Everything You Need To Know About Record Labels
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Let’s be honest: affiliation with a record label is one of the most glamorous-sounding aspects of the musician lifestyle. How many times have you heard a music writer (or perhaps even one of your friends) gush about how So-and-So “got signed”? While some artists prefer to remain staunchly indie, record labels still wield power over our imaginations. Culturally, we’ve even come to interpret the union of artist and label as a declaration of legitimacy and success. But how do record labels work? How can they help musicians advance their careers? How do you get signed to a record label? And, maybe most importantly — is getting signed a worthwhile goal?
WHAT RECORD LABELS DO
Atlantic. Columbia. Young Money. Death Row. Whether they’re associated with Rock N Roll legacy acts, K-Pop groups, Hip Hop artists, or hyper-pop phenoms, record labels are considered the “home” of the musicians who are signed to them, sort of like a Baseball Club in the MLB. The competition to make it onto a label is fierce, and for many musicians, it’s one of the greatest professional goals of their careers. But in reality, it is only a starting point after which the journey gets much more stressful and serious.
Why are labels so revered? British producer Jake Gosling sums it up nicely in a 2012 interview with the Guardian: “…they’ve got marketing teams, press teams, radio pluggers, accounts departments and when you get bigger you need help with that stuff. You need a good team around you… You can be really creative but not very good at business and marketing. For example, I don’t know what Leonard Cohen’s business acumen was like.”
Neil Young also has a positive review for record labels as an institution in the business. “What I like about record companies is that they present and nurture artists,” Young says. “That doesn’t exist on iTunes, it doesn’t exist on Amazon. That’s what a record company does, and that’s why I like my record company.”
Record labels are a multifaceted support network for their musicians. Whether indie or major, labels can provide music promotion, arrange interviews with radio stations, manage bookkeeping and finances, coordinate sales and publicity, bolster an internet presence, manage contracts and other legal issues (such as any nasty lawsuits that might crop up), find producers, and develop the artistic look of an album.
Most importantly, a record label is an investment bank for musical artists. The label invests money into an artist, their recordings, style, video content, tour promotion and management, etc. and expect a return on those investment in the form of major profits from touring, merch, streaming, and sponsorship deals.
This means the major label is only interested in musicians that can command the most attention on social media, bringing eyes, clicks, streams, and potentially viral success to their content and label, while the indie label tends to be interested in acts at the vanguard of style and genre.
A&R: THE LABEL GATEKEEPERS
Reading up on what record labels do is simple enough, but when it comes to actually getting signed to a label, it’s a case of “easier said than done.” What does it take?
First, the record label needs to be aware that the band exists. Much like sports teams send recruiters to eyeball the fresh talent at high school games, record labels have their own representatives whose job is to discover acts that the label might want to sign. These people are called A&R (Artists and Repertoire) reps, and they function as gatekeepers to the label.
In the old days, A&R would travel from city to city, scanning nightclubs and talent shows for the next big singer or band. John Hammond, who worked for Columbia in NYC, helped sign Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen within 20 years.
But gone are those days. Now A&R teams spend most of their time scanning TikTok and Instagram for the next viral sensation.
MAJOR LABEL VS. INDIE LABEL
Not all labels are the same size and command the same type of gigantic star artists. Some labels are considered “indie” labels and they deal with bands and artists that are more niche in genre and have sizable, but not ubiquitous fandoms, think Phoebe Bridges as being indie versus someone like Beyoncé being a major label artists.
The comparison is similar to commercial VS. non-commercial radio. Major labels reach larger audiences, have more money to devote to their signed acts, and are generally less willing to take a chance on a band with an unusual sound. Independent labels aren’t typically as well-known as their big-business counterparts, nor do they typically have quite as much money to pump into promotional efforts, marketing, etc. However, if you don’t already have a devoted following and a famous name, an indie label may be a more realistic starting point. It isn’t impossible to break into major labels, but it’s unquestionably the path of greater resistance.
GETTING SIGNED TO A MAJOR LABEL
If your route is the major label track, the plan is fairly straight forward. Blow up your social media as big as it can go. We’re talking between 20-100k followers. Many artists end up hiring social media management to get this done so they can stay focused on the music.
Impressing A&R in the first place is tough. It generally isn’t enough to have one strong point alone. They look for acts they think can provide the whole package. Factors A&R reps consider today include:
- How many followers does the artist have on Insta? On TikTok?
- How many views and likes does their content get on a daily basis?
- Are they easy to connect to, do they seem “real” online?
- Are they funny? Relatable?
- Is there any talent there: singing, dancing, humor?
For example, Bella Poarch is one of this year’s newest huge stars. A few years ago she was just a regular woman who spent some time in the armed forces, but then blew up on Tiktok. A major label took her from that platform and designed an image for her, hired a team to write with her, and now “Build A Bitch” has 300 million YouTube plays in four months.
Getting signed to a major label now involves that sort of huge viral upsweep, which isn’t impossible if you are good at the platform and can follow the trends, anticipating the next big thing.
GETTING SIGNED TO AN INDIE LABEL
Getting signed to an indie label is a different story. In this case acts that have 2-8k followers can and do get signed. The key here is having a knowledge of the kind of sub-genre you play and being completely unfazed by mainstream success or trends. Examples of big indie labels today include: Jagjaguwar, 4AD, ANTI, and Nonesuch.
If you make shoegaze, make sure your music pays homage to all the greats without ripping them off. Play DIY underground shows and travel to the towns and cities where that music thrives. Underground blogs and spotify playlists will help word spread organically.
If you put enough time into the craft of the specific type of music you make, an indie label may eventually see that hard work, the earnestness, and offer you a release on cassette or vinyl. That may lead to a full length record and tour with some of their artists. Promotion for Indie bands can help you get your foot in the door as well.
There is so much room for growth in the indie world, if you stick to your beliefs and don’t “sell out”.
A FINAL WORD ON LABELS
At the end of the day, record labels are a glorified bank for musicians, issuing loans to produce the records, videos, and tours we know and love. Whether shooting for a major label or an indie label, it’s all about the company’s confidence and trust in you as an artist. Social media is a huge factor, but at the end of the day it’s all about the music.
At Planetary Group we know what it takes to get noticed by record labels big and small, for music promotion consultation reach out to us at (info), and one of our industry veterans can help point you get started.