Why Have a Label in 2020?

Hi Everyone. Because this is a place where musicians, label owners, and music consumers congregate, I wanted to ask a very sincere couple of questions. From a musician’s perspective, what are the different value propositions with regard to being in a relationship with a label? What does the label do for the artist? What is the artist expected to do for the label? Does ownership of the material typically enter the conversation? The answer is likely different in 2020 than it was in 2010, so I thought it might be a nice discussion point

I’m an independent musician, who just self-released my first record in close to a decade. I’m halfway done writing the next one, and am trying to figure out what the best path forward is. I’d imagine there are a handful of folks in the same spot. All perspectives are welcome!

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I like releasing with labels because the album then gets exposure to a wider audience than I have access to on my own.

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As a listener, labels are often a point of discovery. I’ll check out new artists I’ve never heard of if they’re on a label with releases I’ve liked in the past.

As a musician, it’s more possible to self-release your music than ever. The work involved in actually finding an audience hasn’t gone away though. Someone who has been promoting a label for 15 years is probably in a better place to get your music heard, but I think in the end it’s mostly about the amount of money and time you care to spend. A label will pay for the production costs of a physical release at the very least (if that’s not the case then definitely ask yourself why?) and you might even get some money back after they recoup their costs if it sells. Digital-only releases are easy to quietly dump onto the internet (I prefer to do most of my own releases this way) but dumping the same digital release into a label’s bandcamp or whatever might bring with it a mailing list and an existing audience who otherwise would never hear your music.

To be honest I don’t really think much has changed at all in the last decade, or even the last 20 years, except that it’s far more feasible for you to put the work in yourself and DIY everything.

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well i guess if i was in a relationship with a label i would actually put some music out, as someone would be waiting for it and waving deadlines at me (ain’t there a thread somewhere about internal vs external drive etc.?).

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I’ve had the same internal debate going on for a while and have more or less settled for a “self-release for now” mentality.

I’ve released on one label and done a fair bit of online self-releases (that was a while ago now). I loved what the label did, they got a great designer on board for artwork, had a few reviews in good publications and the tape sold out. There was not much more to the relationship than that - no expectations from either side, and nothing more legal than an informal agreement. But now, its not much more than a page on someone else’s bandcamp.

On the other hand, I hated the process of finding a label. No labels spring to mind when I listen to my own music. I’m unlikely to enter into correspondence with a big label of any kind. The only true and realistic benefit I can see to labels is that they fund upfront the operation and do the bulk of any distribution. Ultimately self-releasing is free online, unless you’re doing physical copies.

I love the idea of self-releasing, as a fully independent entity free from anyone else’s schedule. You choose everything. Most likely you will not have as great an audience. In my situation I am not dependent on one to begin with, so I have been asking myself does it really matter? Not closing the door on working with labels but I prefer the idea to build my own thing. That personal network gained from 15 years of doing it yourself may become more important than if you work with a label on each release.

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Ha! True, I signed up with Distrokid to selfrelease in …October? And so far, I haven’t got my stuff out on the streaming services. Had some second thoughts, lost some momentum, and the heat cooled off. :grinning:

Probably not adding much. For listeners a label can be guide, a gatekeeper, a curator and finder of the good stuff. For artists it can be a community, external pressure, connecting with peers etc.

It makes sense to ask yourself, what do I need help with? Can a label provide that help? Etc

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I’m wrapping up my third release soon and I’ve also been asking myself this same question. I feel like I’d like to reach out to a label to see if they’d be interested but I find myself getting stuck on “where do I even start with this process?”

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This process hasn’t really changed either IMHO:

  • Find labels you like and that you think your music would sound at home in their catalog.
  • Check their website etc for demo policies, and follow whatever guidelines they have. (Everyone is different. Some also don’t accept demos.)
  • If there’s none, find contact info and ask them if they accept demos and if so what’s their preferred method of delivery?
  • Then, prepare your music in whatever format they want – it’s worth asking if they prefer submissions of finished releases, examples of work, excerpts etc – everyone is different there too.
  • And finally send it to them in their desired format with some information about yourself. Include a link to somewhere they can read more about you and your projects but probably keep it short in the actual demo submission and just include the basics in your final message.

And FWIW don’t:

  • Copy and paste the same form letter with a private soundcloud link and send it to any label you can google for…
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Very much this in 20 characters.

I think what has changed in the last ten years is the extent to which preparations are done by the artist. In recent years I’ve paid for mastering, or shared the costs and same goes for artwork.

I’ve had no arrangement where I ever expected to see money back from the label. So money talk is around costs not revenue. Don’t know if that’s changed, really, perhaps just more explicit.

Typically there’s a conversation about scope of channels, formats, etc. the label is thinking about as their domain. With one cassette label they covered costs of the tape itself and sent me some copies, but explicitly said they had no stake in what I did with the same files, artwork, etc digitally. It made it like a self-release in my mind (Bandcamp, streaming, I do some promo myself) but just with this bonus thing on the side.

+1 to the exposure arguments - both via effort sunk by the label and via association with hopefully like-minded acts. Even just from noseying at the Bandcamp page for my new album I can see it’s reaching new ears without me having to do anything additional to a self-release, which is a massive plus for me.

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Yeah I think this is all pretty evident if you’ve spent some quality time in the music world, specifically in the area/genre you’re comfortable with. One thing I’ve found slightly discouraging is following the links to contact a label and being met with “our catalog for 2020 is completely full” - Obviously I realize these things take planning out but as someone with a release in their pocket, waiting another year to put it out into the world isn’t super appealing.

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To maybe just give this a little perspective: My label is as small as they come. With six releases per year so far, maybe a few more in 2020. At the same time, I receive around 5 demos per day, sometimes more. Plus there are current artists that I would like to work with again and thus have to leave some open spaces. So even if I like a demo, it is still hard to squeeze it in.

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Glad to hear your thoughts on this, big fan of your label of course :slight_smile: - how do you decide or make the time to decide what you feel like pursuing? Obviously, it should be something you deeply enjoy but five demos a day just sounds like an extraordinary amount of listening time.

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Another reason why it can be better to build up your own thing and be invited to do a release as opposed to sending out demos

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I would also add that in the context of very small / diy labels, there tends to be an aspect of community as well. Listening to each others releases. Collaborating on a track. Getting on the remix album. Etc. This part to me is where I see most of the value in a label these days, as that’s the sort of thing that keeps me excited about working and can make it feel less like you’re just tossing sounds into the void.

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I have to trust in my taste, it’s the only thing that matters in the decision. I still do listen to everything, but not the whole album. If the first 2-3 tracks don’t catch me in some way (textures, composition, vibe, etc.), the release isn’t for me. If I like it, I listen to it very concentrated and a second time while doing something else. And then I have to ask myself, if I would recommend this album to a friend. Because that is basically what a label is doing in my opinion.

I generally am a rather critical person. So when I am not completely sure, I rather decline it. I prefer to release less in that case.

@nattog
Having a ‘fanbase’ of some sort and a small success with a previous (self-)release definitely helps in getting noticed by (small) labels.

Edit:
The most important thing for me is that an artists has an original voice. A technically perfect, yet same-y piece is less interesting to me than unique yet somewhat rough music.

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i have been thinking about these questions recently so thanks for starting conversation here where i can see what yall think too

The main value is in the relationship itself…usually built gradually on a foundation of friendship and trust. For that reason I gravitate toward small scale independent labels run by folks who have reached out after we developed a shared mutual interest.

I kinda view labels like galleries/performance spaces. Working in these various “spaces” stirs my imagination and provides extra incentive while working on & arranging songs.

Others have discussed payment for misc items and I concur to a degree. A few labels have paid to make and ship tapes & lathe cuts on my behalf. Two I’ve been in contact with recently offered to pay for or share the cost of mastering. One has said they’ll pay for cover art to be commissioned for my work.

More than financial support, I mostly want them to promote the album as a third party. I don’t usually feel like talking about and boosting my own tunes because it seems a bit self-centred and runs contrary to my personality.

In the past I avoided submitting music for consideration or seeking a label because i thought an artist is expected to tour behind music they’ve made. I had no interest in doing so…

Aside from that I’m not sure how to answer the question. Every label I’ve worked with has wanted honest aural expression and asked for very little in return (other than meeting occasional deadlines or duration requirements). From time to time I’ve been asked for a photo or liner notes describing the release or my inspiration.

It might. For me it never has…but I don’t believe in music ownership in the traditional sense that most artists do. I’m aware that conversations and contracts defining ownership and compensation are “normal” for other people (especially when working with established labels).

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I really resonate with this sentiment. Though I’m really proud of my last release, I can only stomach so much self-promotion on social media. And, honestly, after working on something for the better part of two years, I was ready to move to the next thing on as soon as it was done. I can see the value in having a partner to talk about and promote the release, allowing the artist to get back to work.

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I will chime back in with something more tailored to your questions and the convo @mattlowery and apologise in advance for this being a copy/paste post. I run two labels which are pretty different from each other and our digital distributor asked a while back “I’m speaking on a panel at [redacted] regarding whether to sign to a label or not…” in the context of being an artist run label. This is what I sent him back, which is pretty raw as it was just material for him to use in creating his talk:

So I’d say for me, like anything music business related - releasing independently, signing with a label, forming a label, etc - has two main components. One side being the creative aspects and the other being the practical/logistical side of things. Fundamentally, if you are releasing music and hoping to make a living from it, or a least increase the listenership of it, there is a certain amount of unavoidable labour which comes along with that, the path you take just potentially shifts who does it. One of the outcomes of the decision of which route to market to take, will be a shift in the balance of the labour you have to put into the logistics and the time you have to spend making the music. For me (ironically), I’d rather maximise the time I can spend simply making music, but that’s not always practical.

Forming a label with other artists can in theory serve a few purposes:

  • Division of Labour
  • Shared Resources
  • Shared Network
  • Diversifying Skillsets
  • Increased bargaining power with suppliers/rest of industry

FAR started out this way. An exchange of skills playing to people’s strengths. Victor (Sun Glitters/CLD.RAN) is an incredible graphic designer and video producer for example, so he handles all of that for FAR. Chris (CNJR) has years of experience as a booking agent/artist manager so he can take on those responsibilities for others. Everyone has an area they take more responsibility for, based on their skillset. This doesn’t necessarily decrease anyone’s individual time commitment to business stuff but it can make that time more effective and hopefully more interesting.

There is a tipping point however. If you take on releases for say, friends or projects you are really into, that are not from the core group and who do not contribute in like (with skills/labour as opposed to a percentage share). You quickly start to accumulate more labour than perhaps you can handle in the time allocated, or is just generally worth it. At some point you might end up spending much more time on the business end of things. That’s the point where you either pare back or… embrace it and go full label.

There are advantages a “full” label can have which simply amounts to resources (or more likely, the potential to have resources). At the end of the day though, starting a for profit label is the same as starting any other business and should be approached as such. Does it make financial sense? Do you have a business plan/capital/skills/resources/etc/etc? It’s also a point to definitely stop and think, do I actually want to spend my time running a record label? Because unless this is now a very busy full time job, you probably aren’t giving it what it needs to survive (exception being hobby level, small scale, specialist, etc).

I guess to come full circle at that point is to think would a better transition be from fully independent to signing for a label. I think the answer for me there is, depends on the label. A cost benefit analysis of time saved vs money out vs potential increase in “success” can be pretty hard to do. But it’s the best way, in my opinion, to make that decision. Assessing the intangible “fairness” of a deal can also be somewhat difficult as in all likelihood (in fact, hopefully!) the label will engage with other sections of the industry (distribution, fulfilment, PR, etc) at a level above what artists releasing their own music tend to. These other parties get first cut in most cases and from the gross revenue, not the net. So you and your label are both at the end of a chain in which you get a smaller percentage of the overall (hopefully much bigger) pot of revenue. I would definitely ask them to justify their cut if it seems like a lot, they shouldn’t have a problem doing so.

Basically, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just write music all day and still eat.

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@interpretnull no apology needed! This is a wonderful and well-measured perspective. And yeah,

Any time I begin a theoretical or philosophical discussion with myself, it always ends on how nice it would be to have independent wealth. Though I’m sure I would find a way to be dissatisfied with that too. :hugs:

Interesting thoughts about the division of labor.

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