Artist Advice: Label vs Independent - Which Is The Better Route?

Should you sign to a label or go independent. Each have their advantages and disadvantages. We break them down in this two part series.
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The debate between label and independent is one that has raged on for decades. For artists, the model has traditionally been to work your way up, get a record deal and then tour based on your albums. In the digital age as distributors have made it easier to work outside of labels, other revenue streams have risen like streaming and merchandise have risen in importance and battles over creative control become more public, the need for a label seems to be less obvious. In this series, we will look at the pros and cons of having a label, what they can and should do for you and whether or not you really need to sign away the rights to your masters.

First let’s look at why it is still smart to sign to a label. The trendy pick now may be to eschew a label and try to go at it on your own, but that isn’t always the obvious answer. A label can provide resources, support and connections that you and your team may not be able to. 

1. Resources:

The first thing that labels do is to provide artists with money to record their album. The era of labels buying out entire record studios for a month and not checking in on progress is gone, but they should be able to cover recording costs. If you want to bring in session musicians on a piece, they can help coordinate and hire them. They will cover for mixing, mastering and other costs that go into this. Of course, this all comes out of a budget that is allocated for you. If you are Taylor Swift that is much higher than a small indie band who is on their first album on a small rock label. You also should get an advance so you can focus on writing music and not worry about having another job. That money is recouped through royalties and future sales. They will also pay for music videos and other video promotion, though this can be debated on the budgets and what songs then get videos.

2. Marketing:

A label should be able to market their artists. This all comes out of a budget, but if you are on their roster, they will want to push you out to the world and get you heard. This is also in their self-interest because the more famous you are, the more streams and sales you will have, which means they earn more money. On your own, you can hire a publicist, but a label has a in-house publicity team with built in connections with digital media, print media, late night TV, radio and streaming services that they can use to market you. If they have a few premier artists on their roster, they can leverage those to help you by leveraging your name as a way to get to the big names. Nothing is guaranteed and there can be some pretty lackadaisical attempts at marketing. However, if you are involved and make sure to marshal their resources, then you can hopefully get the most out of their marketing and promo departments.

3. A&R Support:

This is as crucial as any service a label can offer. Not only can they provide another ear on your music, but they can link you with other songwriters, producers or artists who might be good to have on your project. If you are an indie band, convincing a big-time producer to work on your album for a month may a tough ask, but if you are on a label, they may be able to ask and get it done. A label can pull from their existing connections and potential artist pool to create collaborations for you own projects that would be mutually beneficial. They shouldn’t dictate where your music is going, but they can lend a hand or ear in guiding it along the path that you are creating – in the ideal world. This doesn’t always happen, as we know.

4. Connections Inside & Outside Music:

This ties into A&R, but it goes a bit deeper than that. Labels can offer connections to other artists and people in the business that you can either work with, glean insight from or potentially pitch different types of ideas to. One of the most important ways for an artist to grow their career is through co-signs from other artists. Having fellow label artists promote your music can be a great way to push your career and develop a better reputation to build on. If it is a larger label, or one that has some cache outside of music, then you might be able to leverage them into opportunities in film or TV to start an entertainment career. Obviously, this depends on your own talents. A label also could help shift your skills into areas like scoring or soundtracking if you want.

5. Sync & Publishing:

As traditional sales decline for artists, they have to find other avenues of revenue. A label can also be your publisher, which handles the revenue from streaming. This keeps everything in one place and you know where to go when you are looking for your money. Depending on the size of the label, they may either have an in-house team, outsource, or both, to get sync licensing deals to help place your music in games, commercials, TV shows or movies.

6. International Exposure:

This depends on your record deal, but the larger the record label, the more international exposure you can get. If you are signed to a major label like Sony, then they have the leverage to push you outside of your market using their expertise and resources into either an adjacent market or a totally new one. This can be through a collaboration, slew of remixes or support touring that can help push your music into those markets. 

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