Since the rise of recorded music, “getting signed” has served as a sort of holy grail for aspiring musicians. Observing how most artists reach superstardom, young hopefuls often see a record deal as the most important step in their own journey to success.
Despite this common conception that getting signed is central to an artist’s success, record deals aren’t the be-all, end-all they used to be. With the advent of the Internet and home production, record labels and how artists approach them has shifted significantly.
For starters, the primary role of record labels over the years has seemed to move away from funding. While artists used to rely heavily on labels to cover album production and distribution, the recent proliferation of digital production has made it easier for many artists to make music without third-party financial support.
“The means of producing and distributing music aren’t held by an elite group anymore,” says Drew Kirby, proprietor of Marching Banana Records and guitarist for Mothers. “They’ve been found out, and we can do it on our own, and we don’t really even need those structures anymore.”
With this decrease in the relevance of funding, especially for electronic and lo-fi artists, the primary role of many labels now seems to be promotion. Social networking has made advertising a lot easier, and getting music to interested listeners digitally is now the functional core of many labels.
“It’s very much like a hype machine, honestly,” Kirby says. “For the most part, it’s just trying to get in touch with blogs – just people who might like it, might show it to people.”
Of course, this shift begs the question of whether or not a record deal, sans funding, is worthwhile for artists trying to make a living on their music. Especially with contracts that give labels much of the rights to an artist’s work, it’s important to make sure the benefit will outweigh the cost.
“I see indie bands being offered deals by record labels that, other than the label sticking their name on there and maybe paying for the manufacturing, they’re not getting anything else out of it,” says David Barbe, director of the University of Georgia’s Music Business Program. “Which makes me think, ‘Why are you giving them control of your master recordings in exchange for nothing?’”
“The means of producing and distributing music aren’t held by an elite group anymore.”
That said, the less funding a label provides, the less ownership it usually claims over its artists. Especially with smaller indie labels, it’s becoming more common to see artists working with multiple companies to release and promote their music.
“One of the strategies is to release on as many record labels as possible to sort of branch out, and generally record labels that are run independently don’t really mind that,” says Jeff Cardinal, who runs Plus100 Records and releases music under the moniker VAPERROR. “They help each other out. It’s symbiotic.”
“I think, especially as the walls fall down a little bit more in the industry, everyone kind of has to work together,” Kirby says. “I don’t think it makes sense to keep people from other opportunities. I don’t think it benefits anyone.”
While this type of open cooperation seems somewhat intuitive for a friendly, local scene like Athens, the Internet is allowing artists and labels to cooperate globally, as well. Despite geographical separation, plenty of musicians are working together through labels that are heavily Internet-based.
Although this kind of digital connection often helps artists create and share work more efficiently, online activity can sometimes get stuck in people’s phones and computers. With the geographical separation the Internet allows, online labels can have a hard time getting enough artists in one city for a show.
“We’re pretty much internet-based,” Cardinal says of Plus100 Records. “I would love to get some shows going, but right now it’s really hard logistically ‘cause people are all over the place.”
While this can definitely be a setback at times, touring isn’t the only way of getting noticed by potential listeners. These days, streaming is king, and artists have the opportunity to prove themselves online without constant performances.
Streaming has also changed the way labels and artists make money. Serving as something of a response to piracy, paid streaming services like Spotify are now a key way for listeners to support artists even if they aren’t buying records.
“The thing that’s got to happen for recorded music to thrive and really, in the long run, survive, I think, is people paying for streaming every month like they pay for recycling,” Barbe says.
While streaming is dominating the music industry, every label knows there will always be collectors who prefer CDs, vinyl and even cassettes to digital listening. These days, the artists themselves can handle the distribution — and even production — of their own physical media if they feel up to the task.
“I used to home-dub [cassettes] before I started the label, but as it grew and opportunity grew, I was able to outsource that,” Cardinal says. “I do create all the artwork and labels and everything. I just have it created somewhere else and then shipped to me, and I’ll ship it out.”
Of course, all this isn’t to say that there’s no place for big labels in today’s world. For those looking to make more mainstream pop music, major labels like Sony are still a good option.
“If you are a mainstream pop star or pop country or mainstream pop/R&B, go with a major label,” Barbe says. “That’s what they do great.”
For those not looking to do pop but still in need of some funding and promotion, a larger independent label is usually the best bet. Bigger indie names like Sub Pop and Merge Records can often help artists get the help they need without stifling their creative visions.
“The major indies, to me, are kind of the sweetest part of the deal,” Barbe says. “They’ll finance your record. They’ve got actual marketing information and distribution and the real stuff, but they are into having creative artists and giving them creative leeway into making records.”
Although the “starving musician” can still be an all-too-common reality, the variety in today’s music industry is working with technology to give more artists the tools they need to thrive. With more options than ever before, many of today’s artists seem to be working with record labels instead of for them.