Indie Bible: Find a Record Deal

The music business is changing dramatically. The goal of every artist used to be getting a major label deal. That isn't the case any more. Scroll down to read how many artists are succeeding on their own without a record deal in a special article by Bernard Bauer of Music Connection magazine.

Indie Bible: Find a Record Deal

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Indie Bible: Find a Record Deal

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Indie Bible: Find a Record Deal

SUCCEEDING WITHOUT A LABEL by Bernard Baur, Music Connection Magazine

2013 All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission

Music Connection set out to see how realistic the independent route is, and if artists can find success on their own. We found that independent artists are very popular with music fans; and, that acts like The Dave Matthews Band, Godsmack, Nickelback and The White Stripes didn't depend on a record company to break them. They did it themselves and sold thousands of records, which naturally attracted hundreds of labels. Moreover, those who enjoyed independent success negotiated record deals that were superior to the average deal most artists are offered.

To find out what it takes, MC contacted a variety of artists who took the "Do It Yourself" approach and are making it work. They are self-sufficient artists who found that they didn't need a record deal to live their dream. They prove that the DIY option is not only viable; it may also be the best course of action. After all, who wouldn't like to call their own shots in a market that's up for grabs?

Choosing the road less traveled
Sitting in a label president's office suite can be surreal, especially when he's explaining what an artist needs to do to get signed. The list is so long (covering a variety of areas) so, you can't help but ask, " If an artist did all of that, why the hell would they need you?"

Well, some artists don't think they need an established label at all. Award winning artist, Aimee Mann, has had three major record deals but now says, "I can't recommend signing a label deal. Why should you give them all the power? Really, it's frustrating. You think labels are supposed to sell records, but they don't always do what they're supposed to so, why deal with them?" In response, Mann formed her own company, Super Ego Records, and became a poster girl for DIY success thanks to her Oscar-nominated song from the film "Magnolia" and the 200,000 units sold of her "Bachelor No. 2" album. Today, she claims to be happier than she ever was at a major. "Now, I have the freedom to do what I want, when I want. And, if any mistakes are made, I get to make them myself rather than have someone make them for me."

The independent mindset
It seems simple. You don't have to be signed to release a record. In fact, if you wait to be signed it could be a very long time according to Tim Sweeney, a consultant who specializes in independent artists. He not only presents workshops on DIY, but has also written books about it. Sweeney maintains, "Less acts are being signed nowadays, and of those that do get a record deal only 1-3% will make it beyond a record or two before they get dumped."

DIY avoids that scenario, but artists need to be a special breed to do it right. According to Pat McKeon, former owner of Dr. Dream Records and general manager at Ranell Records, states, "An independent artist will have to wear more than one hat. When they first start out, they'll probably be doing everything themselves, and not every artist can handle that."

It is also important to understand how much work DIY truly is. K.K. Martin, an indie artist who survived several label deals intimated, "You have to learn about the business and pay attention to it. If you can't do that, find someone you trust, or you'll never progress."

Keeping' it real
If you want DIY success, you have to have realistic expectations. Nearly every artist dreams of playing The Forum or appearing on MTV. Unfortunately, that doesn't even happen to major label acts unless they have a hit and are extremely successful. Most independent artists have to set their sights a little lower. That's not to say it could never happen, because it does. But, the fact is you'd have to have fantastic connections or enjoy phenomenal success to reach that level.

"Keeping your goals realistic is essential for all independents," Moon points out. "If you don't do that, you're going to be disappointed." Moon suggests keeping it real and at a level you can achieve. "Set up small goals on a monthly, quarterly and yearly basis. Then, evaluate the results. If you reached your goals, move on - if not, figure out why."

Perhaps the greatest state of mind independent artists need is patience. Angus Richardson, of the band Brother, has known phenomenal success, selling over 150,000 records and playing almost 250 dates a year. Nevertheless, even Brother had to suck it up. " When we didn't get a quick record deal, it would have been easy to get discouraged," Richardson reveals. "But, we believed in our music, our fans and ourselves. And, the fact is," he stresses, "if you get hurt every time you're rejected in this business, you're going to have a lot of scars. Just look around at all the bands that have disappeared"

Touring is key
The most important part of the plan is playing live. Everything, including radio, promotions, distribution and marketing, should revolve around that, it's the way you sell records. Of course, you're going to need a recording, but according to Moon, it need not be up to industry standards. "Even a live recording will do," she says. "Your fans want to hear your songs, not the production."

Most artists have booked themselves before, so this area should be familiar. The difference is that you have to book gigs beyond your backyard. Sweeney suggests that artists should start by looking 2-3 hours in each direction. "That will only cost $30-40 in gas, and you should be able to make that in sales," he says. "If an act is based in Los Angeles, they can look as far as San Diego and Santa Barbara. Eventually, increase the drive time and even look at neighboring states. But, he warns, "don't try to do it all at once."

Naturally, when it comes to touring solo artists have it the easiest. Moon, Malone and Martin only occasionally bring a full band along. "It's a matter of economics as well as personal dynamics," Martin maintains. "Traveling in a van with five other guys can challenge your patience." To cut costs, Malone, who toured eight times across the country in three years, established a network of musicians he hires in each city. "That way," he says, "I only have to pay them for the gig."

Expenses on the road
If you're a real band, expenses become a concern. Tina Broad, Bother's manager, relates that their merchandise table is a critical part of their financial success. "If we didn't have product to sell we couldn't do it. Our merchandise sales (CDs and goods) have a dramatic impact on our ability to tour. Traditionally, we make 2 to 3 times more from our merchandise than we do from tour guarantees or ticket sales." Broad also advises bands to take a serious look at their hospitality riders. "Include things that you need (towels, water, food, backline, etc) so that you have fewer things to deal with, and insist on a 50% deposit so that you're not shouldering all the cash flow until the performance check clears."

Your bank
Touring, recordings, and merchandise obviously require money, and artists should be ready to dip into their own pockets. Sweeney contends that if artists aren't willing to invest in themselves, he questions how serious they are about a career. "However, if resources are severely limited, you just have to start smaller and think smarter," he says. "Find a sponsor to help with costs. Play free shows for them and put their name on your CD. " Moon suggests doing your own artwork or finding a friend who's talented. In fact, every independent artist who is successful uses a network of resources to help them defray costs.

Some, such as Skywind, a Minneapolis band who tours over 100 days a year and plays before 1000 or more fans, got their family and friends to loan them seed money. Bill Berry, their manager, indicates, "Everyone got paid back in just over a year. And since then," he relates, "We've been able to pick up sponsorships and lines of credit." Each band member contributes to pay off loans and, by doing this; Skywind has been able buy a van and tour three states.

The bottom line is that you're going to need a budget, so that you know what you can do. Indeed, Brother's manager, Broad advises artists to be realistic about costs. "If you don't know what your real expenses are," she informs, " you're going to be operating in a vacuum."

Art meets commerce
If you want to be an independent artist who's self-sufficient, don't deceive yourself: you are in business, and there are two parts to business - the legal side and the practical side. Legally, you must protect your interests and follow the law. Everyone agrees that you should consult with counsel when setting things up. You may need a band contract, a business license, and an assortment of other things that make you a legal entity.

On the practical side, keep accurate records of all your sales and income. Sweeney informs us that you can simply pay the tax on your sales, to obtain a verifiable record. These figures are all important if you hope to convince anyone - including a label, a distributor or a lender - to work with you. Indeed, Broad says it still makes her guts churn to think that Brother neglected to register the sales from their 2001 Summer Tour. "That was 15,000 unverifiable sales," she sighs. "We've got manufacturing records, but it's not the same."

Marketing & Music Promotions
Mann contends that marketing and promotion is always a challenge, whether you're on a label or not. "It was my biggest cause for concern with every record deal I had," she reports. "At least, now, I have the freedom and control to do it the way I want." But, when you're independent, you have to think outside the box. You cannot compete with the majors, so you have to do things differently.

McKeon points out, "All independent promotions must revolve around live gigs. That has to be your focus because it's your moneymaker. After booking gigs, you can contact press, radio and retail." Of all of them, radio is usually the most difficult, but persistence pays off.

Skywind's Berry relates that they maintained a two-year relationship with a local station before their songs were played. "We bought advertising time late at night because it's cheaper and played radio events for free. After they got to know us, they put our songs in rotation." Sweeney suggests attending station concerts and handing out free CDs. "It gets your music to their audience," he says.

Artists should also learn to cooperate with each other. Sweeney advises, "Artists should work towards a common goal, book shows together, share expenses and even buy commercial time on cable TV. Cable companies will sell 30-60 seconds for less than $100 and you can promote your act on MTV. If you run a few commercials a week before your show, you'll see tremendous results."

The distribution monster
Distribution is one of the biggest issues facing all independent artists. You need to stock your CDs wherever you play, but getting distribution isn't easy. For some artists, consignments may be the way to go. Many record stores will accept your CDs on spec and if they sell, will order more. "You might start with only 10-20 in a store, but if they move the orders will increase," Martin explains. "The only problem with consignment is that you have to keep on top of it on a regular basis."

Other artists, like Nashville songwriter, Hal Bynum, have found alternative markets. He reveals, "I've been a songwriter for 50 years, and it's still not easy to get distribution." So, Bynum created a unique package - a book and CD - that Barnes & Noble will carry. "I agreed to make in-store appearances and they agreed to promote me."

Start an organization or join one
Some artists set up their own organization. With the help of her New York manager, Michael Hausman, Aimee Mann founded "United Musicians," a sort of cooperative for artists. Hausman explains, "We found that distributors don't like to work with a single artist. They want product every few months, so we set up United Musicians for other artists who may be in the same boat. R.E.D. agreed to distribute our records and we're sharing our contacts with artists."

If you're not quite to that stage yet, there are services to meet your needs. The independent network is full of companies that cater to independent artists, and one of the newest and most intriguing is 101 Distribution. Damon Evans, 101's executive director, describes his company as an alternative solution to traditional distribution. "We service over 2100 retail stores across the country and into Europe." Essentially, 101 take the work out of consignments. They give stores product on consignment, collect revenue and pay artists every 30 days. Their split with artists is generous (70-80% of wholesale) and they will handle promotions and marketing, unlike other distributors.

The ultimate reward
Of course, for some, whose music may not be mainstream, independence is their only choice; while for others it's by design. But, regardless of whether you're a maverick or an act still seeking a record deal, the same rules apply. If you want success, you have to work for it. While DIY may be a lot of work, it can be very rewarding. "It is time consuming and takes a lot of patience but," Gilli Moon concludes, " there's nothing quite like having control over your own destiny. You can be as big or as small as you want and go at your own pace."

Bernard Baur is the Review Editor & Feature Writer for Music Connection Magazine. Contact:, Tel: 818-755-0101 Ext.519

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