Like many aspects of the music business, record deals have also adapted with the new, digital age. Because there is a lot less extra money to throw around in the industry, labels are taking fewer chances on promising talent, and are carefully calculating the risks and ROI (return on investment) that every act they are considering brings.
To write this article, I was able to consult with Mike Bond of Loviatar, a band that has recently been signed to LA-based Prosthetic Records. As well as having been part of Loviatar since its founding in 2010, Mike also owns and operates Wolf Lake Studios, the highly in demand recording facility he built about an hour’s drive from his other job, a professor of audio engineering at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Canada. I got the chance to send him some questions, and this article discusses the myths and realities of record deals in the modern music industry.
MYTH #1: A&R representatives go to concerts under cover, and offer on-the-spot record deals to bands they discover and want to take a chance on.
The above scenario might have taken place over 50 years ago, or in Hollywood movies, but most real life cases are quite different. It usually takes networking, already having a profitable business going, and certainly takes a lot of discussions and negotiations before something special happens.
In Mike’s case, “we emailed a list of small labels that we thought might be interested in our music and helping us release our new album. One of those smaller labels ended up really liking our stuff, and passed it on to another larger label who also happened to really like it. We started talking about options and possibilities, and before we knew it we had come up with a deal that worked for everyone.”
Since most of our society stopped buying full length, $15 LPs that only had two decent singles on them, switched music piracy, was briefly brought back to the light by the unbundled iTunes Store, and then back down by perfectly legal streaming, the major players in the music industry have very tight budgets, and simply can’t afford to sign artists immediately on faith that they can be something amazing with just a little more practice and polish.
During the courting process between creator of art and large corporation, both parties size up each other: what they are offering and what they have to give in exchange. Signing a record deal is a serious choice for everyone involved, and this calculated process won’t happen in the early a.m., while the band is packing up their instruments and gets approached by a pushy, “legitimate” label representative.
MYTH #2: When I have a record deal, I can focus on making music and having a good time, and never worry about the business or strategic side of things again.
Another growing trend in the way artists obtain record deals is by already having built themselves up first; for example, popular YouTube singers, or indie artists funding their own albums and small tours. At some point, they reach the level of not being able to do every thing themselves to run their “company” while still having time to practice, write and sleep, so they bring in people to be part of their team, such as a label. While a creator of music may see the involvement of a label as a huge relief, those who run their career like a business may have a harder time letting go of 100% control.
There’s a balance which is where Loviatar fit in. “Being on a label definitely changes some things. You’ve really got to take every move you make as an artist much more seriously because someone is investing in you. You’ve got to put more thought into your work and spend more time rehearsing and being the best that you can. In a way, I feel like signing to a label will force the band and myself to ‘grow up’ a bit more with our music and approach to writing and rehearsing. Though it should always be fun, we also need to consider a lot more business stuff now, and we need to make sure that we are doing our part to help the label so they can help us in return.”
MYTH #3: Labels would rather work with an artist who’s a blank slate, that they can then make a star.
Alongside finding new talent, the Artist and Repertoire department used to be responsible for their development: may it be pairing singer-songwriters in the room with top composers, giving singing lessons to boybands, sitting a young rock band down with the PR team to help them craft their image and bio, or prepping any other act who wasn’t quite ready for primetime. Then, when the label deemed them ready, they would record the debut album. This resulted in many artists writing and recording albums that never saw the light of day, because the label didn’t think they were going to be hits – and then sending the musicians back to the drawing board, sometimes more than once – all on the company’s dime.
Building off the last two myths: these companies have less chance to take risks, and not enough money to sit on an artist while they’re being developed. This means that labels want an almost guarantee they’ll make their investment back, and quickly. As hinted earlier, one of the easiest ways to do this is to bet on a horse already winning in the little leagues, and putting them in the main race (versus grabbing the first foal they can find and training them from scratch). So, an act that is not only talented, but also has their live show together, a clear brand, and a loyal fanbase… is going to be a lot less work and take a lot less money than a 13-year-old with an acoustic guitar, cover songs, and a YouTube channel with 2 subscribers. Hearing it from a recently signed band that formed in 2010, “I think it’s incredibly important to always be ready for the next possible step in your career. Most labels want to work with bands that are self sufficient and don’t need work; they want you to be ready before coming to them.”
MYTH #4: Being offered a record deal is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I can’t waste this chance.
“I think most artists want to get signed because it’s a recognition of their work, and because it can help take them to the next level in their career,” Mike muses. “When the opportunity [for Loviatar] ended up coming along, we didn’t jump on it immediately and without question. We re-evaluated what we wanted to achieve through music, and decided that to reach our current goals being on a label was just a smart move. This is not always the case; any opportunity that presents itself should always be considered very carefully.”
Opportunities are like buses; there is always another one coming. If a band is hardworking and is doing well on their own, chances are that their first offer won’t be the only one. If a company wants to rush the negotiation or legal process, chances are they won’t be the best fit anyway.
“Be careful about signing anything!” Mike advises. “There are a lot of labels out there that may not be a good fit for you, so you shouldn’t just jump on any offer that comes your way. Make sure you take the time to think about it properly, and get legal advice before making any moves.”
MYTH #5: Record deals aren’t as useful now as they once were.
“When I was younger, I think I saw getting a record deal as kind of like winning the lottery,” Mike recounts. “It seemed impossible, and I thought that if it ever happened, the band I was in would automatically be famous and successful. As I got older, I realized that it didn’t quite work like that, and that you could achieve most of your dreams without the aid of label if you worked hard enough.”
In the last few years, there has been a rise of popular and critically acclaimed acts who are fiercely independent, including Chance The Rapper, Lindsey Stirling, Macklemore, and Jason Isbell. The digital age has created a new demographic of “middle class musicians,” where artists can make a living doing what they love without necessarily being famous superstars.
Labels have learned to adapt, and now use their marketing departments and name recognition to bring acts to the next level in their careers.
“Having a record label in your corner is a big confidence boost and can also get your foot in the door for a lot of opportunities,” says Mike. While I’m sure many readers of Pop of Colour are currently happy being independent, or haven’t even thought that far ahead in a practical plan, there’s nothing wrong with knowing whether you’re also the kind of artist who would work well with a label, if an opportunity comes your way.
Many thanks to Mike Bond for lending his voice, experience and insights to this article. His band Loviatar is to release their new album with Prosthetic Records in late Summer 2017.