Record labels transform unknown artists into superstars, right? 

They magically turn you into an overnight success?

They validate your artistry for the world?

Well,… lemme try to answer those questions delicately: NOPE!

Labels do NOT magically turn you into a “real” artist worthy of global recognition.

Modern record labels in the attention economy face unique challenges that hamper their ability to spin unknown artists into enduring household names.

If that’s true, then, what are record labels good for?

The real role of labels in the industry today

Many labels today invest in artists who’ve already demonstrated some kind of profit potential. 

Or as Patrick Clifton wrote:

There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests new artists who are enjoying success are emerging from scenes they participate in or are creating around themselves.

Their success is not generated by the master-plan of their record label. It is generated by two-way engagement with a core fanbase, which grows with time, helped by new music and the accelerating effect of social networks. A record label can help them grow, however.”

In other words, many labels in 2024 prefer to add fuel to a fire that’s already burning. They want to deploy their expertise and budget to scale something proven.

Labels make calculated bets. Educated guesses. That your music can generate more revenue than they spend on your behalf. 

And before a label will gamble on your music, they’ll be looking for a few indicators of potential success.

Labels want to see some of the following:

  • Great songwriting, production, or performance skills
  • Meaningful engagement metrics (if you’ve already established a public persona)
  • Social charisma and/or exceptional branding
  • Hard work and dependability 
  • A well-defined audience (and customer list)
  • Sales history (merch sales, concert ticket sales, etc.)

Not every artist has all these boxes checked before inking a record deal, of course. But the more you prove on your own that your music can succeed as a business, the better your chances of getting signed. Because the label will feel like it’s making less of a gamble. 

To repeat some common wisdom: The less you need a label, the more they’ll want you.

And at that point, a label can step in to offer different kinds of support and resources to accelerate the growth of your music career.  

But what is a record label? 

Before we dig into a record label’s primary responsibilities, let’s define what a label is: 

Put simply, a record label is a company that manages the recording, production, distribution, and promotion of an artist’s music. A label provides the necessary resources and industry connections to help their roster of artists make, market, and release music in a successful way. 

A label is not always involved in every step in the process. For instance, some labels enter the picture after a recording has been finished. But the “traditional” label contract usually implies significant input throughout each phase of a music release. 

The key functions of a record label

The scope of services provided by a label may differ based on the terms of your deal,  as well as whether it’s a major, indie, or boutique label. 

But here’s a quick summary of the main responsibilities of a record label:

Supporting a scene or culture

Many of the roles that follow in this article relate to a label’s job of turning a particular artist, release, catalog, or copyright into a profit engine. And that’s crucial for the artist and the label’s survival: To make money.

But many labels also serve a more intangible cultural role. They can find great artists in a certain fringe scene or genre, and curate releases that build a bigger story or vibe around the label itself. Or more importantly, around a particular movement or sound that has yet to gain widespread attention.

So while labels often get criticized as regurgitating cookie-cutter music, the opposite is often true; many labels are at the forefront of championing the next thing while that scene is still in its (promising) infancy, in terms of mass appeal.

Scouting Talent (A&R) 

A&R stands for Artists and Repertoire — an old-fashioned way of saying “let’s match the best artists with the best songs and the best production resources.”

This department is responsible for discovering new talent, overseeing artist development, and shaping the final recording with input into song selection, aesthetic direction, and more. 

A&R reps may discover artists they want to sign at clubs or festivals, online (YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, etc.), or via industry recommendations and networking events.  

Artist Development

Speaking of A&R, part of the artist-development work a label may undertake could include branding and visual identity, workshopping your live performance skills and concert production, and crafting a specific musical sound with an awareness of the latest trends in the music marketplace.

That last component may then impact…

Recording & Production

If your record deal includes support for the recording process itself, the label will coordinate with you on budgeting, locking in producers and engineers, scheduling studio time, session players or guest artists, and more. 

Keep in mind that if your record deal includes a recording budget, the label will probably want to have oversight and input during the creative process. 

Branding & Design

There will come a point when the results of artist-development need to be translated into specific product design and marketing assets.

Labels can help you refine that visual presentation, tighten up your overall artist brand, and create striking album covers, press photos, digital ads, billboards, web design, and more. 

Marketing & Promo

In order to drive sales and engagement, a label will often assist with PR and media appearances, marketing campaigns, radio and playlist promotion, social content strategy, influencer campaigns, and more. 

And one of the biggest benefits of a label is… they’ll PAY for all that marketing. (Though most likely that means the label makes the upfront investment, and then slowly recoups the expense by keeping some of your earnings). 

To whatever degree possible, be sure to retain ownership of your fan data, customer contact info, and retargeting audiences. 

Distribution

Labels help get your music out there. They can leverage physical distribution of vinyl and CDs to retail stores, as well as digital distribution to platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and more. A label with industry clout may be able to find additional DSP editorial opportunities too.

Remember though, you don’t need a label in order to distribute your music worldwide.

Sales Tracking & Royalty Collection

Want your singles and albums to chart? Want to get paid? A label has the responsibility of accurately tracking and reporting sales, and paying you what you’re owed.

That being said, “what you’re owed” and how often you get paid will differ drastically depending on the terms of your deal. 

Tour Support

Labels can provide “tour support” in the form of money, which makes it easier for artists to stay on the road in order to build awareness and sell albums.

Or it can be logistical support and access to professional networks that make it easier to book a tour, coordinate live production elements, secure opening slots on other major tours, etc. 

Career Management

Labels can help you manage both the creative and business sides of your music efforts.

This can include not just the royalty collection mentioned earlier, but also health benefits, retirement planning, and contract negotiation. 

Publishing & Sync Expertise

Although labels are primarily known for creating, distributing, and promoting RECORDINGS, some labels also operate divisions that administer the music publishing rights to compositions.

This helps the label find the best songs for their roster of artists, streamline rights considerations, and seek additional revenue opportunities such as sync licensing.

Want to access the publishing power of Warner Chappell Music for your own original songs?

Check out ReverbNation Publishing!


Conclusion: You still have to do the work

One common misperception is that a label will swoop in, solve all your problems, and do all the work for you. So you can just sit back and do the fun stuff all day: write, record, perform. 

That’s not how this goes!

If you’ve worked hard enough to get noticed by a label, the work may only intensify after you’ve been signed. Because a label is going to use their resources and connections to open new doors for you. Ultimately, YOU are the one who has to step through those doors. 

While you may receive logistical and financial support that helps you dream bigger and work smarter, you may also find that being on a label requires a whole new level of commitment, creativity, and hustle. 

No, it’s not magic. A label won’t make you a star. If you get a record deal, it will largely be because you’ve already established the foundations of a promising music career. 

But if you can maintain your work-ethic, keep creating great songs, and attract the right label, getting signed may be just the thing that helps unlock your music’s true potential.

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