than a few thousand CDs) can be a massive benefit if you as an artist know what you’re getting from them and they deliver. Let’s start with what you most likely won’t be getting, just to get it out of the way:
-Any advances for production costs, new gear, etc
-Tour support of any sort, meaning the label will chip in anything short of maybe donating a bunch of CDs so you can hopefully sell them for gas money. This includes t-shirts and other stuff.
-More than a couple album deal.
-Much in terms of a promotional budget (and note this is different than promotional SUPPORT).
-A huge, Depeche Mode 50/50 split royalty rate.
But let’s look at the positives of what you DO get:
-The status of “being signed”, which should NOT necessarily be taken lightly.
-Someone paying for the production of your CD and getting it online to major digital distros and, if they are even still around, into indie stores willing to stock the CD.
-Promotional support in terms of getting review copies out, release parties, listservs, online pimping, and possible handbills and helping get your music in the hands of bands that may want you to tour with them.
-A family of hopefully like-minded artists to work and cross-promote with under a single banner.
Due to diminishing returns in CD sales and the rise of digital albums as a more prominent means of getting music in fan’s ears, a lot of labels have either shut their doors completely or gone digital like my current label Crunch Pod. While this makes sense due to many factors, one being the still heavy cost of CD production (see my mildly aged yet still mostly relevant rant from years ago on the costs that go into putting out CDs– https://causticmusic.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/mega-rant-on-downloading-and-actual-costs-for-small-labels/), it also begs the question “Why the hell do I need a label when I can pay for all my shit myself and just chuck it up on itunes through Tunecore?”
Well, in essence, you don’t…IF you’re willing to put in an ass-ton of work to get the word out on it.
See, just because you have a bandcamp site and are on amazon, itunes, emusic, etc, doesn’t mean anyone will give a shit. Why? EVERYTHING is on there, so you’re not even a needle in a haystack– you’re the hay. And while some bands get hooked onto by the masses and every door seemingly opens for them and the world just loves ‘em to death, that’s few and far between.
So if you want to take the DIY route, be prepared to get your hands dirty, be ready to call in favor after favor if you can and whore so relentlessly you’ll feel like you’ve sucked the equivalent of a Vegas plumber’s convention of lonely cock.
Know what though? Welcome to DIY. Nobody owes you anything, and if your music isn’t ready or what people want to hear they’ll just bounce to the next band they can listen to for free and judge harshly or just press “don’t like” on whatever streaming site they’re pumping through their shitty, low-quality earbuds at work. Tenacity is the key to success, and anyone saying anything different isn’t selling for shit.
The benefits of DIY are pretty awesome if it works (and the IF is a big one) — you can potentially cover costs faster as you get to keep all the money, you get bragging rights that you rule and have a fanbase big enough to support your art, and like people bragging that they’re signed, you can say “oh, I don’t NEED a label to kick ass.”
The thing is, while I know I don’t necessarily “need” a label, I wouldn’t be able to self-release without conceding a massive amount of humble gratitude towards Crunch Pod for helping me GAIN that following to begin with. Without Crunch Pod I wouldn’t have had many, many opportunities AND I know I would have lost a LOT of money in production costs at first, as even to gain my meager but luckily devoted fanbase I would have pissed through a ton of cash putting out CDs and pimping them solo.
It’s not to say I didn’t put in countless hours on my own, but I would be a fool to pretend to have done it all myself.
So am I saying go get signed and then do it yourself? No. I’m saying Know What You Want and Can/Want To Do. If you hate promoting yourself and just wanna be all about the music you should either try and get signed or be satisfied knowing people will hopefully stumble upon your Soundcloud page and enjoy your tunes. I’d recommend NOT investing in getting CDs made if you aren’t willing to shill like a motherfucker to sell them. Personally I’m pretty good at it, but I can’t pretend it always feels good and doesn’t feel like a massive chore at times, especially when I don’t get some good skinner box positive reinforcement. Honestly a lot of the time I just feel like I’m dragging along until another Paypal sale pops up in my inbox and the little voice in my head says “Only 99 more sales until I can be sure my wife doesn’t yell at me for losing more money on Caustic!”
***BIG NOTE before I go further on my rant here– know that I’m speaking GENERALLY of a MASSIVE amount of problems people have with labels– for the most part this isn’t my experience at all with my CURRENT label, luckily.***
Be prepared for the worst if you do DIY, but be prepared for the worst if you’re signed to a label. Be prepared for potential total lack of communication with whoever’s running the label, never seeing royalties or even sales statements, finding out you can’t even buy your OWN cds for a reasonable wholesale price from the label, or realizing that even though the label promised IN WRITING that they’d do X, Y, and Z they never even got to Q and now you’re screwed (and sueing them won’t help because they’re already working 3 jobs to keep the label afloat at all). Be prepared to have that label hold a contract over your head and cripple you creatively because they won’t release your CD until it meets with their approval, or they won’t release you from it because you didn’t read the fine print well enough to know you got locked in like a slave.
Get set to STILL do the lion’s share of the work even though you’re getting a small royalty rate (and before you whine realize it’s STILL probably bigger than someone like Madonna gets on a Big Label), do a massive amount of networking to find gigs and opening spots, begging to get on Some Important Compilation, and possibly, after you’re “established”, being essentially forgotten because the New Hot Thing just got signed to your label and they figure you can chug away on the last album’s momentum.
So what am I saying? Go with someone you feel you can trust, and don’t be afraid to leave. Don’t sign a ten (or even two CD with a two CD option) album deal because you aren’t necessarily getting “security”– you might be getting “stuck in a shitty contract” if that label can’t make even a good faith effort on what they’re promising.
Get it in writing if you’re wary. Personally, I’m not signed to shit with Crunch Pod, and it’s worked out just fine, but I’m more of the “Touch & Go” label mindset (they’re a Chicago-based label– look ‘em up) in terms of contracts, but I DID have one with my first label Statik Sky. Ben’s always been up-front and honorable with me on every front and I’ve done my best to help the label and team by crosspromoting, doing remixes, and soforth. We’re also a small label and a family in many regards, so that’s a great thing.
And yes, I consider Crunch Pod out of the norm in the stories I’ve heard and/or experienced from knowing of a lot of other labels. Not ALL, mind you, but there’s a lot that have risen and gone down or are still around…
The main point here is no matter what you’re going to need to put in a lot of work. One major reason I’ve stuck by Crunch Pod (other than the relationships) is that CP does a lot of the shit work I simply hate doing. I did it all solo on the last CD I self-released to show it COULD be done, but I still lost plenty of sleep while promoting it and especially packaging 100+ preorders. I could have spent that time working on new tracks or spending time staring into the sun to see how long it would take to completely blind myself, but if nothing else doing all that work made me appreciate Crunch Pod all the more.
Just do what’s best for your art and what you want to get out of it. Don’t do what’s best for your ego, much as it’s easy to sometimes confuse the two. For some people just throwing a few tracks up on bandcamp is enough. Some people want total world domination, and others are in between. Whatever you do though, don’t let the bullshit burn you out or make you stop feeling passionate for what you’re creating. I guarantee you it’s not worth it at all if that happens.