Written for Collapse Board
For about as long as record labels have been signing artists, there’s been a conflict between label and band; commerce and conscience.
Labels, so we’re told, are greedy exploitative bastards trying to line their pockets with the blood and sweat of the unwary musician. Labels will force you to abandon your creative dreams and dance to their puppet-strings. Labels will explain that they’re providing a service, investing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and incalculable resources of connections and expertise. After all, since the 70s, bands have been perfectly able to press and distribute their own music, so why sign to a label at all?
The obvious answer would be that it demonstrates that someone else has had enough confidence in your band to invest in it. It’s one thing to have someone say, “I like your band”, but when someone says, “I like your band enough to bet $x on your future success”, it says something else entirely. Especially if that person has the type of reputation where their investment is a signal to others that your band is worth paying attention to. After all, once a label signs two or more good acts, it’s common for fans to look through the rest of the roster to see what else they might enjoy. Critics will be sent other similar bands on the label’s books in addition to the album they asked for. The advantage for the band is the benefit of association.
Where the relationship between artist and label breaks down is usually when the band feels that they’re not getting enough of a service for the money they’re effectively paying the label. In a traditional indie deal, the label might take 50%, but in return pay for all recording costs, handle all publicity and distribution and promotion, and offer an advance (loan) to cover touring costs. If your record is a huge success, this can leave you both happy, but if the record fails to recoup its cost the band can frequently end up owing the label money. Add to that the digital era where the download-to-purchase ratio is a thousand-to-one, and the musical climate is one in which budgets are tight and generosity is scarce. It’s no longer unusual for a label to expect the band to pay for their own mastering or even advertising costs, which would lead the artist to question, “If I’m paying for all this, then what the hell are you doing?”
Collapse Board invited three labels – Brassland, New York’s rising stars whose acts include The National and Buke & Gass; Armalyte Industries, home to K-Nitrate and Haloblack; and tenzenmen, the “Australasian DIY specialists” hosting 8 Eye Spy and Ourself Beside Me – to justify themselves before the court of you. Let’s start by asking them why on earth they ever thought setting up a record label would be a good idea … Continue reading