Collisions at the Corner of Art and Commerce

So You Think You Want a Major Label Record Deal?  Be careful what you wish for....

Saturday, February 16, 2008


It's a surprise to nobody reading this that we're witnessing wholesale change in the music business, particularly the record business.  This change is affecting both the mainstream music business and the world that has for decades flown under the radar of the big companies.  Despite the turmoil and trauma, most all of these changes are positive for artists looking to develop long lasting, sustainable careers.

While these changes are not all positive or easy to deal with, never before have the creators of the music itself had more power and control over their music and the opportunities to expose it.

When I worked for Sony Music in the late 1980s, I was often frustrated by the  diminishment of artist development compared to the early 80s and 70s.  Little did I know that in comparison to 2008, in general, the late 80s was the golden age of artist development at the major labels.

While all of the following is written referencing primarily artists, it applies equally to those who might be starting out as a manager or booking agent.

So You Think You Want a Deal With a Major Record Label?.... be careful of what you wish for.

For decades, it's been almost a mantra from musicians and bands across the land...'"if we could only get a record deal".... "man, everything would be sweet then, all our problems would be solved, we'd have made it".  And sure, a record deal could be a sweet thing, but it was never the panacea that artists thought in the past - and in the present, a record deal may be the last thing you want - at least with a major label.

Given the new and evolving marketplace, artists have more control over their music and the ability to expose it than ever before.

Before considering this further, its vitally important to determine what success looks like for you.  If it involves tabloid coverage and becoming a celebrity, then perhaps the major label route is worth a roll of the dice for you. Because they'll likely remain a viable conduit towards being a disposable 'star'.  But if you are interested in building a long lasting, sustainable career, then trying to score a major label deal might not be the best path to take.

(let me make a note here to specify that I'm writing in general terms here, there are certainly examples we can find that contradict me.  Howver the general pattern is very, very clear and supports my contentions.)

Let me also add that I am not advocating closing yourself off to any opportunities that may come calling - if a major label is interested in signing you, then by all means, have that conversation - see what they have to offer - my point here is that the responsibility to build your career is *yours* and that's both a great thing and a bit of a scary one, I realize.

But you've got more tools at your disposal than ever before.  With a comparatively minimal investment, you can record in very high quality in your home or practice space, you can manufacture physical discs inexpensively, you can forgo the physical world entirely and make your music available online, you can grow and interact with a network of your fans at virtually instantly and for near no cost, you can research and get gigs and network and interact with your musical peers incredibly easily - consider all of these advantages against even 20 years ago.    

In many instances at present, major labels are waiting for bands to develop themselves to a point where they feel that they have enough of a base from which to build them further. However, if you've built yourself to that point, its likely in your best interest to keep doing what you have been doing.

Its also important to consider that some of the benchmarks that we've used in the past, and how those are changing - the volume of sales of physical discs on individual titles is decreasing - fewer and fewer gold albums.  But with either a reasonable indie deal or working independently, small sales with a much higher margin of profit to the band coupled with legitimate accounting (ie actually getting paid on what is sold without all of the major label BS contractual terms) will equal far, far larger income on far fewer sales.  Once again your definition of success is the important part here - if your value is measured in records sold, then a major deal may be important - they still have the best chance of selling tonnage (such as that happens anymore), but if owning your masters and controling your destiny and having a long lasting career - making a living making music - is important, then its probably best to set your sights to either the indies or continuing to DIY.

updated: 9 years ago