The phrase “someday the band’s going to make it” is about as defining a set of words for rockers as “I’m Loving It” is for the Golden Arch. Every musician who’s ever walked the face of the Earth has probably uttered this at some point in their lives: someday, we are going to make it. It’s an aspiration, making it. But sometimes we use that phrase so often we forget what it truly means. When we refer to making it, are we simply referring to achieving fame? Money? Or are we talking about the idea of getting noticed by a label, who will come in and make all our dreams come true? Surprisingly, for a lot, it’s this one.
Which brings us to today’s discussion: making it big, and yet keeping it classy by retaining your originality and artistic vision. We’re talking about succeeding without accidently committing the cardinal sin of cool: selling out.
Today’s music world has a lot of advantages. There are independent platforms to publish your music, there are social media sites to meet new fans, and there are small venues all over the country that want to book acts from out of state. It sometimes leads one to ponder: why doesn’t everyone in the music business just make it big for themselves? And that’s the crux of the issue, having so many options at one’s disposal and yet still not being able to break through to the other side of success.
For new music marketers, let us break down a few basics of independent marketing so we can get on to why many bands still choose labels (and the dark side of that choice):
- SOCIAL MEDIA ADVERTISING: If your band doesn’t already have a Facebook presence… seriously, what the hell are you doing? Facebook is still the number one social networking site online, with the most active users. And Facebook also has great ways to make ads to target the audiences you want. So creating posts that are directed at advertising a new track, video, or show can be boosted to maximize results. Also, you can set ads for your page or website that are customized, and people really do respond. The trick is, making sure you choose a good advertising demographic. Add bands you sound like. Add interests you think your audience would have. Add genres. These will all help get you the right audience, and it’s surprisingly effective.
- YOUTUBE, FACEBOOK LIVE, AND STREAMING: The new age of advertising your brand, in this case your band, has always been a visual, flashy experience. This is why people love going to live shows. It’s loud, its colorful, and it’s shared with others. Sadly, in the now, some are having trouble even leaving their homes. Thus, the era of streaming began. If you haven’t started a YouTube channel, I highly recommend it. If you’ve never used Facebook Live, I also highly recommend it. These tools help you get in touch with your fans directly, coming right into their living rooms. Nowadays, people broadcast entire concerts to the web just to reach the people who couldn’t make it, which is genius. This makes them feel closer to the band members, the brand, and the music. If you want a definitive streaming experience, we highly recommend “Ustream,” an all inclusive service that includes state of the art broadcasting (directly to FB and Twitter if desired) and software to do seamless camera switching.
- SELLING YOUR MERCH AND MUSIC ONLINE: This is another must-have. People want what’s commonly referred to as “swag”: stickers, t-shirts, CDs, socks. Having a great merch selection is great, but as anyone who’s ever run inventory knows it’s not easy to sell all of it, and you can take a loss if you order too much of a certain item. These days, there are lots of websites that sell “on-demand” merchandise. This means they’ll make it as the customer orders it, which means you won’t be stuck with a ton of back stock in case a certain mug didn’t sell as well as a certain t-shirt, and so on. A great example of this is the website Redbubble, who make a variety of merch for you from the highest quality vendors on demand.
–MUSIC: Selling your music online is also easier than ever. You can store physical copies of your music on sites like CDBaby.com and get physical copies printed at sites like DiscPrinters.com. But we all know that a lot of physical copies isn’t near as valuable a commodity as online purchases, where most of the audience now resides. Sadly, some of the “pay per play” services like Apple Music and Spotify don’t give a tremendous amount per play, but it will add up if you get a lot of plays. What can sometimes be the most profitable is a well-orchestrated release with a lot of hype, and once it’s gotten a lot of demand you can make the album for-sale only. Sites like iTunes, Amazon, etc. are great but some even more savvy artists are setting up their own distribution methods to keep a larger percent of the dough. But purchases of music will always make you more than plays, so try for the sales!
These are some of the basics to selling your music, hyping your brand, and streaming straight to people’s homes. But let’s face it. There’s a whole different world behind simply creating and selling: there’s the side that keeps the books. The side that manages the tours. The side that keeps press relations, works to keep your band relevant on social media, and pick up the weight when you may have slacked off. This is why a lot of artists choose to have the power of a label on their side. It’s like having a bit of muscle to go into the arm-wrestling competition with.
The goal here isn’t to knock labels per se. But there are some real consequences to giving a portion of your career to someone else. Like with Ursula (you know which one), a signature on the dotted line can mean a lot more than getting what you wanted. It means in some way or another giving into the wishes of the document’s drafter, whether it’s succumbing to their artistic vision or full blown allowing them to take your voice. Okay, we’re steering off into the Disney weeds here, but you understand the metaphor.
Here are a few ways you will no doubt compromise your career by signing that dotted line (Editor’s note: We have decided to not list any examples in the effort to not call anyone out on their bullshit):
- ENDORSING PRODUCTS ENDLESSLY: This is another subject which is touchy, because the goal is not to knock endorsements entirely. We all have our favorite gear, and usually like to tell others about it. The probelm is the expectation to give into the corporatism of the music world: the hashtags, the music ads, the various brand advertising spots to play at the local guitar shops. When you’re a label band, you better believe the label also has ties with other brands and industries, like energy drinks or string brands, and they all have expectations of each other to keep that gravy train running. They need the artists to post Instagram pics drinking whatever energy drink the label endorses, and of course add the hashtag that leads to the brand’s website. Or pics of a band member playing a guitar and amp, with literally every brand that he uses hashtagged across the description. Going on tours sponsored by major brands also involves doing small commercial bits for that brand for their social media, which means you’ll be doing a lot endorsing, and not just for your own music. Are you ready to become a part-time spokesman?
- GIVING THE LABEL RIGHTS TO YOUR MUSIC: Very rarely will labels give the artist full control of the rights to their music. Sometimes it’s partial ownership, but most of the time the label puts up the money and thus the rights to the product belong to them. Now, many will sign a contract that entitles the artist to a percentage of the sales, downloads, etc. But keep in mind, you don’t know what the label will do with your music. You may have not secured television usage in your contract, and now your song is being used to advertise a reality TV show. Worse yet, some labels have sold their artist’s entire catalogues to other entities (like streaming services) for one lump sum payout. That’s hundreds (sometimes thousands) of artist’s tracks given over to someone they probably didn’t want to be involved with, and will see none of the money from that lump payout. Losing control of the rights to your music means letting someone take your music to the top, theoretically. But it’s also letting someone do what they think is best with it, which may not always be in your best interest. Sign your rights over cautiously.
- CONTROLLING THE ARTISTIC DIRECTION: Let’s say you dropped an album on your record label, and it was a smash success. Everyone loved it you, you sold out your nation wide tour, and are getting plays, likes, and retweets like crazy. But you had a different idea for your music, something that goes in a new artistic direction so you can expand your artistic repertoire. But wait, the label says. You clearly just sold a million records. Why would you want to steer ship? This is clearly the winning formula, make more of it! Is this a sensible business move? Maybe. But it will give many artists pause, knowing their music is now just a categorized mechanical recreation of what the label thinks people like. And they’re not always right: the fans probably like you and your music, for it’s virtues and shortcomings. Music is the one thing people are bonded to, beyond TV shows or movies. People identify with it because it’s real. If you take out your heart and soul and put in it’s place a formula, many will sense the phoniness of your product and lose interest.
Ultimately, it’s how much of the money and creative control you think you can keep a lasso around yourself. The label can give you great advantages, such as teams and points of contact all over the business. However, given the clear advantages you have in the music world today to market your own product and potentially reap all of the reward, why wouldn’t many go that route? Maybe it’s just not some musician’s thing, marketing and business. But then, that’s half the game anyway. So if you’re expected to do all of this anyway, you have to ask yourself a good and profound question: is making it being swooped up, or is making it a metric that I determine on my own terms?