It’s a slow Thursday night at your neighborhood rock club, and you’ve just stepped offstage after an admittedly killer set by your Promising Local Band. You’re trying to suss whether that’s just your ego talking or if you’ve actually managed to hit the Good Enough to Get Signed by a Label level. That’s the goal, in any case – get signed to a record label, turn pro, go out on the road for six months, come back home to write and record the next album, and that’s what your life will be like for the next x years. You amble over to the end of the bar, where this slightly older guy is sitting, and he tells you exactly what you want to hear:
“You all sounded amazing. You’re as good as any signed band out there. Won’t be long until you’ll never have to play a half-empty club again. All you have to do is get signed, and that’ll change everything for you.”
Spoken like someone who’s never been “signed.”
Don’t get me wrong – being on a record label can often present opportunities to a musician that would have been more challenging to access without label support.
The label’s name recognition alone may be a boon – bloggers, talent buyers and ordinary listeners appreciate connecting the dots from an act they’d never heard of to any kind of known entity. The label should have some kind of mechanism for digital or even physical distribution, and ideally it would cover some or all of the costs of manufacturing physical copies of your release. It’s in the label’s best interest to put a promotional push behind all of their releases, so that’s some weight off your shoulders. The label might even have mechanisms (whether in-house or outsourced) for licensing, extended PR campaigns, tour management or merch production. In some cases, they might even pay for some or all of the costs of producing the record, although labels like those are rare birds. Even if the label has extremely limited capacity for any or all of those pieces of the record/tour cycle, it can be helpful to be plugged into the community around the label and its acts, and to point you toward trustworthy providers of any of those services.
What the overwhelming bulk of independent record labels can’t provide is a noticeable change in your quality of life. By which I mean, it’s not as though “getting signed” means you’re definitely going to make more money from your music than you would have without a label.
Anecdotally, I think there are some widespread misunderstandings about how the music business works outside of the major-label system.
A lot of people assume independent labels operate kind of like the majors, with more or less end-to-end artist services integrated into the model, just on a much smaller scale. Don’t assume that. It’s extremely rare for an independent label to pay advances – much less cover the cost of studio time – so you won’t start off this business relationship with cash upfront. Artists on most independent labels have to remain very hands-on with all of the business aspects. When you look at who’s running the US independent labels you know and love, you’ll often find it’s like, three people. When I was a music journalist, I used to think it was a total power move for an independent label to even have an in-house publicist. I would think having more than 10 people on staff meant the label must be killing it, because a staff of that size is so rare among independents.
I think another reason why so many people assume an independent-label deal is roughly equivalent, materially, to having a day job is that being a national-level musician looks like a full-time job, and that it would stand to follow that it pays like a full-time job. You see bands going out on tour for two to six months out of the year, and using their time off the road to write and record new music. That’s extremely demanding of one’s time, and basically sounds like it should be considered a normal job. It’s not a normal job. It’s a job where one’s financial well-being typically depends on multiple income streams from multiple sources, and not everyone has either the opportunities or the knowledge to milk their potentially most profitable sources for all they’re worth.
I know you want me to say, “… But there’s a point where an artist on a reputable, nationally-distributed label gets over the hump and starts earning something like a middle-class income.” But, uh… I can’t say that.* I promise that a huge number of the independent-label musicians you know and love, and who play packed clubs around the country, have either a) day jobs, or b) inherited wealth. You might be surprised by how many have not just day jobs, but whole-ass careers outside of making their own music. The number of nationally-recognized musicians who have day jobs is so vast that it doesn’t even make sense to pull a few examples.
Look, simply not dying in this country is expensive as hell. Being on a smallish label rarely pays enough money for an artist to comfortably take a month or two to do nothing but write and rehearse their next album – the next album being more or less a requirement for going out on tour again.
All right, one example of well-known musicians with day jobs. I remember interviewing the singer of a critically acclaimed band on a very respectable independent label, at a point when the band was three albums in. The second had been their breakthrough, turning them into critical darlings and a headlining act with a rabid fan base. The singer said he and his bandmates had crunched some numbers in the van one day and realized they all made more money back at home at their day jobs than they did on tour. He worked at a coffee shop at the time.
I might sound terribly fatalistic right now, but like… I don’t feel that way? Like, I actually think it’s interesting when a person’s life might have more sides to it than you might think. I think having a wide variety of life experiences is a pretty good way to become more empathetic and wise. I listen to music by established bands that I know contain academics, graphic designers, journalists, audio engineers, tech people, insurance-industry people, cooks – and I think that’s cool. While it would be even cooler if music paid all of the bills for those folks, I think having a job is at least cooler than having a trust fund. Makes for better conversation at parties, at least.
Ultimately, my point isn’t that getting signed to a record label shouldn’t be one of a musician’s goals. My point is that getting signed does not come with a unified leveling-up of everything. Some acts parlay signing to a pretty small label into any number of arrangements and relationships that allow them to spend more time on their art. Some don’t. You’ll be better positioned to change your quality of life if you set specific, quantifiable goals, and understand what it looks like to succeed at any of those goals before you get there.
Which is everything. Let’s be real here. The older I get, the more I recognize how people who set clear goals, study how other people have achieved those goals, plot out a strategy that works for their own day-to-day reality, and can recognize when they’ve achieved those goals have a better success rate than people who have vague goals. Vague goals tend to come with vague paths.
So there’s a Small Regional Label that your Promising Local Band has crossed paths with. They want to put out your EP. Cool! Hopefully! So how many physical units will they need you to sell? What can they and the acts on their roster do to help you land better gigs? (What’s a “better gig” than what you’ve already been playing?) How much promotion can they do? Can they help with licensing – and if they do, have they licensed anything? You should go down the checklist of what you need. Maybe the Small Regional Label can give you things you don’t already have. Maybe all they can offer is their name and branding.
We live in a musical landscape dotted with niche microlabels that, while limited in scale, can provide small-time bands wider platforms than they’d have on their own. Many are worth getting on board with. You shouldn’t allow yourself to experience much FOMO by not being on One of Those Bigger Indies, or imagine there’s a huge lifestyle chasm between you and the artists on those labels. A whole lot of us are doing kinda the same thing, whatever level we’re on.
*From my observations, it seems like, for acts on independent labels, getting into the summertime festival circuit and/or getting licensed can actually move the needle on their day-to-day quality of life. A lot of nationally known acts never make it to the festival circuit. Getting licensed often necessitates some kind of intermediary. These are great goals for any musician to have, but it’s important to think realistically about how far along either or both belongs on your list of goals.
More from This Series
Introducing: Bad Advice Musicians Hear (The Series) / You Need to Play Everywhere
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 2: Start Your Own Music Scene
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 3: Can a PR Rep Fast-Track You to Fame?
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 4: Is Music PR a Waste of Money?