By Michael Laskow
For decades, attracting the attention of record labels has been the brass ring that musicians reached for. Write three great songs, record a demo, pitch the demo to a major label A&R executive, get the label come to one of your live shows, and get signed!
That might be a bit of an oversimplification, but not by much.
In a perfect world, you could get the record labels to hear about you via word of mouth, so they’d seek you out, rather than the former.
But times have changed, music has changed, and how we consume music has changed! Of course, the biggest changes are because of the Internet, and the ubiquitous connectivity that comes from cheap storage and fast “pipes.” We’ve got all the music we can eat, wherever we are. And it’s FREE (if you don’t mind some pesky advertising).
Are Record Labels More Evil Than Ever?
In a post-Napster world, somehow, the major record labels became “the evil empire.” Not that most musicians didn’t think they were evil before Napster! But, when it was no longer necessary to have a label to get music distributed, bands and artists felt like the playing field was leveled and the industry was democratized. Especially if they were willing to give their music away for free. Everybody had a shot.
Well, Not Everybody!
If that were the case, every band and artist who recorded a song on his or her laptop would be famous. But let’s face facts: the vast, vast majority of artists are not famous and are not making money from their music.
The Wheat and the Chaff...
So what separates those who have become successful from those who are not? They’ve got access to the same tools, and many of the tools are low-cost or free. So... why can’t everybody make it if the barrier to entry is practically nil? It’s the same set of reasons that all bands weren’t able to get signed by a record labels before the Internet changed the paradigm.
Most bands and artists aren’t able to (or willing to) work at their music career 8 to 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, and that’s what it takes to get record labels and/or music consumers to come to you. Under the old paradigm, you had to book gigs, rehearse, staple flyers to telephone poles, slap posters up on any wall you could, send postcards in the mail, and generally do any promotional and marketing-related thing you could do to get fans out to your shows.
If you were successful at doing all that, you also needed to sell CDs and merch to fans who came to your shows. If you packed out the venues whenever you did your shows and you sold several thousand CDs a year, record labels would hear about you and become interested. Why?
Like Sharks That Smell Blood!
In business terms, you had “proof of concept.” If you could build a fan base on your own—with little-to-no money and lots of hard work—then the labels saw the opportunity to infuse dollars and expertise into your proven concept, and hopefully, take your music to a much larger audience.
It’s not all that different today! Major and independent labels still want to see that you can build a fan base as proof of concept. But in today’s hyper-connected world, they’re not just looking to see if you can sell out shows. They want to see big numbers online as well! That’s where consumers are.
But here’s the ironic part of having a huge number of followers online: If you’ve got them, you probably don’t need a record label at all! Using YouTube as your primary form of social media (augmented by your own website, Instagram, and Twitter), you can earn enough income from advertising revenue, drawing fans to your shows, and selling branded merchandise, that you can probably surpass what you would net from having a record deal.
If you had a major label deal, it would likely be a 360 deal, meaning the label would front the cash and manpower to help launch your career, and they’d get a healthy percentage of your touring income, merch sales, licensing income, and ad revenue, on top of the income from music sales or streaming.
To add to that irony, with all the marketing and promotional tools that are available to artists today —leveling the playing field for all—the percentage of artists who are successful in a big way, in my estimation, is not all that different from the percentage of artists or bands who got signed and had hit records under the old paradigm.
In other words, although the barrier to entry is much lower than in the past, the percentage of artists who are successful today is probably close to what it was when they were still stapling flyers to telephone poles: miniscule!
Even with the Internet and all the free music marketing tools available to artists today, very few ever become household names or make millions of dollars from their music.
Why Is That?
I’ll take an educated guess, based on my 40 years in the music business. It comes down to three things:
- You still need to know who your audience is, what kind of music they like, and then give it to them.
- You still need to work hard for a long period of time, usually for a period of several years. Quitters aren’t rewarded by the music business.
- And you still need great songs. Cover songs can help you launch a career online better than they did in the old paradigm.
Some Things Never Change.
The very things that made record labels come to you in the past (and to this day), are pretty much the same things that will get the public to come to you in the present. The tools may have changed and become easier to implement, but the requisite effort remains the same.