In my opinion, the short answer is, “No.” An artist doesn’t need a label anymore than anyone needs a restaurant. Do we need someone to procure and prepare our food for us? No, we choose to. Today, if an artist is chasing a label offer, it’s because they choose to and not because they need to. (I admit, it’s not that black and white. For Ed Sheeran, DIY’ing his way to success, he took a label offer well after he was already successful. YMMV.)
I will say, however, that if you don’t have the knowledge, experience, or don’t want to run a business or work with someone that does, you don’t want to allocate part of your time to running a business, and only want to use your time for creative purposes, then you probably want a label deal. I wish you luck with that.
Back in the day…
In 2000, the #1 album, “No Strings Attached” by N’Sync sold almost 10 million copes and 18 other albums that year sold over 3 million copies. Only 9 years later, the #1 selling album was “Fearless” by Taylor Swift at 3.2 million copies. How quickly things have changed.
A major label used to be the gate keepers to almost everything. Without them, an artist could rarely get a great sounding album, get distribution, get on radio and television, and in general, get in the public eye. That is far from the case today.
PRODUCTION – MANUFACTURING – DISTRIBUTION – MARKETING – MEDIA
The 5 key areas that a label can be most helpful and that a DIY’er will have to do themselves, and more importantly, CAN do themselves, are Production, Manufacturing, Distribution, Marketing, and Media. Each one of them can be discussed in great detail in it’s own blog post, which I will, however for the sake of keeping this particular post digestible, I’ll just bullet each one.
PRODUCTION – If you don’t have a song, you don’t have a reason to move forward. Maybe you have your own studio in your home. Maybe you can book time at a studio. Either way, have a vision and strive to get the best representation of who you are and get the best possible production you can. That doesn’t always mean spending a lot of money but it often means spending a lot of creative effort and usually working with others, like a producer.
MANUFACTURING – This can include CDs, Vinyl, and merchandise. Not all CD and Vinyl manufacturers are created equal. Some do better work and some do cheaper work. Naturally, volume discounts apply. Do your research. Get what you need but make sure it’s the best you can get. Your music is most important and you only get one chance at the first impression. Inspect what you expect. There are a lot of resources for getting other merchandise on an “as needed” basis as well as drop shipped. As your group of supporters grows and the need for your product grows, you can find new opportunities to fulfill your product.
DISTRIBUTION – We now live in a world where anyone with an internet connection can buy anything they want. Your music needs to be no exception. You have the resources to put your product everywhere in the world now. Consider a distribution partner that can not only facilitate the access to your product but they might even help with publishing and sync licensing. Above all else, again, inspect what you expect and track your sales.
MARKETING – It’s about your brand. It’s about your identity. Your marketing strategy is an extension of your brand and should be engaging. Content is paramount. If you are fortunate enough to work with someone who will manage your campaign, don’t turn a blind eye on it. Be a part of it. A big part. This is a direct reflection of your art and you. If you are still at the stage where the budget doesn’t include hiring a marketing manager, there are plenty of resources available to get in front of the public eye before spending the first dime. Stick to your budget and be consistent. Here are a few quick ways to get started on a guerrilla budget:
- Make your own website. Keep it simple, lots of media, be current, and update it consistently. Look at other successful bands’ websites and see what is consistent between them. SEO (search engine optimization) is how you get found. Learn what it takes to be good at SEO.
- Socialize with the people. Of course when people reach out to you directly via email, Twitter, and Facebook, you want to answer them. But moreover, when someone mentions you on Facebook or Twitter, chime in. Say something in gratitude. Also, be proactive. Reaching out to the people in advance of being contacted can go a long way. It can be something as simple as a happy birthday or a congratulatory for something you see they’ve accomplished or achieved. People like to be recognized and LOVE to talk about themselves.
- Blog! Don’t cringe. Blogging doesn’t have to look like this blog. Again, look at some of your favorite band’s websites and check out their blog page. Some of them are on the landing page as a news feed while others are on their own dedicated page. While adding content once a week is probably best, at least once a month is the least you can do. Also, be consistent. Once you have created expectations for your readers and followers, you must deliver. If nothing new is happening, that’s okay. Go ahead and say so. If things are slow, tell a story about a gig or even a rehearsal if something cool or funny happened. Also make sure you’re including an RSS for people that use a reader. It’s a way for others to get notified every time you post.
MEDIA – Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, Vimeo, YouTube, Myspace, Soundcloud, ReverbNation, Pinterest, Flickr, Instagram, and on and on. Use them all and any others you can find or think of. It’s not about making people come to you, although driving traffic to your homepage should be the first initiative, you still have to go to where the people are. Therefore, take each venue seriously and do the best you can with each of them. Don’t “half ass” any of them. Each are important. One person leads to 10 and those 10 will lead to 100 and so on.
HAVE A PLAN, CREATE A CAMPAIGN.
If you don’t have a plan, you will likely not reach any of your milestones. Being a successful musician is not about reaching the ultimate goal. It’s about reaching all the little goals everyday. Too many new artists are fixated on the “being discovered” theory. In reality, it’s not like that. RARELY is anyone “discovered.” Even in the golden years of A&R, artists were developed and worked with. That is no longer the case. Labels don’t develop artists at all. Consider for a moment that a label isn’t interested in you until you have 10,000+, active fans, a touring agency isn’t interested in booking you until you’ve crossed the country twice on your own already, and a management company or manager, isn’t interested in you until you’ve created consistent cash flow for them to earn from. So why do you need a label if you’ve already gotten that far? (There are valid reasons for considering it at this stage, but I still say hold out and keep plugging.)
Create a 6 month campaign. Set small goals along the way that are attainable. Once you’ve reached the end of that campaign, assess what you’ve done and then create another one. Or if you’re ready, create a 12 month campaign. However, if you’re working with the power of the single release, you won’t need 12 month campaigns for the most part. A successful career as a musician and artist comes as a result of tiny victories, one after another.
The road to your success without a label is more based on relationships than anything else. If you surround yourself with a great group of supporters in the right departments and participate in a core group of like minded artists, with engaging content and consistent delivery, you will likely succeed. Along the way everyone in your camp are experiencing their own little victories along their own paths. One day someone else, (maybe you), is farther along than the others, but continues to work with your core group, ultimately pulling everyone along. I’ve experienced it myself. My friends and colleagues are currently in very strong positions in this industry, and I assure you it wasn’t a label nor discovery that got them there. It was small victory after small victory while building relationships in every key area which ultimately led to someone “throwing them a bone.”