Editorial: record labels, what's the deal?
Jaime Gamble started Myriad Records together with Pedram Valiani and Alex Pryle in June 2011, when they released their first record by The Schoenberg Automaton. Since then, they have released Friend For A Foe's debut EP, and the critically acclaimed self-titled debut by Ever Forthright. They're currently gearing up to release Bleeding Skies's debut 'I Choose To Awaken' at the end of the month.
Before that, he did artist management and had the opportunity to work and network with bands like TesseracT, Aliases and Chimp Spanner, among others. Some of these were signed, some were unsigned and some were in the middle of deciding what to do with their offers at the time. This gave him the opportunity to read over numerous contracts and speak to artists signed to a variety of labels.
About this, he says: "It definitely helped me with regards to my own label: it helped me note down what was wrong in the music industry, and how out-of-touch some labels are. The entire ethos of Myriad is to sign the pinnacle of music that we love, not to restrict ourselves to one genre, and to change labels as a whole. None of us were happy with how labels operated."
He has agreed to share his thoughts and insights about the ins and outs of record deals in this editorial. If you're an unsigned musician hoping to get picked up by a label, read on!
There's a plethora of record labels starting up every single day with the aid of the internet, and all of them have their own spin on recording contracts. Some have 50/50 splits, some offer a so-called '360 deal', some only deal with licensing, and so forth. As an artist, there is an expected desire to be signed to a label, specifically the one your favourite band(s) are signed to. Hopefully after reading this, you will be able to use the following information in order to make the right decisions, if the situation arises where your band has an offer from a record label.
So you want to be signed?
Being signed is an accolade that can definitely bolster your career in various ways: it creates many different opportunities, from tours to endorsements, and a wider array of chances.
So how do you approach the label you want to be on? This is the make or break moment. Don't send them a single-line e-mail saying "Hey dude, check my band out *insert link*". I have personally had a couple of these, and I know other labels that receive these on a daily basis. When you e-mail any label, they want to see an electronic press kit (EPK) with a biography, previous releases, promo pictures of the band, touring history and contact information / relevant social media links. This is the standard really, it gives labels the background of your band so they can see exactly what they are being proposed with, and see if it is something that they can work with.
But truthfully, the biggest thing you can do as a band is get out there, play shows and write incredible music, that's the key to anything. The more shows you play, the more CD's you sell, the more merchandise options you have, it all helps. The label is essentially investing in a brand, and hoping that this brand will get big sooner rather than later. In exceptional circumstances, if you have very little to none of the above, but musically you are sensational, you will get snapped up on the spot.
Here's an overview of some dos & don'ts for approaching a label:
- Give as much information about your band as possible.
- Give details on your touring history.
- Give details on previous releases and units sold.
- Provide a detailed electronic press kit.
- Give links to all social media outlets, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
- Don't just attach MP3 files to an email; instead, use a service like Dropbox.
- Don't send your album to a label after it has been released.
- Don't pester the label for a reply. If it is something they are interested in, they will take time to think it over and seriously consider it. If they want to work with you, they'll be in touch.
- As mentioned earlier, don't write a single sentence e-mail with no information at all other than "Please check us out".
- Don't send material that's unfinished - if you want to impress labels, give them the final product.
Sometimes a label will contact you instead of vice versa. If you want to get noticed, putting on a great live show is important. Label representatives do attend shows now and then (there were a few at last year's edition of Euroblast festival, for example).
Labels aren't interested in statues; as I mentioned earlier, they're investing in a brand, and that brand covers your live shows. Some of my personal favourites in this respect that I would take notes from are The Dillinger Escape Plan and The Chariot. Both bands are perfect examples of the all-encompassing brand.
They use social media more than you'd imagine, too: YouTube is a big example. There are some incredible bands that I have found via YouTube from as far as China, and it's just ebb and flow: you find some gems, you find some not so good ones, but in the end, you do find what you're looking for more often than not.
Forums - I'm personally a member of forums like metalguitarist.org, sevenstring.org and ultimatemetal.com, and I find loads of great projects there. Some notable examples of those who use the forums are Bulb, Chimp Spanner, Born of Osiris and Entrosolet. Your brand, in today's market, needs a strong online presence.
When the offer comes through
The sense of excitement when a label responds or gets in touch out of the blue and they say they are happy to work with you can be overwhelming, but don't let it cloud your judgement. Be sure to read over it very carefully numerous times to fully comprehend what is being offered, as quite often the contracts are written in legalese rather than typical English. This is what can affect many people. If you aren't fully confident in dealing with legalese, then definitely seek advice from an entertainment lawyer, they're there for a reason.
I've seen so many of my friends jump the gun and sign a contract without thoroughly understanding it, and they've been tied in financially to the point where they're all in so much debt that they can't afford to live and at risk of losing their possessions. They simply can't carry on with the band anymore.
It's a sad state of affairs, but there are quite a few labels out there who try to take every penny your band has. I know of at least one UK label that will offer you a contract whereby you have to pay to record your album with the head of the label, with some of the costs coming to between £7,000 - £15,000 per album. This label has seen many bands fall, and has been well publicized on forums as of the "don't touch this label with a barge pole" sort.
Shady offers: warning signs
Warning signs can vary from something simple to something catastrophic. If they're dictating where you record, more specifically with them, then that's a big one. Some others could be whether they are going to give you a press agent for the release, or if they will do it themselves. Sometimes an external press agent can be better than the label, but of course, there are exceptions to the rule.
The legality of contracts is an often reoccurring issue: some contracts aren't really bound, and you can walk out or they can drop you regardless, and neither of you will have a leg to stand on. If you're ever unsure about your offer, always seek advice from an entertainment/music lawyer who deals with this on a day to day basis.
Record deals explained
Many labels, especially start up labels, will offer something not too dissimilar to the following:
- Album sale split: 50/50
- Merchandise sale split: 50/50 (when sold via their store)
- No recording advances
- No tour advances
- Advances for CD reproduction
- Advances for artwork
- Advances for merchandise production
Advances are basically a loan from the label to the band, to cover the cost of certain aspects. Upon sales of merchandise and CD's, the label will take their advance back before the band gets paid. Advances can be useful, but just remember: the bigger the advance, the more you're going to have to pay back. Some labels offer $25,000 advances for album recordings, so you have to hope that you can make that back or else it will come from your pocket.
Album sales splits
Most labels do a straight up 50/50 split. This is the norm, but there are a few labels who will stipulate a significantly higher split for themselves, i.e. an 80/20 split in favour of the label, due to their size and reputation.
Merchandise sales splits & advances
Quite a few labels will take part of your merchandise sales. Many of them use what is called a 360 deal, which is all-encompassing, with in-house management as well. In this case, they're not just acting as a label, but more so as a "brand builder", with you being the brand.
Some take 20% of merchandise sales, some take 50%, it all depends on your marketability. The more merchandise you have available, the more your brand is going to be in the public eye and sported by adoring fans, but that's a given. More merchandise will be an obvious scenario if a label offers you merchandise advances.
Having mentioned the 360 deal in the previous paragraph, I think it's best to go into a bit more detail about it. The 360 deal is used quite widely; the label takes a cut from every single source of income for the artist, such as guarantees from shows, money made from merchandise sales at shows, CD sales and even stretching as far as using endorsements the bands may have.
In return, they will provide advances for things such as touring, marketing, CD reproduction and more. Labels quickly realised that people simply don't buy that many CD's anymore, especially in this economic climate, and the majority of their money comes from touring and merchandise. I know of bands who make tens of thousands of pounds on tours, to the extent where they make more on one 3 week tour than I make personally from my day job in a year.
The 360 deal will have everything needed for an artist to succeed, but it will take a lot of money in the long run, too. For some artists this works out great, for some, not so well. It's definitely a deal that needs to be looked at and read over very, very thoroughly.
Some labels don't offer tour advances at all, but many do. Some only offer tour advances on tours that are sanctioned by the label itself, as opposed to a tour put together by the management, that may not be up to the label's standard. Tour advances definitely help bands, as this helps them get out on the road, which is where all bands need to be right now. A lot of bands can't afford to go out on 2 week tours across a continent, so advances should be appreciated where available. Again, as an advance, this is a recoupable expense.
Rights in recordings
Many labels, in loose terms, will want you to hand over the rights to your music. This includes the rights to all recordings and reproductions, performances and the like. This is to ensure that you cannot leave one label, and go to another and re-release the same recording. There have been many cases where the label will own the masters of the recording for the full extent of its copyright, which for sound recordings is 50 years from its release. These recordings are then copyright of the label, as opposed to yourself.
In some extremely rare cases however, if the artist produced all the music him/herself and owns the original masters, they will license the masters to the record company for a certain, pre-determined period of time.
These are really straightforward. Essentially, if you released an album via a label and your contract is for two albums (after 12 months your deal will in effect come to an end, unless extended), there is a stipulation that once the second album is out, you cannot re-record the compositions on those 2 albums and use them for another record company. This typically extends to a period of 5 years after the end of your agreement with said label.
The main thing to take away from this is to open your market up, play as many shows as possible, get yourself an online presence as best you can, and don't jump at the first offer you receive. You can always negotiate, you can always say no if you don't receive what you want, the ball is in your court. Go out there and enjoy music, it's a fanstastic business if you play your cards right. But just remember, you are the dealer of your own game.
Jaime has agreed to answer any questions you may have about his write-up, or about record deals in general. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts as well!
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