Though the music industry has recently transformed in ways that give independent musicians a lot more agency and opportunity than it used to, many artists still rank signing with a label at or near the top of their list of career goals. Working with a reputable label can deliver massive benefits that can be elusive for musicians who go it alone. However, things are slowly changing in a big way when it comes to the musician-label relationship, and there are big advantages for going the independent route you should consider.
Finances are a lot less complicated (and you won’t have to split your earnings)
Are you an expert on song royalties, streaming payouts, and revenue sharing? Yeah, neither am I. The financial aspect of music is complex even before a label steps into the picture. Working independently means you’ll have the benefit of not having to share money with a record label through complex contracts that often aren’t designed to favor the artist. There are plenty of amazing, artist-centric record labels out there who truly support the musicians they sign. But, unfortunately, there are many others who earn money by taking advantage of musicians. From a financial perspective, there’s often a big benefit in not signing to a label. But whether you decide to or not, make absolute sure you understand the contractual agreements you’re presented with as a musician. If a label wants to work with you, have an entertainment lawyer help you understand their proposed terms. It’s one of the best things you can do for your career.
You own the rights to your music
“Record label” has become sort of a loose term these days. Every label is different, which means the terms they offer artists vary wildly. Under the most extreme circumstances, labels ask artists to sign the rights over to their songs, either for a long period of time or even indefinitely. This means that as long as your music generates money, that money will be shared with your label for as long as the terms dictate. It could also mean a big loss of freedom on your part in terms of how your music is used in movies, TV, and on the radio. Again, if you are seriously considering teaming up with a label, have an entertainment lawyer thoroughly read the proposed terms and communicate them to you so you understand exactly what you’re signing up for or turning down. But if you do decide to decline an offer from a label, you’ll have the huge benefit of owning 100% of the rights to your music. Your decision to retain ownership of your recordings and compositions could continue to financially support you decades from now.
You’ll have no one to answer to
Lots of artists have it in their heads that getting signed is like crossing the finish line because it can be such a big goal. But in reality, this is when the real work begins for most musicians, and it’s also when the pressure starts being applied. Many musicians have the main goal of creating amazing music, but that’s not how labels are operated. Labels are businesses, and their survival depends on the musicians they sign creating songs that earn money. For many bands and solo artists, there’s a massive amount of pressure from labels to contend with. Some musicians thrive and succeed under this pressure, but many others long for the days when they could create freely without anyone looking over their shoulder. This doesn’t make labels greedy or purely driven by money, but the financial pressures of being signed create an atmosphere that could definitely deliver negative impacts to your career. Staying independent means having no one to answer to but yourself and the musicians you create with.
These are some significant reasons to not sign with a label, but it’s important to emphasize that every contract is different. If you’ve got a lot of momentum with your music and a label seems genuinely interested in what you’re doing, you’d be unwise not to seriously consider working with them. Labels are profit-driven, but that doesn’t mean they’re all out to exploit artists. Many are staffed with musicians and music-lovers who are passionate about promoting the music they love. In the same way that a curious and discerning mindset is good for creating music, an open, patient approach that involves an expert’s guidance will help you decide whether teaming up with a label is the right move for you or not.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.