There are a lot of misunderstandings about how labels work and what they do. A lot of creatives are dying to be “signed” because it feels like the magic ticket to the dream. The stars will align, you’ll suddenly be blessed with everything you need, people will take you seriously, and your music will be astronomically better than it’s ever been before. The idea of having something backing you and leaving you free to just create is probably the ticket to your dream in your mind.
I’m gonna tell you right now- getting signed, deflecting the responsibility for your career onto a theoretical label- is probably not the answer. There are two things that come into play. First of all, what you think a label does and what they actually do are – p r o b a b l y – different things. Secondly, from a strictly practical standpoint, labels really aren’t all that necessary. There are about a thousand ways to build a career without one.
So let’s tackle the first reason. Labels aren’t what you think they are. Traditionally labels served as a recording, publication, and marketing house for artists who had brilliant ideas and were worth investing money. This is theoretically still the case. From the early days of music until the early 2000’s, all those things were generally inaccessible to independent talent, and REQUIRED the label to fund and manage them. That is NOT the case today.
You can create a record at home with a desktop computer, a midi controller, a DAW, mics, and access to the internet. If you want to teach yourself, there’s endless YouTube content, both paid and free. Will your recording be as good as a pro if you do it all alone? Nope not at all. You need help. Don’t know how to mix, produce, master, etc? That’s fine, there are 8,593,821 independent professionals out there who can help you. Heck, you can book a recording session with Steve Albini for less than a grand a day (Nirvana, The Breeders, Cheap Trick, Mogwai, Helmet, etc). Or have your tracks mastered by Grammy nominated Rob Kleiner for $35 bucks a track (Sia, Cee Lo Green, Andra Day, Natalia Jimenez, Haley Reinhart, ZZ Ward, LP, Flo Rida’, Britney Spears, and Kylie Minogue).
Oh, and as a bonus, without a label, you can still keep the rights to what you make.
The label no longer controls the entry point into the industry. They don’t even control the top end- Macklemore rose to fame totally independently. A ton of artists are deliberately taking that path now because there are tremendous benefits to staying independent, namely, having total control.
You can pick every member of your creative team. You can control the manifestation of your creative vision in every way. This, of course, demands an extreme degree of clarity and vision about yourself and what you want for your career but that clarity is really required anyway, label or not.
“But I can’t afford that!” Guess what, the label will give you money, (an advance) but you generally have to pay it back. You know what else you can get without a label? A bank loan or line of credit. Except if you secure the credit, you get to keep control and 100% of the profit. You have total control of your career without the label, and there are obvious benefits to this approach. A credit advance of 10 grand might mean you can’t buy a new car, but it also means you control your art.
So why would anyone WANT to get signed?
A lot of reasons, but most of them aren’t things that you need to worry about in the beginning stages of your career. Obviously the network they have access to is incredible. High level producers, engineers, etc. Really incredible people to work with. Money. Labels also will of course invest into and finance your ability to work with these people, release, and market your art. However, again, most of these agreements rely on an advance, which you —still— have to pay back. And you still don’t get to own all of your art.
The financial investment on the end of the label means their people also have influence on what you put out. They will make creative decisions for you. You might have 22 sets of revisions on a track because the label and the artist had a fundamental disagreement on the direction of the music. Those circumstances can be rare, but they still happen. (Side note, that’s why having clarity of vision is really important for you, regardless of if you’re signed or not.)
You can build a career as an artist RIGHT NOW being independent. The benefits for committed, visionary, and expert creatives far outweigh the benefits of being signed. But, this is a dynamic industry and nothing is one size fits all. Ultimately you have to know what it is you want to get out of your career and choose to pursue that path. Nobody can tell you what that needs to look like.