Why You Don’t Need a Record Deal (Anymore)

By on July 14, 2014

Alaska's Big Fat Buddha earning their keep at Anchorage's TaprootFor most of the modern history of popular music, the musician’s career goal was the mythical ‘record deal.’ The recording contract has traditionally been the key to realizing your dreams, to finally recording in a proper studio, tour promotion, and global album distribution (and hopefully a private jet to shuttle you and your new collection of vintage guitars between continents). But a long chain of sonic uprisings beginning in the late 1990s with Napster, Limewire, and eventually YouTube and Spotify have removed much of the incentive for aspiring musical acts to pursue a record deal styled on a label’s terms. While these advances have been bad for the portly music industry suit types wearing pony tails and calling people ‘baby,’ they’ve been a mixed bag for the music makers themselves. But the bottom line is today ambitious and smart musicians are increasingly doing on their own what a record deal has traditionally done for them.

While a full dissertation on the long rise and eventual fall of the traditional L.A.- or Nashville-based record label could fill a library, we need only look to the state of the ‘album’ format (R.I.P.) to see where things are headed. In a nutshell: if you’re a ‘major label’ with big money tied up in hopes of shifting units (selling albums, digital or physical) as your primary source of revenue, you’d better start diversifying. Even the most dedicated music fans today rarely buy many full-length albums anymore, and most people under 30 today wouldn’t even know where to purchase a compact disc. (Though vinyl will always have a firm, if kitschy, stronghold among more esoteric music aficionados). When it comes to recorded sounds, music consumers today have gotten accustomed to free or reduced-price goods a la carte – they buy their favorite single on iTunes or simply play it over and over on YouTube for free until they tire of it.

And the labels have responded. Because of diminishing returns, major labels are returning to a ‘cultivate-and-control’ mode of artist grooming. Gone are the days when young artists had free reign in the creative process, a practice beginning in the late 1970s (when labels saw how much money a visionary like Paul McCartney or Elton John might haul in, if given unfettered creative control), and arguably peaking during the grunge and alternative signing frenzy of the early 1990s (when garage bands became a dime-a-dozen, partly because musical instruments themselves got so cheap). Gone also are the days when a group of 24 year-olds are handed the keys to a multi-million-dollar recording studio, granted a half-million dollar budget with minimal oversight, and permitted to spend a month or two achieving the perfect bass guitar tone. Metallica‘s ‘black’ album, anyone?

A lot of freshly-signed bands I’ve worked with or met are astonished how much creative control the major label exerts during the album production and release cycle. (And how much of the legal interest in their music the band signs away). Today, the label will dictate the sound, the mix, the release, and the marketing of an album with surgical precision – the process is far more science than art. The label decides whether the young band headlines its own tour, or plays the sidestage at SXSW to 40 people in support of a group the band despises. Often, the label will assemble the bands themselves to fill what it perceives is a pop culture demand. This last tactic is done more than you think, though no such “band” would openly admit that’s how they met and formed. In many ways, this is a return to the way things were before pop music exploded in the late 1950s: the ‘talent’ is coached, directed, produced, culled, and bossed around until the record has the sound envisioned by the executives. Thus, newly-minted major label bands are learning some basic features of market capitalism as applied to their art: namely, a record label is an investor (i.e., they’re fronting cash with the expectation of a profit). As in any investment, the amount of capital invested is directly tied to the amount of leverage (business-speak for ‘control’) retained by the investor. What this translates to for the aspiring artist is the record deal is often the beginning of the end of creative control of your art (until you get Coldplay-huge). Your career will now be managed by committee, with guidance from market trends, industry analyses, fashion and image experts, and return-on-investment accounting. (And they’ll take your cherished guitar solo out of this song, because that’s the radio single and it needs to be under three minutes).

However, one area of the music business the musician has always had – and still has – a monopoly over is the live performance. When it comes to making asses shake or fists pump at concerts, we’re the go-to journeymen. And even in the digital, I-want-it-now age, people are still going to shows. Tour incomes for most established acts have remained steady, in spite of (or perhaps with help from) the digital revolution and drops in album sales. In 2013, Bon Jovi made $205 million from touring. Million. The same year, Sprinsteen made $147 million. Reliable touring stalwarts Dave Matthews Band purportedly grossed $65 million. Even a fresh, young act like Bruno Mars managed to haul in a respectable $50 million. These stats, while only a tiny sample, show people are still flocking to concerts that deliver entertainment value to the audience, digital revolution be damned.

Know your value as performer who brings cherished musical experiences into people’s lives; take back control of your artistic trajectory. Smart bands today don’t shop around for record deals soon after they’ve created their core pool of signature music. Rather, they tour hard, cultivate a following on social media, rake in “Likes,” and sell lots of tickets to their concerts. They sell t-shirts (at a big mark-up) that look good and which people want to wear designed by local artists. They might seek additional funding via Kickstarter. They do their own booking and manage their own income and expenses. They learn to use Microsoft Excel to track who’s been paid and who still owes them money (I know, not sexy). With less middle-men, a band that looks good on stage and acts like they might be fun to party with after the show (it helps to write brilliant songs, too) cultivate loyal fans who return to see them on the next visit to town. And all this gets done long before anyone in a suit can call them ‘baby’ and push a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ deal (lawyers call this a ‘contract of adhesion’) in their faces. By the time the band sits down with a record label, the band – not the label – has the leverage.

The craft of live music performance will only survive if musicians see their talent as a marketable brand they can spread and profit from before anyone else does. The bands that are dedicated, hard-working, and in it for the long run do it themselves and wipe their butts with the ‘record deal.’ And they’ll last longer in the business, make the music they want with people they respect, and probably make more money in the end. Of course it’s more work to do everything on their own, but time is a direct investment in their business which will give big yields in the future. Then, after they’re consistently selling out 5,000- or 10,000-seat shows on their own tours, they can sign a record or distribution deal – on their own terms.

One of the reasons Dave Grohl is fantastically rich (no, not because of Nirvana royalties, actually), is he brilliantly launched the Foo Fighters with no initial outside label support (despite the majors drooling to sign him at the time). Grohl ‘founded’ Roswell Records, a label with only one band at the time, the Foos. Roswell funded the recording and production of Grohl’s first post-Nirvana album. After some smaller shows to generate buzz, and after recording the album with complete creative control, Grohl got Capitol Records to market and distribute the project. Today, folks in the know say Grohl owns all of the rights to Foo Fighters’ music completely – a highly unusual legal situation in pop/rock recording contracts.

Legendary Chicago recording engineer Steve Albini, in his classic article “The Problem With Music,” knew 20 years ago what a scam the record contract was: a band goes on a ‘label-supported tour’ for a few months, each member making about what they would have made working at a 7-11, but earn the music industry 3 million dollars in that time. Why are we giving so much away? Are we so easily won over by the privilege of riding in a tour bus for a few months? Obviously, most of us don’t have Dave Grohl’s startup money or David Geffen‘s home phone number, but that only means we have to put in more time spreading the word and perfecting our craft. For those with a lack of capital, time must be tilled into leverage. Further, technology has made it possible to record your single or ‘album’ on a MacBook now. YouTube and Facebook have made us all masters of marketing ourselves. Start with making your music a desirable brand. Never underestimate the importance of a good band logo, great album cover art (see Mastodon‘s Once More ‘Round the Sun for inspiration), good stage clothes, and a cohesive ‘image.’ Again, it takes more time to do it yourself, but it can be done. And since you’ll still be passionate because you haven’t been gutted by music business lawyers, it may not even feel like ‘work’ most of the time.

It takes a lot of hard work, some luck, and tons of persistence. But in the end we must remember we are the music makers and we are the ones people come to see pour our souls out on the world’s stages. It’s high time we take back the industry from the industry. And we are – one concert ticket at a time.

Matt Slodowy is a drummer, music writer, and occasional attorney. He’s been recording and playing music for over 15 years, and currently plays with Alaska boogie/funk band Big Fat Buddhawww.bigfatbuddhaband.com – mslodo@gmail.com

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