Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
It wasn’t that long ago when every musician’s dream was to sign with a record label and become a star. But as powerful technologies related to music production, distribution, and audience engagement have become more and more accessible to indie artists all over the world, the role of a record deal has shifted significantly.
For some artists, a record deal can still be a holy grail and huge music career booster, while for others, it might resemble more of a ball and chain. What are the pros and cons of a record deal? Is a record deal from a major label right for you? How do you optimize your chances of landing a great recording contract?
What to consider when searching for labels
In 2023, there are strong arguments for pursuing traditional record deals, and equally strong arguments for avoiding them.
If you hook up with a great label partner, some pros include:
- Reaching new audiences
- Gaining new revenue streams
- Getting access to greater resources for recording, distributing, and performing your music
- Prestige and bragging rights for signing with a record company
- Not having to do all the music production and promotion yourself
On the downside, here are a few of the liabilities that can come from signing with the wrong label or getting a traditional record deal when you’d be better served without one.
- Surrendering some level of financial, creative, marketing, and/or career direction control
- Sharing your profits from music and merch sales, often to a large degree
- Losing prestige and indie cred and potentially being accused of selling out
- Still having to do all the work yourself
Given the widespread tools available to indie musicians — including affordable CD and vinyl manufacturing and worldwide digital music distribution — many artists feel they can accomplish the same things as a label. But if you feel that the boost a major label can give your career is worth the potential liabilities, even in 2023, it can still be a wonderful (and practical) dream to pursue.
How to choose a label that’s right for you
These days, record labels come in all sizes and flavors, from mega labels like Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment to niche indie labels that can literally have one person on staff. Musical instrument companies and furniture manufacturers sometimes have their own labels. The possibilities are all over the place. A few things to learn about as you’re looking into label options:
- Do you like and are you compatible with the other artists currently signed to the label? Have those artists been successful and maintained creative control?
- Are the labels you’re looking at keen on exclusive or non-exclusive deals? In other words, if you sign with “Label X,” will you then be contractually obligated to make music only for them?
- Does the label support touring or expect you to do all that yourself?
- Same thing with marketing, recording, and every other aspect of your career — how much will the label do and how much will it expect you to handle?
- How big is their team and how wide is their network?
- Do their team members have the right experience and skills to help you?
- Does the label have access to the audiences you’re trying to reach?
- Do the folks working at the label seem responsible and on their game?
With any label you consider working with, do your due diligence. Here are some steps to keep in mind as you’re looking for labels:
- Search online and ask around in your musician community about which labels have great reputations for working well with artists and really helping to advance artists’ careers.
- Reach out to artists who are already signed to labels you’re thinking of and ask what their experiences are.
- Don’t write off labels you’ve never heard of, but give them an extra-thorough look to make sure they’re legit.
- Don’t go with a label just because it’s well-known; make sure it’s the right fit for you.
- Beware of any label situation that has you paying them.
Choose the options that are best for you
Getting signed to a record label isn’t a one-way street — just as the right label needs to believe in your artistry and potential, you need to believe in the label’s commitment to your music and ability to elevate your career.
Some of the process of choosing the right label is science — does the label have the staff, infrastructure, relationships, and other resources to help you shine? Some of it is art. A few questions to ask yourself:
- How do you feel when you interact with people at the label?
- Does it feel like they get you and your music?
- Do you believe that they will move mountains to share your music and elevate your career?
When it’s time to consider signing on the dotted line, have a qualified music lawyer look over the agreement. This is such an important point, I’m going to write it again: Make sure to have a qualified music lawyer look over the agreement.
So many artists throughout record label history have been taken advantage of and signed away more rights and profits than they realized, just because they didn’t have an expert on their side. Lawyers can be expensive, but organizations like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts can help ensure you’re not being exploited.
Not every label will try to take advantage of you, but some certainly will. Do your homework and protect yourself.
How to get noticed by major labels
If you want to end up signed to Island or Def Jam, you have to make yourself into something those folks can’t say no to. A few key steps:
- Get your social media hopping. Everyone wants to bet on a winner, and record labels are no different. Show label executives that you can engage, excite, and retain a wide audience through Instagram, TikTok, and SoundCloud. That will go a long way toward establishing yourself as an artist worth investing in.
- Make your music as professional as possible. Invest in professional recording situations, high-quality mixing engineers, and the best mastering you can afford (Disc Makers SoundLAB can help).
- Sell albums. Records sales will get the attention of a record label.
- Get streams and video views. Showing there’s an appetite for your music on streaming sites and YouTube is the best way to make a label want to support you.
- Get touring. Labels like to see artists that are active, on the move, and engaging with fans as widely as possible.
- Invest in visuals. You don’t have to be young and generically beautiful to get a record deal, but you do need to show that you’re at least mindful of your image and how your fans see you. Work on high-quality photos, even if it’s just you, a friend, a smartphone, and a sunset; put together video content that highlights your music.
- Network like there’s no tomorrow. Get yourself out to as many concerts, conferences, industry events, clubs, jam sessions, and music-related events as possible. The more music-industry people you meet who like you and appreciate your music, the greater your exposure to hooking up with the right Big Label Person who can make the record deal of your dreams happen.
Never give up
The music industry is full of people who worked hard under the radar for years, and then were tapped by the right label and became “overnight sensations.” If a label deal is what you dream of, keep working, keep creating, and don’t stop believin’.
You’ve got to make CDs to sell CDs
Ready to sell some CDs and get the attention of a record label? Disc Makers has CD packages that won’t break the bank and will make you label-ready.
The pros and cons of a major-label record deal
Choosing a digital distributor for your music: Part 1
Music business advice from an entertainment lawyer
How to promote your music on YouTube
How to take great band photos (in six steps)