Why You Won’t Get a Record Deal and Why It Doesn’t Matter

Posted: July 29, 2013 in Artist Corner
Why You Won't Get a Record Deal and Why It Doesn't Matter

Picture a rock star. Strutting across the stage, singing or playing his instrument in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans. Pulling his or her best rock face and driving the opposite sex wild. Get that image in your head for a bit, maybe hear some of the music. Now answer me the following question:

How old is the person you’re thinking of? How old are they today as you read this?

Chances are whoever you’re thinking of is currently in his or her 40’s or older, in your mind’s eye or in reality. The analystsDeloitte did a study in 2011 and found out that 40% of the top-selling bands in the USA had a lead singer in their SIXTIES. Of the top 50, only one was in their 20’s and that was Britney Spears, whose breakthrough hit was 14 years earlier.

What the hell happened? Where’s the next generation of rock stars? Open up a copy ofKerrang or Rolling Stone and there’s plenty of pretty young things in the pages, posing and pouting, but the statistics show they’re not selling as many records or pulling in the crowds on tour compared to the dinosaurs. In 2009 (and the 5 years before), 25 new artists sold 100,000 albums or more in the UK. In 2011 that was down to 16, and two of those were headed by one or other of the ex-Oasis Gallagher brothers, who have a combined age of 87. What’s going on?

There’s a number of factors at work here. Young music fans, those that are fans of trendy new bands, don’t have as much money to spend as their elder siblings and parents, and the global recession hasn’t helped. They also tend to pirate music more, cutting these artists’ incomes yet further.

Big record companies are in trouble. In November 2011, EMI, one of the giants of the music business, was split up in two and sold off to stop it going bankrupt. The fat cats are looking very thin. Blame the economy, blame piracy, blame bad management, but the big record firms are in big trouble, and they’re retrenching.

Earlier that year, a friend of mine tried to broker a deal between a leading unsigned UK band and one of Europe’s largest record companies. The response he got from the label’s A&R guy was blunt: “We love the band. But company policy now is only to sign artists who have sold at least half a million albums, or are former members of bands who have. Last year we had to stop paying royalties for three months just to stay solvent. Any unproven band is too big a risk.

This is it, everyone. The era of the big record deal for the emerging artist is over. The big labels are leaning more and more heavily on their back catalogues, and sending their wrinkly rock dinosaurs out on tour instead of the next big things. The big record companies are in a death spiral, and won’t sign anyone, and this means you.

Here’s why this is really good news for you and your band:

1. You Can Make More Money With Less Sales

One guy who doesn’t have a record deal these days is Mark King, bassist and frontman with the hugely successful ’80s funk-pop outfit Level 42. If you want his solo albums you order them from him or his affiliates. In 2003 he was interviewed by Q magazine and asked if selling CDs off a website wasn’t a bit of a comedown after his years of world tours and platinum sales. His reply: “When I was a platinum unit-shifter back in the ’80s I made 10p from every album I sold. Now I make £10.

That’s the downside of a major label deal. They’ll give you a lot, but take a lot in return – often from 95-99% of the retail price after all deductions. If Mark King‘s figures are right, the emerging UK artist that sells 100,000 copies will only make £10,000 ($15,000) from record sales if they’re signed to a big label. They’d literally make more money flipping burgers. An artist using Mark King‘s model and only selling one tenth as many records, a mere 10,000, will make £100,000, ($150,000) more than the Prime Minister. Whilst you’ll have to deduct your expenses from that, you’re still laughing compared to the guys on a big label with ten times the record sales.

2. You Don’t Need To Put Big Money Down

In the past, one of the reasons you needed a big label deal was that being an aspiring rock star was a ludicrously expensive undertaking. Albums cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, videos just as much, and touring cost so much you’d think they heated the venues by burning money. Only a huge and wealthy record label could front a band that much cash.

That’s all changed now. The typical recording budget for the kind of band I work with is about £3000-£5000 ($4500-$7500) for a full album. If you use a digital syndication service like CD Baby (and you should), global distribution for your album to almost every territory on Earth, something that used to cost eye-watering amounts of cash, is yours for a one-off payment of about $60. Music video costs have dropped through the floor as well. Typical costs are about the same as the album recording costs above, though I was once offered a pro shoot for a little as £1500 ($2250). That’s $450 per member, about the same as your typical suburban guitar-slinging dude spends on Xbox games in a year.

Touring is still expensive, but I know bands that have done month-long European tours for about £10,000 ($15,000) – with costs that low, you could break even if the tour sells well.

So basically you are looking at the whole recording-distro-video-tour cycle costing about £20,000 ($30,000), the price of a small family car.

3. You Can Do Things Yourself

You can cut that £20,000 down to size as well. Not only has technology cut the costs of these things, it has also made them easier to use and within the grasp of people who don’t have years of training behind them. A camera that is good enough to shoot a music video is not only now affordable for the average Joe, it’s also sophisticated and automated enough that all Joe has to worry about is pointing it in the right direction. He no longer has to spend a lengthy apprenticeship learning how to seamlessly splice bits of film together in order to edit the video, he just has to watch some YouTube videos on how to use MovieMaker.

So if you have the artistic vision, you can acquire the necessary technical skills to make it a reality quicker, cheaper and more easily than before. You don’t need to hire a cameraman, mastering engineer or tour manager if you have the skills somewhere within your band, and that £20,000 figure starts to shrink.

The first album I produced back in 2010 was recorded, mixed and mastered entirely with equipment owned by the band. Because we had the equipment and skills in the band to do everything from composition, arrangement and recording to mixing and mastering, we didn’t spend a single penny on studio time, session musicianship or external services except £100 for artwork. That meant that the only other cost was travel, as the various band members travelled to each other’s houses to record their parts. We did the entire, professionally released and critically well-received album, for less than £100 ($150) per band member.

4. You Can Dictate Your Own Terms

Of course some of the big things that come to mind when thinking about a big-name record deal are the horror stories. Steve Albini‘s infamous 1992 essay “The Problem with Music” set out in graphic terms how a major-label deal could go sour and ruin the careers and lives of the musicians signed to it. The reason the record companies could behave that way, said Albini, was that theirs was the only show in town. As we have discussed, the costs and skills needed to record and release an album, do a video or two, and go on tour were far beyond the means of the bands. It was a case of sign the contract or stay in your garage forever, and some labels abused that monopoly. That is of course no longer the case, and the major-label deal is only one of many alternatives for musicians wanting to make money from their recordings.

You can still get a record deal, if you want one. Independent labels are doing well, as are one-man “micro-labels” that are less traditional labels than brokerage services, helping the bands they work with cherry-pick services such as promotion, distribution and production depending on what they need. They’ll write a contract for you depending on what your band needs, and what it can do itself. Have a mixing genius on board but need help with promotion? There’s a deal for that. Have everything sorted but just need a label to act as an advocate to help have your band taken seriously in the industry? There’s a deal for that too. The only downside of these deals is that these small labels don’t have as much, or any, cash to inject into the project. There’s good news about that though.

5. You Can Raise Your Own Cash

Now that the price of professional music activity is down to a sensible level, the rock and roll dream is now tantalisingly close for anyone with a guitar and some talent. I’m guessing that includes you, right? There’s only a few thousand dollars between where you and your band are right now and everything you’ve dreamed of. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

Of course, if there’s one thing we all know about aspiring musicians it’s that they’re usually pretty broke. $30,000 is a lot of money for someone who delivers pizza for a living and spends all his spare cash on Marshalls. Even between the members of a band, that’s probably too much to ask of low-income young people in a bad economy. How do you lay your hands on that kind of cash?

The latest and most exciting way to raise funds for music is crowdfunding. Sites likeKickstarter and Indiegogo let you pitch your band and your project to the general public, and your fans, or indeed anyone, can contribute as little or as much as they want in exchange for varying rewards, which you set. Maybe for $1 you get a thankyou on the band’s Facebook page, for $10 you get a CD, $20 gets you a CD and a T-Shirt, maybe for $500 you’ll play a gig in someone’s front room or something cool like that. You don’t have to give these people any of these things until you’ve got all the money you’ve asked for, so think of it as getting paid up front for the album – just like an album advance, except without the awkward “record company owning your soul” bit that ruined all those parties back in 1992.

Take a look around these sites. See how much money some of these people are making. They’re not better than you. In fact some of the music there is truly terrible but the people making it are making thousands of dollars in pledges anyway and you could have that too in a month from now. This is the final piece of the jigsaw for young bands, who can finally replace the one thing that the record companies could offer.

So there it is. Get out there and record, there is literally nothing to stop you. I’ve even put together a free video series covering the essential points of recording – what to do, what not to do and the important choices, to get you started on recording your masterpiece.

About The Author:
James Scott is a producer, songwriter and audio engineer from London, UK who works with unsigned and small-label artists to get them ahead in the industry.

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