A little bird told me an 8th-grade metal band has landed a 1.7 million record contract with Sony, and my first thought wasn’t, “Wow, lucky for them!” It was, “Oh, I hope they don’t get shelved!” In the land of the American dream, I feel like that automatic reaction is a little sad, and wrong even. So what happened to every band’s “lucky break” dream of getting picked up by a record label? The artist’s Cinderella story of finally “making it big” is no longer viable. Musicians are better off self-releasing their albums and coming up with innovative ways to market them than signing a record contract, and below are five reasons why.
Number One: Managers. The first sign of a bad record deal is when the contract requires the artist to pay for all of their own expenses, while at the same time, paying their management too much. The label gives you an advance, to pay for that personal trainer, to pay for your rehab, your hair plugs, whatever you need, but most of that advance goes toward paying for the actual recording of the album, promoting it, making music videos for it, etc. All of these expenses add up, the advance is gone, and the artist’s cut of the record sales has to pay for the difference. Your album could go platinum the first day, and you still would owe your label money. Which leads me to the next reason why you don’t want a record contract.
Number Two: Ownership / The Artist’s Cut. Failing to keep ownership of what they produce is often where musicians go wrong when signing a contract. For example, the teen metal band will get to keep 16-17% of their sales (which is a great royalty rate), but not till after 250,000 records are sold. Shouldn’t be too hard for them to sell that many, right? They’re young, newly popular, have played big shows, festivals, gone on tour, even opened for bigger bands, like Guns ‘N Roses. Well, it’s not that easy. You have to be Beyonce to sell more than 300,000 copies the first week it’s available, and people don’t often go out to buy an album that’s already been out for a month, so selling much more than that initial number isn’t very likely, especially if no one knows you.
Number Three: Pay-to-play. So how do you get known? You get your music played on the radio. And how does your record label do that? By bribing. The record label will pay to get your songs played. One more expense added onto your tab, but if your record label doesn’t have the means to pay DJs and radio stations upfront to play your songs, no one is going to hear them. And then no one will have heard of you. And then who’s going to buy your album? So the record label will most likely find a way and yes, this is legal because record companies are completely open about these exchanges. The easiest loophole is popping in a disclaimer saying, “Brought to you by…”
Number Four: Messing with the Charts. Now your music is getting played on the radio, you just need a hit to up your sales. Back in the good old days, record stores were called and asked how many copies they had sold of each album. Based on the numbers, the highest sellers were the Hot 100 part of Billboard charts. But there’s all kinds of ways to ruin this, from clerks scanning albums more than once, to sale-tracking systems having flukes, to selling three albums for the price of one (which still counts as three album sales). But not to fear! Your label can hire a consultant who will alter sales figures in your favor.
Number Five: Price-Fixing (without compensating artists). The record label will play the market, profit off of it, and not give the artist their fair share. For example, should an artist sadly pass away, say Michael Jackson for example, you will notice that in mere minutes after the death, the musician’s album prices will jump, often more than doubling, even tripling the price as fans scramble to remember.
Record labels are businesses, they must profit to survive. Doing so at the expense of a creative artist, however, is wrong and unnecessary. Don’t wait for your lucky break with a record label contract. Make your own break.