Being Signed To a Major Label Doesn’t Rock

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A 2011 survey of nearly 1900 independent musicians by ReverbNation and Digital Music News found that over three-fourths of those musicians want to get signed to a record label, particularly a major. [1]  The Recording Industry Association of America then used those results to trumpet the benefits and advantages of a “label-artist partnership”, as well as the $4.8 billion that labels invested in signing and promoting artists during 2010. [2] Given the uncertainty of major labels these days, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if that amount has declined the last couple of years.

Quite often, that “label-artist partnership” is more about the label than the artist. Suppose you sign with a major label that will invest millions if you’re talented enough. Those millions are an “advance” that you’ll have to pay back every time you sell your recordings. Even if you sell a million copies or more, you could still end up making bupkes thanks to those “recoupable expenses” and other tricks of “creative accounting”. [3]

Being signed means the major label will own the act and do what it wants with it, however it wants with it. They’ll even tell you what songs to record, and what songs get marketed, because they’re looking for the hits. And you won’t own the copyrights on those recordings. If you write the songs you record, don’t be surprised if the label gets a cut of your publishing royalties.

If you think those are bad enough, “360 deals” [4] are even worse, because the label would also take a certain percentage, sometimes as much as half, of whatever cash you take in from ticket sales and swag, as well as licensing songs for TV commercials, plus endorsements and sponsorships.

When it comes right down to it, being signed to a major label doesn’t rock.  Owning the songs you write and record, as well as controlling what you make from your shows, swag, licensing and endorsements, does.  Don’t you think so?

[1] [“Survey Results: 75% of Indie Artists Seek a Label Deal – Sony Top Label of Choice”–ReverbNation blog  March 29, 2011]

[2] [“Why Being Signed to a Music Label Rocks”–RIAA blog March 31, 2011]

[3] [“RIAA Accounting: Why Even Major Label Musicians Rarely Make Money From Album Sales”–Techdirt blog July 13, 2010]

[4] http:// [Wikipedia entry on “360 deal”]

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Born in Houston, Texas, and currently based in St. Petersburg, Florida, Steve's careers have ranged from restaurants to media production. He has also written online columns about entertainment and technology, as well as how musicians don't need a major label to be empowered. The first major rock concert Steve attended was Heart back in 1977.


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