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Artist Advice: Signing To Major or Indie Label -- Which Works Best For You Pt.1?

So you want to sign a record contract. Should it be with a major or indie label. We dive into your choices.
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Last month we dove into your choice as an artist between signing to a label and staying independent. Now it is time to get a little more granular and focus on your choices, if you do sign somewhere, of whether to work with a major or an indie label. Both have their advantages and disadvantages with money, bureaucracy and attention being among the foremost concerns. Let’s look at what you get from a major label – the good and the bad.

1. Money & Resources: Major labels have more resources than their smaller label counterparts. That doesn’t mean they will always allocate them to you, but they have a lot more money than indie labels. That money can come in bigger advances, so they will be able to pay for you to spend your entire time recording and go bigger with how you record. You may have more money for music videos, promotion and potential features. Artists say they make music for the art, but money is what makes it possible at the end of day. The majors have more of it than their independent counterparts and their revenues are surging because of streaming, so there in theory should be more money to go around from the lean years of the post-Napster mid-2000s. Many labels have strong bonds with recording studios, so getting work in a studio should be quite easy.

2. Connections: Major labels are large machines that can operate slowly (more on that later) and within those machines are individuals that are very well connected. The major labels because of their status, history and workforce will be able to connect you with other artists either on their roster or elsewhere in the business. This can be for collaborations, features, tours and more. If you are a new rock band, getting a strong producer to work on an album may be a tough ask, but if you are signed to a major, they may be able to facilitate the work. The downside is that these aren’t always used for your benefit and knowing that an artist is within reach, can make it much harder when the connection isn’t made.

3. Clearing Samples: Any label should try and do this for you, but a major will likely have more success clearing samples because of money and connections. Clearing samples can be the lifeblood of many hip-hop and dance productions, so if an artist is thinking of a sample-heavy project, then a major label likely offers better protection.

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4. Large Staff: Majors have a lot of people working at them. They have offices spread out around the globe with numerous departments from marketing to publishing and legal. They can all support you in different ways and take care of everything you might need. They will also have good legal teams, which can protect you in the case of a lawsuit over music or something else. Those legal teams can be turned right around, however, if you break you contractual obligations.

5. Bureaucracy: A major label is a machine and a large one at that. There are departments for art, marketing, publishing, A&R, legal, human resources and more. Getting them to all work together can be a challenge. Paperwork can get delayed, emails sat left unanswered and phone calls not returned. The bureaucracy can mean things move very slowly, from getting samples cleared or artwork approved and getting your songs in the pipeline to be released. The large staff can help and hurt you.

6. Lack of transparency: This is an issue with most labels and how contracts are written and enforced, but it is especially the case at majors. They are large companies where getting everyone on the same page can be difficult. Sometimes the lack of transparency can be unintentional, but other times the machine can protect itself by not giving forthright answers right away. It will likely take longer to get an answer on where your marketing budget went or how much money you really should be making on streaming at a major.

7. Less Flexibility & Attention (mostly): Unless you are one of the big moneymakers at a major label or considered a “priority,” getting to the front of the line will be difficult. There is a structure that comes with being on a major, which can be useful, but also somewhat restrictive. The bigger artists will get more attention from the label because they are the big moneymakers. That should be expected. They will get more marketing, a bigger budget, better press releases and executives who are all-in, all the time. That can leave less room and creativity for the small guy who might instead just get a cookie cutter plan, unless they take the initiative to push for something different.

8. Bad Contracts: There are bad contracts associated with any label, big or small, but the majors have a worse reputation for predatory and vague contracts that artists eventually regret. Artists will lose control of their masters and they may be locked into a deal for 5+ albums, even if such a feat isn’t really likely. These can lock in an artist to something they don’t want and eventually will need to break off, which can get messy and expensive.

Indies aren’t always more flexible, but they tend to offer contracts that give artists more options. The money won’t be the same, especially upfront cash, but that comes with a tradeoff.

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