Major Record Labels VS Indie Record Labels
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In this article, we will break down a few things you need to know about record labels. We will talk a bit more the types of record labels there are out there, and how to decide which one is best for you.
Music has been with us basically since the beginning of time. It has been a big part of human experience in lots and lots of situations through history. Music is healing, revolutionary, significant. It’s important. Waaaaaaaay back in the days, music was not what it is today. And I am saying this thinking of many aspects. In the past, technology wasn’t that developed so we can have record collections to play at home. And many times music was a one time experience. Today, we buy music and have it on our shelves. In fact, today we buy music and have it in a folder on our computer screen. And as everything else that we buy, there is a certain business behind it.
Everything in music changed in the late eighties, when a company under the name of Columbia Records started producing recorded music records and bringing them to the audience. This was a major breakthrough for the music industry. Columbia Records was the record label that started taking the work of artists under their brand and distributing it to the audience. Today, there is thousands of companies like Columbia Records, doing the exact same thing. So, let’s start from the very beginning:
What is a record label?
I will try to be simple. A record label is a company. As an artist, you sign a contract with this company, and what you get in return is manufacture, production, distribution, and most importantly marketing of your music. Record label companies might find you since they have a special department that constantly seeks out for new talents. However, in most cases it is you that has to get to them.
When do I need to think about a record label?
Well, you need to start thinking about this step in your career once your music is ready for what we mentioned before. To be produced, and ready to be presented and distributed to the audience. This is when you have to think about how exactly do you want your music to go out there, and who do you want to put in your contract in regards to this.
What is a record contract?
A record contract (or a record deal), is a legal agreement between the record label, or the record company, and you as an artist. This agreement bounds and obligates both sides to certain things, and this is where you make records for the record label to put under their name, distribute and profit from them. You too, get a share of the profit, but this is different in different cases, and that is because…
There are different kinds of record labels out there
The general definition brings out two different group of record labels, the major record labels and the independent (indie) record labels. Though in this day and age there is one more I think is fair to add here, which is the you, yourself, as your own record label. So, let’s make them three for the sake of the evolution of things as we know them.
Major record labels
These record labels stand behind the biggest percentage of records sold. They are big companies with lots of departments that get them going. They have a lot of finances to invest in the artists they make contracts with, and they have their own distribution systems. Today’s biggest or major label companies are Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. These record label companies own a lot of the music we get out there today, especially the things that are most commercial and we see on TV and hear on the radio. And there is a reason for that. But, we will get into it later.
Indie record labels
Indie record labels are smaller companies. They do pretty much the exact same things that major ones do, but with significantly smaller amount of finances to invest in the artist they signed a contract with. Their staff and their departments are also much smaller. Many times they ran by the same few people. All of this, of course, affecting the final product. Well, this depending on your expectations, really. Some of the most popular indie record labels are Mute Records (that holds amazing works like Kraftwerk, Add N to X, Throbbing Gristle), Rough Trade Records, WARP (that stands behind Aphex Twin), and many more.
What is the difference between major and indie record labels?
Obviously, the first thing you can put here is the finances, or the budget that they have. Now the main and most important thing for record labels is to actually promote your music. What this means is that they want to make sure that they do a good job with marketing. They are investing quite some money in you, so they want to make sure they are not wasting their time. This music is distributed through different media (radio, TV, CD, vinyls, and nowadays obviously on online music stores).
To start off with how the major record labels work
Major record label companies have a lot of money in their pocket. The money will only grow if the act they are promoting is consumed by the mass. They have a lot of departments that run for the artists once they sign a contract with them. One of the first departments that gives you the golden ticket is the A&R department that these companies have. A&R (artist and repertoire) is where your music gets reviewed by people who work in these companies. After they listen to it, they decide if you get to go from here or not.
In the case of major record labels, it is overwhelming how much material they get, and with this being said, obviously many artists want this kind of a deal. But not everyone gets it. The people who work in this department make sure to seek for an act that really does sell out there. Simply because they need profit from the investment they will put in distributing and marketing this act.
These companies have the power to get to other places that are relevant so your music can shine. Like popular radio stations, or magazines that will give you an article with their review on your stuff. Getting into a contract with major record labels can make your act boom overnight, but, obviously everything has a catch, so don’t get too excited. Especially if you care about creative freedom. Most of the very popular music you hear on the radio comes from these big labels. As you may have noticed, they follow a certain pattern of what it is that they want in an artist.
Once you are signing a contract, these demands can put a pressure on your creative freedom. And for me personally for example, this would be a problem. You can all of a sudden just end up being the face of something that this huge company is selling, without having any control of what you are bringing out there, the lyrics, the music, the videos, the appearance. This is when you need to put your finger on your head and start thinking if this is what you really want.
Another thing about major record labels is that many times they will only be interested in you in the beginning of your career, and you might have a contract that lasts until the first album is released and profits are shared between you and the label that now owns your act. And that would be it. This really depends on whether they will like the way your career is going, and the relationship you build with them.
When it comes to sharing the profits of the work sold, the relevancy of the major record labels will automatically mean they gave you much more than just marketing. They welcomed you into their brand and gave you fame overnight. So probably with that comes the fact that you might not get as much profit as you expected to. The investment they made in you during the distribution of the music is basically a loan you have to return after this music is sold.
Of course, I am not neglecting the fact that they can put you on the best radio stations, in the best magazines, in the best record stores and have your act sold in millions of copies around the world which will make you a star. But you do need to understand you will lose a lot of your creative freedom due to the pattern mentioned earlier. This is the reality of it.
And how do indie record labels work?
I’d say, despite not a huge amount of finances, and maybe not even that much marketing or sold records, indie record labels offer a lot more of an organic approach to this whole thing. They generally support you and your creative freedom. Also, you definitely have bigger chances of working with them on a longer term. As I mentioned, indie record labels won’t really end up selling millions of your records overnight. This obviously leads to a smaller profit at the end, but you will get a bigger percent of this smaller profit compared to the smaller percent you will get from the bigger profit in the major record labels. This, plus your creative freedom.
Yes. There’s a bit of a situation. You should be aware of one thing, and that is, that sometimes, these indie record labels are in fact “feeders” of the bigger record labels. What does this mean? It meansthat these companies are owned by the bigger corporation, or some of the major labels. They exist under a different name, managing smaller or less relevant acts that then get the doors opened to the big boys if they grow bigger.
Indie or major?
It really depends on you which one you choose. Remember that this is how you end up distributing your music to the public. It can greatly affect the way your music is taken by it. This is the filter through which your work will go. It will give to it or take from it, depending on whether you did make the right choice that matches your expectations or not.
Bottom line is what your music is really about. There are people who take music as a work of art that needs to be valued. There is also people who simply see it as business.
On behalf of the greatness of evolution of technology…
Remember how I mentioned you as your own record label? Thank the internet, it is possible. And I think it is great. You should never ever forget where music really comes from and what music is really about. This does not always raise the budget for you, but I believe that art requires some sacrifice and above all, honesty.
If you feel like you are capable of taking the option of promoting your own brand, I encourage you to do it. It is definitely a time of transition when it comes to the ways we distribute music out there. Improving your marketing skills can bring a great deal of goodness in your career.
Breaking through is not easy. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of effort, and honestly a lot of rejection as well. There is so much competition and so many new things that each day brings out there. I’d say, take a deep breath. Think what you’re really about. That conquers all in the end.