Do You Really Need a Major Label?

Would you prefer the cigar-chompin' old guys or young hip dudes?

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Not so long ago, getting a major label contract was the ultimate rock 'n' roll dream. Making music you love, money galore, all the props what else can a musician really ask for? But with the recent music business demise, the rules have changed, as indie labels are now taking over, to an extent of course.

But you still can't deny the prestige that a major label contract carries. Once the symbol of industry success, it still has that weight and rock 'n' roll superstar appeal of days gone by. So let's try and see how things really are in the music biz these days and see if we can have the title question answered.

The Big League

The term major labels typically refers to an exclusive number of big-league corporations functioning globally with hefty budgets, worldwide influence and bad reputation. The music industry has seen better days, so it comes as no surprise that the number of major labels reflects that. Back in 1988 there were six major labels in the business, the so called Big Six; at the turn of a century, the number was lowered to Big Five, and since 2012 shrunk even further to a mere Big Three.

Pros of Major Labels

Just saying "money" might sound a bit crass, but the word funds is then definitely appropriate. Major labels have enough at their disposal to launch a worldwide promotion and help artists reach crowd in every part of the planet, and there's not a single band in the world who wouldn't want that. Global distribution, world tours, high-budget videos, photo sessions, state of the art equipment, the whole nine yards.

If an artist is also a business savvy individual, it can help him get a long way as major labels bring musicians closer to the industry's prominent figures, allowing them to further spread their brand through a series of networks and connections.

What also shouldn't be neglected as an upside is the prestige. Although a portion of fans tends to frown upon major labels, a big league contract can generally only do good for the band in terms of advertising.

Cons of Major Labels

It's a shark tank the artist is put in, so unless he takes some precautions, he'll get torn to bits. Financially unfriendly contracts, lower royalties of approximately 10 to 15 percent and of course the lack of long-term trust. These days it's either a hit number or the high road with major labels, putting piles of pressure on artists without letting them breathe and musically evolve in a natural manner.

What major labels are often severely criticized for these days is the unwillingness or lack of knowledge to adapt to modern times and fully grasp the power and importance of Internet. A recent story of a disgruntled HMV employee highjacking the official Twitter account at the peak of companys demise might pop to mind as relevant, as the lack of social media understanding was among the points the mentioned employee tried to prove.

However, representation of major labels as big corporate villains became somewhat of a trend, or a fad, with the public often branding big record companies as the bad guys, when in reality it's a very complex question with numerous layers.

Such a topic deserves an article of it's own, but like many things in life, the whole matter was best described by the late great Frank Zappa. Check out the clip below to get my drift.

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The (Not So) Small League

Short for independent, indie labels are typically the less corporate, more enthusiastic and music-oriented music publishers, a group of music aficionados willing to selflessly give their energy and efforts for the sake of promoting proper music. But the little guys aren't so little anymore; according to the latest (July 2013) reports, indie labels have outsold each member of the Big Three with their combined efforts.

Specifically, the independents scored 34.4 percent of record sales in 2013 so far, a figure not reached by either Universal, Sony or Warner. Mumford & Sons stand out as the most prominent indie figure with 1.1 million records sold this year. The rest of the indie acts who crossed the 500k mark also include Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the Lumineers and Taylor Swift. Of course, Queens of the Stone Age also contribute to indie success with their latest effort "...Like Clockwork."

Pros of Indie Labels

To put it simply more artistic freedom. On the more technical/business side, indie artists get the rights to their music, allowing them to actually have an opinion on what they want done with their work once it's released. Royalties share of up to as much as 75 percent is also a significant factor.

But back to the artistic, or even a personal side indie labels are generally believed to have more faith in their artists, allowing them to musically mature at a steady pace, keeping close relationships and offering musicians fair deals. Essentially, they keep their focus on music, which is the only right way to go.

Cons of Indie Labels

Despite the enthusiasm, indie labels often simply lack funds to get the job done. And that doesn't only affect the technical side; we all know perfectly well how demotivating the lack of money can prove to be. Even the most enthusiastic individuals can lose their will to make an effort by the lack of funds, causing massive disorganization.

The chaotic factor was in fact there all along as an omnipresent aspect of the DIY approach indie world nurtures. So not even for a second you should think that the independent labels didn't have their share of screw ups. Just look at Streetlight Manifesto and their hectic experience with Victory Records and the label's refusal to send the band copies of their own album, causing chaos among the fans who pre-ordered the record. So the label basically forced the group to scrap their album. The reason? Money, what else.

As we said, it's an intricate topic we have at our hands; no black and white, nothing but the grey zone here. But one thing remains certain a good song is still a ticket to success. As long as the band is able to come up with an amazing tune and stay smart about the business deals they venture into, nothing can stop them. Without it, on the other hand, it pretty hopeless even with a Big Three deal, now isn't it?

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I think one of the better strategies I've heard of is what Protest the Hero did. They raised money on IndieGoGo for the recording process and then signed licensing deals with a few larger labels. So, they don't have to deal with low royalties or a label hampering their development.
    That would only work though if you are known enough to attract people to your crowdfunding campaign. I could not crowdfund my band right now for example.
    A friend of mines band self released an album through a label they set up, toured it through a change of singer and drummer, 4 years later finally released a new ep through teh same label whilst being courted by various majors. Having spent quite a while in various parts of the industry (session musicians, songwriters, film scorers etc.)they had a pretty good clue of what they were doing, decided that their 2nd, first proper, album is going to be released and funded themselves, but being distributed by a major. Obviously they were in quite a fortunate position but it can be done.
    Who needs a label when you got BandCamp?
    That's like saying who needs a handy man when you have a screw driver? Labels offer more than money to do what you want. They offer a network of bands, industry professionals, and the like. Something you would struggle to obtain otherwise. For example, a newish band with a similar genre to Young Guns or Enter Shikari would love to sign to PIAS Records since then they gain access to the booking agent in charge of their shows. Wallah, you are supporting a much bigger band playing to an audience that is your target market. You CAN do it yourself of course. But if you lack the knowledge/experience/time then you wont succeed.
    You don't need labels, but they're helpful to some degree.