Since the dawn of rock, the record contract has been mythologised as a magical career-making document, to be signed with a gold pen amidst backslaps and Playboy Bunnies on the 100th floor of a gleaming LA skyscraper. But times have changed. In the modern industry, many upcoming musicians are actively making the decision to bypass the labels and self-release their albums. But what’s the reality of going it alone?
You’re in control… but you’ll work around the clock
As any veteran musician will tell you, record labels have a nasty habit of meddling in their artists’ output and beating them with the stick of commerciality. When you self-release, you’re free to follow your passion, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to send you back to the studio to record a duet with Robin Thicke. But there’s a punishing flipside. Without a myriad of label services behind you, it falls to you to pay invoices, post out CDs, calculate budgets and organise tours. If you’re the kind of free spirit who never got their homework done at school, the landslide of admin will bury you alive.
You get all the money… but also take the financial risk
Fundamentally, a record label is a business, and they want their pound of flesh. Typically, the artist is left with just a pound to show for each £8 CD sold, and will often be locked into a ‘360 deal’ that gives the label a slice of all income from touring profits to merch. Granted, by self-releasing your album, you’ll keep far more of the profits – but you’ll also take the hit for everything from recording and pressing to distribution and promo. If you gauge demand wrong, you’ll be left with a teetering tower of unsold CDs – and there’s also the dispiriting reality that unsigned artists usually don’t sell like those with label backing.
Your music will be heard… but only if you’re a great self-promoter
After every label exec in town has sneered at your beloved demo, it’s a liberating feeling to upload your album to the web and know that it’s actually out there being heard. The challenge for the unsigned artist is casting the net wider than your circle of friends and existing fans. For all their faults, labels have the support network in place to spread your music like wildfire, able to call on experienced manufacturers, distributors, press officers and journalists, and turn an album from a cult concern to a rolling snowball. Seeing as you haven’t got any of these, you’ll have to be charming, thick-skinned and seriously adept at promotion on social media – or your album is doomed to lurk on a dark corner of the web.