Do small/local bands even need a label anymore?

andy474x

Knows the Drill
Joined
May 4, 2012
Messages
5,070
Location
West Michigan
Last week my band got an inquiry from a small Midwest label wanting to sign us. A few of my bandmates are excited about this prospect, but to be frank, I am not.

The basics of this deal as proposed by the label are that it's a 1 year contract, the label wants us to do 30-50 shows in said year, and pay to work with a certain producer/musician on developing some new songs for our next EP. They would also receive 10% of ticket and merch sales, and 50% of record sales. In return, they would pay 50% of the cost of recording an EP, and a few other nice perks.

The biggest problem I have with this proposal is time - they want us to do a certain number of weekends many of them out of town and probably requiring overnight trips. Maybe one a month, which would be OK, but if it's more, that could be a problem. I'm under no illusions of being a touring musician, nor should the rest of my band be IMO. While I can get away if need be, and would be happy to do so for the right shows, I don't want to be contractually obligated to do so a certain number of times per month. I work once a month on Saturday, and will be taking a continuing education course that meets about every sixth weekend for the next 2 years. Add to that vacations, family time, hunting and fishing seasons... and last but certainly not least, my wife. She graciously moved to West Michigan, where she knows no one, and due to work schedules most of our together time is on the weekend. I don't want to leave her alone when we have free weekends.

I probably sound like I'm complaining about being an adult... I'm not! I like all of the things listed above, well except maybe working Saturdays! My point is, does my band really need a record label, with all the requirements that come along with it? We're definitely weekend warriors - everyone has a day job and a family. We take our music seriously, but as a hobby, none of us expect to make a living off it. I'm not sure at this point that taking a contract is the right move for us, the band has already been experiencing plenty of positive growth on our own in the last few years. The quality of songwriting has gotten dramatically better, we've been able to get some very good quality recordings (not the demos I've posted here, but actual pro work), and a fair bump in local radio and internet radio. But we still don't rake in cash by any means, it's mostly self funded, so I don't want to be responsible for contributing to someone's income stream. Just the cost of getting to an out of state show, and lodging, would normally eat up most of our pay from a gig.

In my opinion, we DO need someone that can get us shows with good exposure, most of our traction seems to come from our live show. I don't know that a fledgling record label and a small-fry band are a good match for each other, if there's a good chance that both parties will be disappointed. Then again, I have no experience in the music industry, and am probably very naive. Anyone have experience with this kind of thing?
 
If all you want is good gigs a booking agent is the person you need, if nobody in the band wants to act as manager also to deal with the booking agent then you need a manager. I would also get with a music attorney if you decide to go forward with the deal to go over the contract and give you advice on how good the proposed deal actually is. Any good music attorney can get that info and here in California there is an organization "CA attorneys for the arts" that specializes in this and has programs for bands that don't have the big bucks.

That said, the "fledgling record label" is the biggest issue in my mind, like guitars, amps or anything else, you want the best you can get or afford not just what is available at the time. If getting with a label is the path your band decides to seek, try to get with the best label you can that has some achievements and distribution channels.

I don't have a major contract or anything but I have done some studio work and also have dealt with some crappy individuals when I was in your situation long ago, upcoming local original act. Les might have some good advice on this and I'm sure he'll acknowledge that although there are a lot of great people in the biz, but for the most part it's a ruthless game, you gotta read all the fine print, do your homework, so you don't get burned or locked into a bad situation. Contracts are legal business documents, last thing you want to do deal with the courts.

Good luck, I hope something good comes of it.
 
I have a lot of ideas about the topic, gleaned from many years of experience. But every situation is different, and every deal is different. Every one of these indie labels is different. Every band has different needs.

Ultimately, of course, the question is what can a particular label do for you, before you even get to the question of what you can do for a label. Will the label provide tour support? If so, how much money will be involved? Will the label front the entire cost of the recording, not just a percentage of it? Does the label have the resources to get your material airplay and media attention (very expensive!)? How many points will the producer get? How much of a percentage does the co-writer want?

What kinds of shows are involved? Bar and other gigs you could get on your own, or bigger gigs, festivals and industry showcases that they have contacts with?

Will the label advance you enough money to make the loss of your time and income from other sources worthwhile? Can the label get your band (assuming it's a development deal), to the really important deal with a major label, and if so, how much do they get from that?

What's the label's track record on all this?

All of these -- and many more -- are questions to ponder and consider, before you get into the question of percentages on record sales, march, etc.
 
Be very weary of a label, they can hurt you and drain your wallet if you sign to the wrong one. I don't know anything about the label that's trying to sign you, and I don't know how old you are, but if you are young I would be weary of them trying to give you an unfair deal... one band I've been following over the past couple of years had this happen with their record label; they signed to them when they were young and they didn't have a lawyer look over the questions.
 
i have no experience with the music industry, so take this how you want. Ultimately, Les is correct on the WHAT IS IN IT FOR ME!!! It has to be beneficial to you and the band period. To make sure of this tool yourself with the experience to answer that question. Based on some of your statements, this does not seem like what you want, but you band is interested. Have that talk with them first. What is everyone's goal with their music interest. Talk to you family about what is happening too. Their feeling about it is as important as the band members. know what you want out of it, then you can honestly decide what you want to see happen.
 
Thanks for the insight fellas. Band meeting after rehearsal tonight, so I'll take those thoughts with me.
 
Interesting discussion. you sound considered about it and you note your wife's view is probably the most important.
 
I have a lot of ideas about the topic, gleaned from many years of experience. But every situation is different, and every deal is different. Every one of these indie labels is different. Every band has different needs.

Ultimately, of course, the question is what can a particular label do for you, before you even get to the question of what you can do for a label. Will the label provide tour support? If so, how much money will be involved? Will the label front the entire cost of the recording, not just a percentage of it? Does the label have the resources to get your material airplay and media attention (very expensive!)? How many points will the producer get? How much of a percentage does the co-writer want?

What kinds of shows are involved? Bar and other gigs you could get on your own, or bigger gigs, festivals and industry showcases that they have contacts with?

Will the label advance you enough money to make the loss of your time and income from other sources worthwhile? Can the label get your band (assuming it's a development deal), to the really important deal with a major label, and if so, how much do they get from that?

What's the label's track record on all this?

All of these -- and many more -- are questions to ponder and consider, before you get into the question of percentages on record sales, march, etc.

I hope you're not charging me by the hour for legal advice Les! Especially because you forgot the most important question, can they get me endorsed by PRS???

:)
 
I'll only add this, and we all instinctively know it's true: success in any career is a long road, and a grind. It's not something one does "on the side."

You have to be relatively obsessed, and work at it every day.
I hope you're not charging me by the hour for legal advice Les! Especially because you forgot the most important question, can they get me endorsed by PRS???

:)

Well, it's a good thing I didn't charge for legal advice because I didn't give you any!

I just raised a few practical questions. The idea of a record label is a sexy kind of thing. On the other hand, if the label can't do anything for you, it's meaningless. And if the label can do something for you, they need to spell it out, explain what they can do for you, and give you examples of what they've done for others who sign their deal.
 
Did this label come to you or did you go to them?

They came to us. We had a band chat after rehearsal lastnight and agreed that the label thing just isn't for us right now. It put a lot of stipulations on us, without any way to predict what the realistic benefits would be. Too much was just up in the air, and right now I think we're best off doing our own thing, and focusing on finding a good booking agent. Glad the band was in a agreement!
 
They came to us. We had a band chat after rehearsal lastnight and agreed that the label thing just isn't for us right now. It put a lot of stipulations on us, without any way to predict what the realistic benefits would be. Too much was just up in the air, and right now I think we're best off doing our own thing, and focusing on finding a good booking agent. Glad the band was in a agreement!
Glad to hear it. Confrontation sucks.
 
Labels can be great; if they have the resources, they can get a band airplay, publicity, tour support, record sales, and so on. It's very difficult to make money or get noticed in the record-making business without a label behind an artist or band. Labels can also connect a band with an effective publishing deal - not a screw job, a real partnership, if it's done right.

In fact, it's very difficult for most indie labels to accomplish these things. The ones that can have distribution and other support deals with the major labels.

Let's take airplay as an example. Typically, breaking a band on radio in a major market is a six figure investment. Few indies can do it, so they concentrate on college radio. But to be effective (obviously, there are degrees of effectiveness), even college radio in a given region takes a 5 figure budget.

Record promotion is like any other sales job; it takes work, planning, full-time effort, a good strategy, etc. It's risky, and it's not for the faint of heart.

Amidst all the complaining about major labels, and all the predictions about changes in the recording industry, the fact remains that very few artists can self-manage their careers, while at the same time making music and touring, and are able to break through more than locally without a major label deal. Yes, such artists exist, but the Ani Di Francos of this world are rare birds, indeed.

Even Prince went back to a label deal. There's a reason for this!
 
Labels can be great; if they have the resources, they can get a band airplay, publicity, tour support, record sales, and so on. It's very difficult to make money or get noticed in the record-making business without a label behind an artist or band. Labels can also connect a band with an effective publishing deal - not a screw job, a real partnership, if it's done right.

In fact, it's very difficult for most indie labels to accomplish these things. The ones that can have distribution and other support deals with the major labels.

Let's take airplay as an example. Typically, breaking a band on radio in a major market is a six figure investment. Few indies can do it, so they concentrate on college radio. But to be effective (obviously, there are degrees of effectiveness), even college radio in a given region takes a 5 figure budget.

Record promotion is like any other sales job; it takes work, planning, full-time effort, a good strategy, etc. It's risky, and it's not for the faint of heart.

Amidst all the complaining about major labels, and all the predictions about changes in the recording industry, the fact remains that very few artists can self-manage their careers, while at the same time making music and touring, and are able to break through more than locally without a major label deal. Yes, such artists exist, but the Ani Di Francos of this world are rare birds, indeed.

Even Prince went back to a label deal. There's a reason for this!

I think, if circumstances were to align themselves in the future, we could definitely benefit from what a capable indie label could offer us (we're not looking to move heaven and earth). For now, by our own self-admission, we're not even ready for a label to do anything with us. We don't have any recordings that represent our best work, nor will we even think about recording until early 2017, and this was to be a one year deal... what does an indie label do with a band with no music? Granted, they wanted to help us with a new recording, but it just didn't add up. We can't get serious about promotion on various media platforms, and getting good live exposure, if we don't have material to work with during the course of the contract.

We rushed our last recording (singer/manager booked studio time according to studio availability, not considering when we would actually have songs ready), and we wound up with a handful of mediocre songs. Didn't help that one of our main writers, the other guitarist, had essentially checked out of the writing process leading up to that. We've now got a new second guitarist, and have wheels seriously turning on 3 or 4 new tunes right now. Our goal is to have solid demos of 10 or so songs by the end of the year, and if we feel good about enough of them and have them 100% ready, then head for the studio. If a label came to us at that point, we could easily have material for them to work with.

We don't have any aspirations of becoming a big deal. Getting a "major label" treatment wouldn't be very realistic, for many reasons. One being, none of us have the ability to make this that kind of priority - work, family, typical stuff. Another being the flavor of hard rock we play, and our message, puts us in a niche that's never going to be radio friendly. We've gotten a small amount of airplay on a few FM stations for local spotlights, which has been nice, but buying serious airtime would be wasted money. However, the right connections could lead to some unique opportunities. One being more exposure on internet radio, and possibly satellite radio, where those niche stations exist. Another being getting on the bill with popular bands that have a spot for a local at a show or a regional leg of their tour.

Of course, it's all speculation at this point. While not lofty, we do have aspirations. If we achieve some kind of local success, cool. If not, we're just having fun and trying to put out some good tunes. That's a win in my book.
 
A contract only works if it's mutually beneficial. The only advice I'd offer is to seek professional advice from someone with direct industry experience. Wading through the malarkey is tough if you don't have an advocate. Get an advocate.
 
I think you're right to be wary of the things you are wary of -- commitment to tour when it's probably out of your wallet. I'd recommend making a counter-offer, and specify the things you are wary of, making it veto-able and/or negotiable in some way. It sounds like they do have something to offer, and the idea that they are only taking a fraction of sales and leaving you ownership of your own music is very mature, and worth investigating further.
 
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