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Artist Advice: Signing To Major Or Indie Label -- Which Works Best For You Pt. 2?

Indies can bring a lot to the table with more attention, more freedom and flexibility. See how they stack up to the majors.
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Earlier this month, we started to touch on the choice you have to make when signing to a label. Do you go to a major or do you stick with an indie – if all of the above options are on the table? We broke down the advantages of a major label, looking at what their mighty resources can bring you and how you can benefit from large departments with many smart, well-connected people. However, they are large machines that aren’t that nimble and can be slow to adapt to you or the business and may be rigid in their thinking creatively. Indies are a bit different in their clout, but can offer more in certain areas like creative control or attention, but don’t have the resources larger labels can provide. Let’s break this down for what you can get and what may be the drawbacks of an indie label.

1. More Freedom: Being at an indie label means things should be less rigid. Of course the label has its own sound and vision, but it is more adaptable to the artists it signs and to the music business. They are more likely to work with you on whatever project you want to put out into the world and not stifle the type of albums or creative process that comes to you. There are fewer stories of albums being shelved or canceled from indie labels. They will likely be more supportive of whatever you want to do creatively, even if it isn’t going to be an obvious moneymaker. They aren’t part of large, publically traded companies. Yes, they do need to make money to survive, but the same incentive to milk every last cent out of the artist isn’t usually there.

2. More Attention: Smaller labels generally sign less acts so that means there will be more time to take care of what you need. The stratification of artist status generally isn’t seen on most indie labels. There are exceptions like Adele on XL Recordings or the upper echelon of artists on Warp such as Aphex Twin or Danny Brown, however the split between global superstars and small, developmental bands doesn’t often happen. That means work can be evenly spaced out and it isn’t all hands on deck for a megastar and a smaller act falls through the cracks. With the attention comes more care for your ideas from start to finish.

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3. Shorter, Simpler Contracts: Major label contracts can be signed for many projects and lock artists into deals they never should have signed in the first place. This leads to messy and expensive breakups that end in bad blood. Indie labels will likely sign an artist for a shorter period of time, maybe one to three albums. These can be renewed if things go well, but it also gives the artist more freedom to leave or explore other options if they want to sign different projects with different labels. If they want to start a new alias and release it on a different label, being exclusively signed to a major may prevent that. If the majors want to take care of everything and outline that in their contracts, it may be difficult to break free to work elsewhere who may be better at a given task. Indies will give you more freedom to explore those opportunities and work with others.

4. Smaller Staff: There is good and bad to this. We will touch on a good point next, but it can be bad to have less staff. There will be less people to handle urgent requests or if you have a large project with marketing, art, promo, A&R and more. That can lead to some delays if a lot of projects are being worked on, but a good label will know how to manage staff and the workload. Less staff also means that they can train everyone with new tech and processes faster. Everyone can get on the same page and lines of communication are shorter. The company is more agile in the marketplace because it is smaller.

5. Less Bureaucracy: This is a big one. Major labels can be massive corporations, which rely on standard corporate processes and structures to operate. This protects them on a business level as parts of publicly traded companies and the redundancies help catch errors, but they can slow things down. Indies will have fewer layers of middle management and fewer steps to get things approved. They will likely move faster on all fronts and be able to communicate better in the process.

6. Lack Of Resources: An indie label won’t be broke (you hope), but depending on the size, they may not be able to go out and shoot the expansive and beautiful music video you want. They may not be able to afford the remixers of your dreams for a single. They may not be able to afford features or songwriters or producers for a project that you think can elevate your album or career to the next level. An indie label may not have a massive marketing team in house or publishing or sync licensing staff, which would mean they can outsource that for one project or have a team ready to go on standby. Some may not have the budget for some of those additional sources of revenue, so you may need to explore those on your own with your team.

A similar analogy between the two examples is between big and small universities. The big ones won’t give you the same attention, but have loads of options and resources at their disposal fi you push hard enough to get them. The small ones are often still somewhat flush with cash, but they may not be able to support every vision you may have in house. Choosing between indie and major labels can be a massive choice that locks in your career for years to come. Not every indie label or major is the same. There are sub-labels of the majors that may be a better fit than signing to Universal or Columbia or Atlantic. Find the team that believes in your and will do everything to make sure your music is heard by the most people and believe in your vision.

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