I have been involved in the music industry for many years, stretching back to the 70s, and every band I knew or was involved with wanted—yes that record deal that would push them to stardom and presumed riches. “But why does a band need a deal nowadays?” is the constant question popping up.
Most bands and artists were/are cash poor, so a major on board was a good choice. The label typically fronted the artists a certain percentage in the form of an advance. This money usually went towards new equipment and instruments; the remainder of the deal went on marketing and promotion. However, the harsh reality was that all monies were ‘recoupable’. A word that came to haunt musicians as usually all those monies were tied to sales, so if the artist/band met sales expectations then sales beyond those expectations and decimal point would go to the band, but smaller bands (bands that hadn’t had previous success) would only make a minimal amount on every sale, so their income was very dodgy to say the least.
The bulk of an artist’s income usually comes from touring and merchandise. However, there are only so many days in a month, and no matter what the band’s expectations were, they usually found themselves in a position of owing the labels the difference in their contract, and worst case scenario, bands having to go bankrupt, which was more common than you would think. When the ownership of the recordings is added to this equation (usually paid for by the label) it becomes a mess. Clever/ experienced bands would find some way to pay for their own recordings and then licence them to the major. I did work with a band that got an advance from a publisher and decided to put the money up their noses rather than invest into recordings. Twenty years later, this band are still playing the pub circuit with delusions of still making it one day.
Another significant aspect of a major was their A/R or talent development, labels used to invest in a band and guide them, allowing the band to develop their craft and writing skills. Labels signed bands that showed potential, with the long term aim of banking on that as strategy for success, which it often was. Bruce Springsteen is a prime example of that. Today I do not hear about this at all, labels want instant success and have expectation of a band to be hit ready and there at the gate polished and shiny. I find this absolutely crazy and beyond my rational thinking process.
One thing a major can still do is manufacture a hit. All the majors are still built to mass produce product and get that product into stores (of course the store model has disintegrated and physical product has all but waned to nothing in this digital age). But– and this is a huge but– the major can still generate the hype machine faster than any band could, even with the social media and the net at the band’s disposal. A record label knows the industry. They know about pressing, manufacturing, distribution, promotion, royalties and everything else that goes into releasing an album. Labels have been doing this for longer and have the direct phone numbers of a lot of people who can help make a band’s music a success.
One interesting story is the rise of the big promoters managing/supporting bands– are these companies the majors of the future? A clear example of this strategy in today’s market is the rise of the Blossoms, who even have a roadside plaque when you enter Stockport stating ‘this is the home of the Blossoms’ (Now if that’s the work of the manager for god’s sake cut it out, let the band develop and become something of real musical value before any of that nonsense). What kind of deal has been cut is unknown, but history has told us it’s not always been so good for the artists. I hope I am wrong.
With the advent of the internet there are many, many ways to promote, distribute and market a band’s music and image, and there is a wealth of power the band has to develop at their own speed. Bands in general seem to be smarter and see that a major is what it is– a bank loan (record deal) and the distribution arm and connections.
I suppose I would finish these ramblings on my final note if I was in a band now. Well there is a famous quote by Hunter S Thompson which goes
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
This quote is as true as when it was written as it is now. I still see these people now under the titles of promoters, pluggers, record producers, wannabe managers and a myriad of other titles. So my advice is get good people around you whom you could totally trust and as much independent advice as possible, then think, ‘Its my career and my music’
“It’s a privilege to play music fora living. Even more, it’s a privilege to have an audience. Respect that.” — Bob Lefsetz (Music Business Consultant, Blogger)