What do record labels provide that musicians can’t do themselves?

anderson

‘Research, Build, Sleep, Repeat.’

That is the mantra employed by Daniel Anderson, the quintessential DIY recording-artist, who eschewing conventional record-label and management/agency routes, successfully built his own studio, taught himself how to engineer sound and distributed his own music. A consummate self-starter, he documented the whole process producing an eight-minute clip of himself going door-to-door in Finglas selling his CD and vinyl bundle for 20 Euros. This drew the attention of every major media outlet in the county, the public response was overwhelming and Anderson is now an established artist, and one with no strings attached.

So what are the lessons here for the fledgling musician? Can this work for other artists? Perhaps not in the same way, the novelty factor would be gone, but what Anderson did, initially by engaging his immediate fan-base with a novel Facebook video featuring him, his story and his interactions with people, produced a string of shares, a viral spike and 90,000 views/2,000 Shares later he was picked up by Ryan Tubridy, Hotpress, Newstalk, Independent Newspapers etc. You could argue he sold his story more than his music, a view to the autodidactic approach, another romantic craftsman/industry pariah, but you can’t argue with the resulting exposure his music received with no label backing.

The crux here is you can make these things happen yourself: You can record, master, produce, publish and distribute, or at the very least you can put yourself in a stronger bargaining position by ticking off the boxes that labels conventionally try to tick for you, and if you feel they can make steps for you that you can’t make yourself, you can then meet halfway.

The success of people like Anderson on a national scale, and Grammy award winners like Chance the Rapper on an international scale, who has refused to sign to a record label (it is worth noting here that the Grammys allowed streaming-only albums to contend for the first time), begs the question, what can labels do now that we can’t do ourselves? And if there is anything left, at what price/percentage are they even worth talking to.

A conventional record label contract results in a low-end artist receiving 10%-15% for their album sales. But even that 10%-15% is diluted, note that is 10%-15% of albums sold to wholesalers, retailers conventionally mark-up by 80%. Agents and Managers cuts also come out of that 10-15% and if you are unlucky enough to have a ‘recoupable costs’ clause in your contract then the cost of the studio engineer, the studio hire, the mastering engineer, the costs of packaging and securing licensing and ISRC/UPC codes are taken out too. Then there are the less lucrative sales channels that record companies pursue: bargain deals, discounts, record clubs; you can probably guess who loses out when that happens.

Then there’s the advance, which is an advance against potential royalties, so in actual fact the lauded ‘advance’ is a loan and you can find yourself in a web of cross-collateralisation, ultimately being in a compromising situation where you are obliged to pay up by any means necessary. I am aware of an acclaimed singer-songwriter who five albums in, with considerable critical and commercial success, has no choice but to ply his trade as a stonemason in order to pay back this advance. So apart from the debt you trade for your blood, sweat and tears, even if you have creative freedom, you are compromised commercially because you owe at least one serious player money. There is an onus to produce material that will yield a financial return and even if you can resist this pressure from your label, who is now in fact your creditor, you will end up devoting your energy to non-musical activities in order to pay them back.

Meanwhile the only conceivable cut Anderson has to factor in is from the digital distribution company’s end (At worst 30% for CDBaby, 15% for Bandcamp). These companies, who are essentially wholesalers, can be cut out too if you are willing to put in a serious slog and approach digital stores and streaming services yourself (certain digital stores sell for free). Apart from physically distributing vinyls and CDs himself, and being smart enough to bundle them, Anderson added value by presenting himself as someone who was tangible and accessible, not somebody who was exclusive, detached or over-hyped.

So what are labels actually providing that we can’t do ourselves? Contacts and ‘ins’ perhaps, but at such an exorbitant, demoralising and disabling cost? Those contacts and ‘ins’ aren’t necessarily exclusive either. Ask and you shall receive. If you are not technically minded, you can still arrange for the engineer, the mastering engineers and studio space. You can book gigs, you can talk to promoters (if you need them) and nobody will be more invested in managing you than yourself. It’s worth working harder, learning the business and keeping more of your end than working like an embittered dog to pay back a record company advance. If you had the focus and determination to learn an instrument or train your voice, or train your mind to compose and arrange, you can handle the business and logistical side of being a musician yourself.

There are more benign labels out there with good intentions, but they are in a severe minority, musicians and artists alike should take the stonemason’s plight as a cautionary tale: what can be a short-term enabler can seriously inhibit your long-term goals, fostering a compromised aesthetic, eroded artistic integrity and highly-commercialised goals. Think and Do.

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