Category: Independent Music

Sustainable Streaming- How Indpedendent Artists Can Actually Get Paid

By NationWide Source Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Sustainable streaming.

Sounds like a dream world, right? A magical place where artists would get fairly compensated for their creations.

Almost everyone in the music industry will admit that the current way that streaming music is set up is unsustainable for artists, labels (both major and independent), and even for the streaming services themselves (Spotify has yet to make a profit).

Despite these flaws, streaming music has become the normal way we consume music.

There is no perfect fix for streaming but Sharkey Laguana, a musician and entrepreneur, is trying to start a royalty revolution. We recently read a blog he posted about a protest called Silent September, and we think he’s on to something great.

But before we look at how to change streaming royalties, we have to understand how they are currently paid.

The Big Pool vs. Subscriber Share

Currently, streaming royalties are given to rights holders based on their percentage of all the plays on a service. This means that even if you never listen to Justin Bieber, he is still getting a hefty percentage of the total royalties a streaming service makes because he pulls in more listeners than your average independent musician.

This is the Big Pool system. It works great if you are an artist on a major record label who is getting millions of plays.

It doesn’t work so well for indie artists. You might have a good-sized fan base who listens to your music on streaming services, but if you’re not getting a half million plays, you aren’t significantly affecting the Big Pool percentages.This is why streaming income for independent artists is so low.

This is where subscriber share comes in. Subscriber share simply means that royalty payments are based on how much each individual user listens to a particular artist. Though not currently used by most streaming services, it has the potential to more fairly distribute income across the music industry.

Spotify takes 70% of its profits and pays them out as royalties for artists. This means that if you are a premium subscriber at $10 per month, $7 out of the $10 you give to Spotify are going to musicians.This is not a bad or unfair percentage. The problem with streaming royalties comes from the ways these payments are given out in the current Big Pool system.

For example, in the Big Pool system,if I am a premium subscriber and never once listen to Nicki Minaj, she is still getting a hefty percentage of the money I pay to Spotify because she makes up a large percentage of plays on Spotify.

However, if streaming services moved to subscriber share, and I listened to Odeza 15% of the time and Nicki 0% of the time, Odeza gets $1.05 out of my $7, and Nicki Minaj gets none.

Of course,this doesn’t mean that major artists won’t get paid. They will still get the money from the millions of plays they are currently getting. If Nicki makes up 35% of what another premium user listens to, she will get $2.45 out of the total $7.

What subscriber share means is that all artists get compensated fairly for their music. In the subscriber share system, when a music fan consistently listens to an indie artist they love, that artist will get paid fairly for the amount of time users are spending listening to their music.

Spotify loses no money in this system, major labels don’t lose, and indies don’t lose.

Time for Streaming to Make The Switch

The main problem is implementation. Spotify is not going to completely overhaul their entire system if they don’t have a reason to. This is where Silent September comes in.

Spotify needs a push from major players in order to switch their infrastructure. (We’re looking at you, Taylor!) This means that the 3 major labels need to be on board. This means that independent musicians need to shake up the majors and get them to pay attention.

We need to shift the percentages.

The best way to shift the Big Pool percentages is to listen to truly independent artists on whatever platform you normally listen on. But it’s going to take a lot of plays.

So when you aren’t actively listening to music, simply turn down the volume, but keep the music playing (this is where the “silent” in Silent September comes from).

If enough people are playing independent artists in the background, we can shift the percentages and make the majors take notice.

Silent September

This September is a great time for this protest, because the 3 major labels’ contracts with Spotify expire in October of 2015. If we can make them take notice before they re-sign contracts, we can help be the catalyst for change.

Silent September is a simple way to help make a difference in the lives–and the wallets–of independent musicians.

The originator of Silent September, Sharkey Laguana, wrote a more in-depth article on Silent September, and exactly how streaming royalties work, which you can read here. If you have a few more questions, check out the FAQ here.

If you would like to participate in Silent September with us, we have created a playlist of completely independent musicians in our local area who deserve your support. We will be adding playlists regularly of great independent music, so be sure to subscribe to our Spotify account and follow us on Twitter to stay updated!

If you are an independent musician and would like to be featured on our playlist, you can tweet at us, or comment below!

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How to Get Started in the Music Business in 3 Simple Steps

By NationWide Source Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

In the music industry, there’s a saying that gets tossed around pretty often. Though there are different variations, the basic mantra is this:

“It’s called the music business for a reason.”

This is what the pros are saying when they toss that phrase around:

For recorded music to reach a listener, 98% of the time, some kind of business transaction was involved. For every beautiful song, for every masterful lyric, there was a person doing business behind the scenes making things happen.

Lets put it this way- if you want an electric guitar to be amplified, you have to plug it in. If you are only playing to a few people who are about 3 feet away from you, you might not need to use the amp. But if you want more people to hear what you’re doing, you have to plug that bad boy in and crank up the volume. Your music(the awesome creative stuff that comes out of your brain) is the guitar, and the business (the money, the marketing, the networking) is your amplifier.

Unfortunately, many independent musicians I meet are only plugging the guitar in halfway. Sure, they look like they’ve got everything right, but a guitar that’s only partially plugged in still isn’t going to make much noise.

So if you’re just getting started on the business side of “music business,” we’ve outlined the first three things you should do to plug in, power up the amp, and start your journey in the music industry.

Step 1- Be Professional

This may seem a little obvious, but the way you present yourself is important. You need to be professional in every different facet of your music career, but a good place to start is your web presence. This means creating a nice looking website with a custom domain, a simple electronic press kit (EPK), and making sure your social media profiles are up to date. To add an extra touch of professionalism, it’s also a good idea to choose a font or 2 and try to stick with those when you are making your website, EPK, and creating graphics for social profiles. Creating a website and EPK show industry professionals that you are willing to put some effort and energy into your music, and updated social media profiles will help your fans get to know you, and know where to find you and your music on the web.

You also want to invest a little time in the way you present yourself to people face to face. It might be a good idea to have a few business cards made up (after you’ve already decided on a website domain!) to give to other musicians and pros you might meet. You also need to decide if you’ll have merchandise to sell, and make sure your merch set-up is functional and visually pleasing. And as much as we hate it, go ahead and take a look at what you’re wearing. Whether you like it or not, many people’s first impression of you is going to come from what you’re wearing, especially when you’re onstage. So take an extra five minutes before your next gig and think about if what you’re wearing is a good visual interpretation of who you are, and what kind of music you play.

Step 2- Be Organized

If you want to be a part of the music business, you have to treat your music like a business! Most well run small businesses started with a plan that detailed a mission statement, legal  structure, and how daily business will be run. I’m not saying you have to have a complicated business plan. But there are two things you need to keep careful records of.


You need to know what you are spending money on, and what money is coming in. Not only will this make your taxes way easier at the end of year, (yes, you do have to pay taxes on the income you earn from music!) but it will let you know how your business is doing. If you make a profit for six months, and then the next three months you are losing money, you need to find out why, and detailed records will help you with this. You can use a spreadsheet (like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets) or a more complex accounting program like Quickbooks.


It’s also vital that you keep track of your contacts. You need to know who you’ve talked to, when you talked to them, and what you talked about. This helps you define and expand your network. You can easily create a spread sheet, or a word processing document to keep track of these things. I recommend Google Docs, since you can access it from anywhere as long as you have a Gmail account. This is the place to keep the phone number of the graphic designer you met in line at the grocery store, and the email of the booking agent of that festival you want to play. A database like this will help you to know when to get in touch with people, send a follow up email, and if you need to send any extra materials to them (maybe a demo or a press kit).

Step 3- Be Proactive

Great music and great business ideas don’t mean much if you don’t put action behind them. To borrow from our earlier analogy, you need to turn the volume up on that amp! Just like practicing your instrument takes time, energy, and commitment, the business side of your music does too. Start out by devoting a few hours a week to your business. Spend some time marketing and creating content for fans, or work on getting your music placed in some licensing opportunities. Opportunities in the music industry come to musicians who are looking for opportunities. Don’t just sit around and hope you’ll get discovered. Go to some local shows in your area and meet other musicians. Play as many open mics as you can. Do some research on ways to grow your career (like reading the blogs on this website!).

Most importantly: perform, and do it well. Playing your music live is the best way to get new fans, cement relationships with current fans, and meet other musicians and industry professionals. Putting on a great live show also gives you legitimacy as a musician.  This means lots of practice time making sure your music is absolutely killer before you get in front of an audience. The relationships you form at shows, and the reputation you will gain by playing awesome shows, are major factors in propelling you to the next level of your music career.

Beginning the journey of turning your music from a hobby into a business can be intimidating,  but it doesn’t have to be. Putting these three steps into practice can help you put your best foot forward, and begin that journey in the right direction.
Have any tips to artists just starting out, or any advice on beginning a career in the music industry? Let us know in the comments!

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Apple Music: A Review for Musicians

By NationWide Source Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Yesterday Apple released the latest iOS update that included Apple Music. This buzzed-about service officially puts Apple into the world of streaming along with Spotify, and Rdio. The update also includes a heavy emphasis on radio-both traditional live radio and custom stations based on user’s choices.

This launch is a big deal to musicians. Will Apple Music be able to make streaming a viable part of a musician’s income? Will its paid-only service be able to attract enough fans to make a difference?

The most important thing that we need to know right now, as a community of artists, is if Apple Music is actually going to appeal to the masses. Music fans are what keep artists going, and if any streaming service is going to work, it has to be backed by fans.

Does Apple Music Meet Fan Needs?

This release has garnered mixed reviews, but the general view is that Apple Music is powerful, but is busy and hard to navigate. There are great features, such as Siri’s ability to control the app and find specific music for you without ever pushing a button. The app also seamlessly integrates with your current iTunes library. If a fan wasn’t already a convert to streaming music, this app makes it incredibly easy for them to make the switch.

These things are great features, but they are somewhat overshadowed by the sheer volume of content in the app. It’s slightly confusing to navigate between the different tabs, and each tab seems to have about a million options. However, these slightly confusing problems are not deal breakers, though they limit the app’s usefulness.

If fans were hoping that Connect would bring them closer to their favorite artists, they were probably a little disappointed today. The Connect tab is pretty bare. This could change as artists invest some time into uploading content, but so far, Connect is fairly disappointing.

Apple Music for Artists

So what should artists do in the wake of this massive and highly publicized launch?

Use All Streaming Services Wisely

We’ve talked about it before, but streaming services shouldn’t be the main way you get fans to listen to your music. When used well, streaming can be an effective tool for marketing your music. However, with the current way that streaming pays artists, you shouldn’t count on it as a major income stream. Instead, leverage the people who find you and follow you on streaming services and try to take them from casual listeners to real fans.

Use Connect to Actually Connect

Apple touts Connect as a place for artists to post exclusive content to fans. This is great in theory, except that there is no way to monetize this content, and there is no way for artists to capture fan information. The word exclusive is also misleading, since anyone can log onto Connect (you don’t have to have a subscription to Apple Music), and you can post the same content on Connect that you post to any number of social media sites.

But Connect does give fans a way to look at your profile while their streaming your music. Connect has the potential to let fans and artists interact directly in the service they use to purchase music, and this is a good thing. You’ve gotten a fan’s attention, and you can use Connect to post content that will encourage them to engage with you further. You should use Connect like any other social media outlet. You can direct fans to your website, post about shows or new releases, or let them know where they can sign up for your mailing list!

I will insert a disclaimer into this: Remember when I told you I had a problem with Apple Music allowing me to claim my Connect profile? As of July 1st, this is still a problem. My music is available on Apple Music’s streaming service, but I can’t log into Connect to post to any potential fans. My account is still awaiting verification.

Apple should probably also be worried that artists just won’t post on Connect. This was Apple’s problem with the failed music social network Ping. Since the content that artists are posting to Connect is probably not different than what musicians are already offering on Facebook, Twitter, and Soundcloud, artists have to decide whether the extra time spent updating another social media profile is really worth it. Connect also doesn’t work from a desktop computer. It is only accessible through the iPhone and iPad app. This limits the service’s functionality, especially if you like to do most of your social media posting from a computer.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the fans. If the users of Apple Music love the service, and it becomes the go-to place for people to listen to their favorite music, than the creators will have to follow, or be left in the dust. (remember Myspace?)

We will keep you updated as we learn more details about how much Apple music is actually going to pay artists, and if Connect actually works to keep musicians and fans, well, connected.

Do you have any thoughts on Apple Music? Do you this this is going to drastically alter the way fans consume music? Let us know it the comments!

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Apple Music and Why Taylor Swift is Your New Best Friend

By NationWide Source Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

If you are an independent musician, this weekend Taylor Swift became your new best friend. Whether you like her music or not,  you should be thanking T-Swift.

Here’s some background info:

This month Apple announced the launch of Apple Music. You can read more about the launch here.

Apple’s streaming service will require a paid subscription (no freemium like Spotify) after a 90-day free trial. About a week after the announcement was made, a contract leaked that stated that Apple Music was not going to compensate rights owners during the three month free trial.

This put the entire industry on edge, and for good reason. Three months with no revenue is never something a business owner wants to hear.

While the music industry was trying to decide what to do with Apple’s decision, Taylor Swift stepped in.

She famously pulled all her music from Spotify last year, stating that she was not okay with people listening to her music for free. And she took the same position with Apple.

Swift announced that her newest album, 1989, would not be available on Apple Music during the free trial period. In her open letter to Apple she said “We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

Swift also declared that this was not a selfish move. She says “This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows.” She goes on to say that she is speaking up for the artists, songwriters, and producers who rely on this income to make ends meet. Swift asked Apple to change their policy, stating that the tech giant has enough money to pay musicians during the free trial, even if the fans aren’t paying.

Luckily for musicians everywhere, Apple listened.

Senior executive for Apple, Eddy Cue, announced over Twitter that Apple heard Taylor and independent musicians, and they will change their policy so that rights holders will be compensated during the free trial.

This is a big victory for musicians and creators everywhere. And we have Taylor Swift to thank for that. She was the catalyst behind changing Apple’s mind.

Why Does This Matter to Independent Musicians?

Something independent musicians lack is organization. That’s the nature of being independent. We don’t report to anyone, there is no standard network we all belong to. This is a great thing because it means that musicians are free to create whatever they want, with no fear of being told what to do by a label or other third party.

But this lack of organization is devastating when it comes to effecting major change in the industry. As individuals, we have no real way to influence government policy, and no power to affect decisions that are made by big businesses.

But today, we found a voice. Taylor Swift has the fan base, the fame, the influence, and the sales record to make Apple take notice. And Taylor seems to genuinely care about the future of the music industry for everyone, not just major artists and labels.

While we can’t expect Taylor to fix everything, she just accomplished a great thing for the music industry as a whole. And independent musicians should be thanking her.

We should also be having conversations about sustainable streaming on a regular basis. People are getting used to the idea of paying a subscription for music, and as we look forward to a sustainable income model for musicians, we can use that to our advantage. Things may not look so great right now. But we are in the beginning of a whole new music industry, and good decisions— like Apple’s decision to pay artists—are helping us move in the right direction.

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Making It In Music: How to Define Success

By NationWide Source Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Have you ever gone to the grocery store and bought a whole trunk full of food, and realized when you got home that you have nothing to actually eat? You bought good food, but you can’t make a complete meal out of any of it.

Being an independent musician can feel like that sometimes. There are lots of choices, lots of decisions to be made, but in the end, what makes up a successful career?

Some people want Ramen noodles for dinner. Some people want steak and potatoes. Others may want lasagna. People have different tastes, and musicians are going to have different ideas about what being a truly “successful” artist looks like.

You have to decide what defines success for you.

Who Are You?

To determine where you want to go with your music, you need to find out who you are. Take a step back from yourself for a moment. As an artist, it can be difficult to separate yourself from your music, but in order to make some decisions, we need to take a bird’s eye view and create an objective analysis. Ask yourself these three questions:

What is my genre?

I know, this is a terrible question. You hate pigeonholing yourself. I understand. But practically, you need to have some idea of the genre of music you play, and the sub-genre you fit into.

Some genre decisions are easy. You may know without a doubt that you are a country artist. But where exactly do you fit in country? Are you Texas country? Nashville pop? Bro-country? If you’re a rock artist, are you punk?  Neo-grunge? You play folk? Does it lean more bluegrass or folk/rock?

There are hundreds of choices. You don’t have to stuff yourself into a tiny box. But having a good, descriptive genre can help you communicate with listeners, distributors, labels, venues….the list goes on and on. When you know yourself well, you can help other people get to know you. And you can make wise decisions about where you are headed.

Who is Successful in my genre?

There’s a good chance you’re already listening to artists whose music is similar to yours. Do some research on someone who you would consider successful in your genre. This might be someone like Carrie Underwood, Sufjan Stevens, Kendrick Lamar, Joywave, or Sara Bareilles. Knowing who is doing well in your genre can give you a good starting place as you try to determine your idea of success.

It will also help you be realistic about your aspirations. If there is a large audience for your genre of music, your definition of success might be broader than someone who has a more niche market. Country, pop and hip-hop artists at the top of their game regularly play arenas. A artist who makes meditation music probably won’t be playing in an arena, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t successful.

Having your dreams of a music career firmly planted in the solid ground of what’s actually possible will help you avoid major disappointments, and will give your career a foundation to stand on.

What do I want?

So you know who you are, you know what is possible, now what do you want?

This is going to look different for every person. We all have different dreams, goals, locations, resources, skills, and talents. Maybe your idea of success is as grand as playing sold out stadiums. Maybe it’s creating music full time and sharing your music regionally. Maybe it’s playing once a week at an open mic or being signed to a record label. All of these ideas of success are good goals to work towards.

Take a second to jot down what success looks like for you. It doesn’t have to be a long description, maybe it’s just a few key words. But go ahead, put it in writing.

Then put it somewhere you’re going to look at it. You might tape it to your mirror, or put it on the dashboard of your car. Remind yourself daily of what you want your career to look like.

Success in the music industry (or any industry) takes hard work, dedication, and action. When you know the direction you want to go in, you can begin to take the steps to get there.

Success in Stages

No success is overnight. If you look at the careers of many top level artists, you will see years of hard work behind current successes. If success is achieved too easily, it will disappear just as fast as it’s gained. You have to put in blood, sweat, and tears to reach career goals.

But what if your goal is miles ahead of where you are now? It might seem like an impossible task to get to where you want to be. To get to any level of success, it’s a good idea to have smaller goals leading up to the big one. This allows you to track your progress, and can keep you from getting discouraged.

Want to play in huge arenas? Start with shows in a coffee shop, or play some open mic nights. Once you feel comfortable there, and people are responding well, start trying to get shows at venues with a bigger capacity. Do you want to be a hit producer? Start analyzing songs and find out what makes them great, and ask a friend if you can arrange a song or two for them.

Small steps and manageable goals add up to create success.

Don’t Be Afraid to Evaluate

You also need to be able to look objectively at your idea of success and your goals. You need to know when they aren’t going to work. This is extremely difficult, but knowing when to back out of something that’s not working is just as important as moving forward when something goes well.

Sometimes, life just doesn’t work the way you want it to. You need to be able to step back—even when that’s the last thing we want to do—and objectively look at what’s going on. You may need to reevaluate your overarching career goals. You might just need to alter the way you are trying to achieve those goals.

I’m not saying you should give up.

What I am saying is that we live in the real world, not fantasy music land. Things aren’t always going to go exactly the way you want them to. Sometimes we are limited by circumstances beyond our control. That doesn’t mean you throw in the towel, it just means that you look for an alternate route. Detours are hardly ever pleasant, but a road is a road, and can still take you to your destination.

Being a successful musician is going to look different for everyone. Knowing your own personal idea of success is the first step in achieving your music industry goals.

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Hard Work Alone Won't Prevent Costly Mistakes

Hard Work Alone Won’t Prevent Costly Mistakes

By Rocky Athas Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

written by: legendary guitarist Rocky Athas

When I started my career as a guitarist, I was focused on being able to play guitar all day, every day, at every possible opportunity. I was young and excited to live the life of a musician (truth be told, I’m still excited about playing, writing, and recording music). I thought that if I worked hard, I’d make it, and everything would turn out okay. While I’m proud that I lived by that standard and worked my ass off, time has shown me that the theory is flawed. Yes, it’s incredibly important to build a solid foundation on hard work… but real success requires something more.

My years of hard work would have gone much further sooner if I had known a few things up front. When I was young, I knew little of how the business side of music really worked. I did not know what my rights were, and I trusted the people I worked with. Surely they had my best interest at heart…

My lack of awareness and naivety resulted in a number of headaches and heartaches. I’m not too proud to admit that I learned these lessons the hard way. I’m a bit wiser now.

What surprises me today is how much things have remained the same. Even though new tools and technologies are available to musicians, we still face many of the same challenges I faced years ago. Now, I want my fellow musicians to be able to turn their passion into a sustainable business (which happens to be my personal goal). I also know how big a difference real wisdom gained through experience could have made in my early career. So, I’ve decided to share some of my experience with you.

To all musicians—young and old, novices and pros, local legends and road-weary warriors, solo artists and band members, rock stars and country crooners and rappers and everyone in between: please, let my mess be a message to you.

Early Times were Good Times… Mostly

In the 80s, I was hired to play guitar with Black Oak Arkansas. For those unfamiliar with the group, BOA was one of the top 5 touring rock acts in the 70s. They earned three gold albums and sold close to five million records from 1972 to 1976. BOA’s frontman, Jim Dandy, was a huge influence on later acts (like Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth). Bands that are legendary today—like KISS, Bruce Springsteen, and Aerosmith—all opened for BOA. Given the band’s status, I was more than happy to be a member.

When I joined BOA, the group had an attorney that also acted as their manager. They had also signed a record deal with a label and had received a sizeable front, to be used for recording an album. Not one penny of that front money was disbursed to the musicians; it all went to studios, engineers, lawyers, and other professionals that the label hired.

As happy as I was to be in the band and to be recording, I was thrilled when they asked to use five of my songs for one of their albums. Songwriting was not part of my compensation agreement with the band, so I was entitled to receive royalties for my songwriting. I was very excited about this new opportunity.

Getting Paid is Not So Easy

Of course, getting paid for the songs would’ve been nice. That’s right. Even though five of my songs were recorded, I didn’t get any money. Not for writing the songs, not when they were played, not when they were recorded, and not when the albums were sold. No royalties whatsoever.

Now, to the band and the record label’s credit, it wasn’t their fault that I wasn’t paid. As unbelievable as it may sound now, BOA had trusted everything to the manager/attorney that had been hired to handle the band’s business, and we focused on making and recording music. After all, it made perfect sense to think that a manager who was also an entertainment attorney would do a great job representing us as the musicians of BOA. The rub came because the manager was also our attorney, which created a conflict of interest. A good attorney is focused on the best outcome for the people they represent. When that same attorney represents himself as the manager of the band as well as the personal interests of the musicians in the band, it creates a problem.

At the time, none of us understood the conflict of interest that had been created by allowing our manager to also represent us as our attorney. After all, we were famous because of our music, not our business degrees.

Lesson learned: never allow your manager to also be your attorney.

One of the business aspects handled by this manager/attorney was the distribution of income from mechanical and royalties payments; these came from the record label and were to be distributed to the songwriters. And… well, he handled it, wholly and completely. If we asked about payments owed to us we were told “all the money was used to offset expenses”, that nothing was left for us. However, we were never told what or how much those expenses were, and we were never given statements to review and reconcile. In retrospect, I now realize that if our manager had not also been our attorney, we could have gotten to the bottom of this problem.

My patience began to wear thin. I was all about creating music and performing, but I found it difficult to focus on the music I loved. Was I getting screwed by the very people I trusted? All I needed was a little cooperation and clarity, but after a number of failed attempts to resolve the problem, I became even more frustrated. It appeared that our manager/attorney was not able to provide the information that I needed to see. Details showing how the money was spent and what royalties were paid were not available to me.

Very frustrated, I decided to leave the band.

It Just Gets Better

Sadly, the story doesn’t end there. A few years later, I was out shopping with my wife, killing time while she did her thing. I was perusing the many CDs offered in this huge retail chain store when I saw a brand new release—a greatest hits album for BOA. Curious, I turned it over and looked at the track list and credits. Sure enough, two of the songs that I had written were on this new album… and I had NO idea! Again, my songs had been used without compensation, and this time they didn’t even bother to tell me about the release!

As you can imagine, this discovery really ticked me off. Instead of walking away like I had before, I hired my own lawyer to find out where my royalty payments were and who was holding them up.

It turns out that the record label had paid my royalties all along… straight to the BOA manager/attorney, just as I had suspected. These were the royalties that were supposed to be disbursed to the songwriters. That was, after all, how our contract had been written. So my new lawyer went after the band’s old manager/lawyer, trying to get my royalties back for me. Sounds easy enough… except the old lawyer had died a year or two earlier, and everything was tied up in probate.

After spending a good chunk of money to find and recover my royalties, my new lawyer told me this: it would likely cost more money in legal fees to sort through the probate mess than I was actually owed. Of course, we had no way of knowing how much I was owed unless we pursued the matter further. So, did I spend more money to recover an unknown amount… or did I let it go?

I let it go.

This means that the only people making money on those five songs were the manager/lawyer (and whoever inherits any fortune he might have left behind)… not the band and not the songwriters (including myself).

Lessons Learned

There are several morals to this sad and embarrassing story.

First and foremost:  Be careful who you trust, and only trust what you can verify, and never use your attorney as anything but your attorney.

Second: You’re never too big to be swindled, misled, or mismanaged.

Third: Take responsibility. I am ultimately responsible for the situation I was in. I signed a contract I couldn’t verify and I was forced to trust those I was working with—this led to lost opportunities and an unknown amount of lost income.

To this day, I do not know how much money I lost to the pocket of that lawyer, and I’ll probably never know. It was an expensive mistake, but it hasn’t been a complete loss. I’ve learned that my music career is really MY business, and that no one but myself is responsible for it.

In light of that, I’ve worked hard to educate myself on aspects of the business that I have ignored in the past. Going forward, I won’t make the same mistakes. And I never sign anything that I don’t fully understand. You cannot expect others to do the difficult stuff for you if I you are unwilling to do it for yourself.

My hope in writing this article is that you don’t have to learn these painful lessons firsthand. So, listen up. Be smarter than I was. Don’t blindly let someone else handle things—royalties, sales, anything—for you. Pay as much attention to the business side of your career as you do to making and playing music. Don’t let your hard work—your writing, playing, and recording—be for nothing. Hard work is very important, but being involved and caring about the mundane details of your own career in crucial.

Want to know more about me? Check out my new album or biography or find me at a show near you. I’d love to meet you!

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Making It Without a Record Label

Making It Without a Record Label

By Rocky Athas Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

written by: legendary guitarist Rocky Athas

I’ve been playing my guitar professionally for over thirty years. In that time, I’ve played or toured with a number of notable artists and bands, including: Al Green, Van Morrison, Foreigner, Peter Frampton, The Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Buddy Miles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mick Taylor of The Rolling Stones, Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, Kansas, Black Oak Arkansas, Joe Bonamassa, Three Dog Night, Cheaptrick, The Cars, Joe Walsh, .38 Special, Bo Diddley, Steppenwolf, Steve Miller, Gregg Allman, John Mayall, and B.B. King.

Needless to say, I’ve got some incredible stories; I’ve also gained a good bit of insight. I’d like to share a little of that here, especially since I hear about talented musicians struggling to “make it” in the new world of music we live in today.

Making It—The Long and Bumpy Road

When I first started my music career, I spent all of my time developing my craft, developing my technique, and writing songs. I also played every gig imaginable—thanks to a club owner who “wanted to try something new” and my well-intentioned manager, this included a week-long surprise stint competing with exotic dancers for the audience’s attention. Like I said, every gig imaginable.


There were definitely bumps in the road, and there were days when the struggle to convert my passion into a financially viable career seemed impossible to overcome. Despite the bumps, I persevered. Giving up wasn’t an option for me. Music was my passion, and I knew I’d never be happy with another career. All I wanted was to be able to pay my bills by doing what I loved: playing my guitar.

In the dark days, hope and passion kept me afloat, and perseverance moved me along. Fortunately, my hard work and perseverance began to pay off. I was playing my guitar and paying my bills; as a bonus, I was having fun doing it! I loved the music, loved the people I played with, and loved performing. Looking back, life was good. At this point, I should have felt like a success, but I didn’t. In my mind, something was still lacking.

At the time, the musicians I considered successful were those who had been signed to labels. They were releasing records and touring on a label’s dime, not their own. Talented musicians and bands were offered recording contracts. If you weren’t with a label, it was because you weren’t good enough.

Needless to say, that’s how I defined success. That’s how every musician I knew defined success. That’s what I needed to feel like I had “made it”.

After years of hard work, a day came where a label whispered in my ear the sweet nothings musicians dream of hearing: “We’ll put out your brilliant albums.” “You’ll be in stores everywhere.” “We’ll send you on tour!” The promises kept coming, and I was sold. I quickly signed their paperwork. I finally felt like I’d made it!

Almost Paradise

For a while, things were great. The label footed the bill for just about everything up front. They handled all the scheduling, ordering, distribution, and marketing. I was playing great gigs, releasing new albums, and going on tours. Again, I loved the music, loved the people I played with, and loved performing. I felt like a success.

But… life with a label wasn’t quite what I dreamed.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been in various bands as well as on my own, and I’ve worked with a few different labels. To be fair, each of them had their strengths and their shortcomings. The fact that I had to deal with the shortcomings surprised me, even though I knew other musicians who were in the same boat.

While with a label, I was so far removed from manufacturing, distribution, and marketing decisions that I barely knew what decisions were being made, let alone had any input on those decisions. I’ve had labels tell me what music I could release and when I could release it. I had to work the way they wanted me to work or not at all. And, to top it all off, I almost lost all of my rights to the music I had created.

I’ve been with labels that had absolute control over my bookings, which sounds nice until they stop booking shows and don’t respond to phone calls. Scheduling shows or releasing music on my own would have caused a breach of contract and even more of a mess. If getting the label to respond about releases or bookings was hard, getting accurate sales records from them was even harder… which made verifying or fighting their claims that I owed them money nearly impossible.

As worrisome as these issues were, I dismissed the nagging thoughts and kept playing. I told myself that, since I was signed with a label, I’d made it. I’d be okay. After all, I wasn’t the only one going through it; my fellow musicians were in the same boat. That’s just how it was; there wasn’t another way… Right?

Redefining Success

One day while on tour, I met a musician whose spectacular guitar playing blew me away. Thoroughly impressed by his talent, I asked him which label he was with. His response was not what I expected.

He wasn’t with a label, and he did not want to be signed.

It turned that he had rejected every label offer that came his way since starting his solo career. He wanted to be independent. His philosophy was simple: you don’t need a record label to have people to enjoy your music.


This was different than anything I’d heard musicians say before. I’d always associated talented, successful musicians with labels. Yet, this guy, with all the talent in the world, was happy to be independent, and he was doing well. Really, really well. The guy had millions of fans across the world (currently millions on one social network alone). He spent his time writing the music he wanted, recording and releasing it when and where he wanted, and touring the world to play it for his fans. He was personally involved in all aspects of his career, from writing the music to selling his merchandise directly on his website. Yes, he had help, but he was involved and in charge.

All of his involvement and work paid off. Without a label controlling what he did, he was free to take his career any direction he wanted, and he had the knowledge and network to make it happen. And, without a label to take its cut of his profits, he actually made a good living doing what he loved; there was no scraping by or making ends meet. In short, he’d really made it.

And how was I doing after signing with my label? Not so well.

So, shortly after meeting a musician who was thriving out on his own, I decided to walk away from my label.


Walking away from my label has been a bit of a struggle. I’ve had to step up and do things myself that, for years, were done for me, often without me even considering what was going on. When I start to feel overwhelmed by all there is to do, I remind myself of my talented friend’s example—he had achieved success without a label, and so could I.

Since leaving my label, I’ve started recording new music. This means finding the studio and producer, scheduling the time, making travel arrangements, and footing the bill myself. I’ve built up a nice network of contacts over the years, and I enjoy getting to choose exactly who will be involved on my projects.

In terms of booking shows, I’ve been blessed with some incredible opportunities, and my show schedule is pretty full… but not so full that I have no time to write and record. That full schedule has led to some wonderful publicity and interviews, which is great as long as you do something with it; so, I’ve had to learn a bit about PR. I’ve also had to find and hire photographers, graphic designers, and videographers to create product packaging, promotional materials, and music videos.

I’ve had to find manufacturers, order my merchandise, and figure out where to sell it. Very few retail stores still sell music on site, and even then they tend to promote only the biggest names and the hottest new acts. Many online retailers either won’t take you without a label or distributor (who happily takes a large cut), or expect to get a large cut of the proceeds themselves, or both. After years of only getting a tiny cut of the profits from my work, those options weren’t very appealing. So I focused on selling music in person at shows, and that’s gone very well so far.

Speaking of “online”, the internet wasn’t even an option when I first started playing music. There weren’t websites, online retailers, social networks, or streaming services. It’s an entirely new way of thinking for this seasoned musician… but it’s something I’ve had to tackle.

I had to create, manage, and update a website; fortunately, this also gave me the option of selling my music on my own website (in addition to live shows) and retaining all of the profits. No longer was I giving up large chunks of the income that my music produced. Another big plus for me is making a real connection with my fans; when they purchase my music online, I actually know who they are. When I have sold music in the past, I was often not told who purchased it; the retailer kept that information from me. It is very difficult to create a lasting relationship with a fan if you do not know who they are or how to contact them!

I have also created various social media profiles to connect with my fans, and I regularly update them with new content (often linking back to my site for the full post or video). And I’m working to convert those fans from likes and followers on social networks to full fledged relationships with complete contact information on my own site. I can think of many artists that struggle to communicate effectively with fans on social media sites; their posts are just another blurb scrolling past the fan’s homepage, often going unnoticed. Since these fans represent my best opportunity to sell new releases and attend my shows, I am very interested in connecting with them.


I’ve definitely had some help along the way—friends and family, kind fans that want me to succeed, and hired pros who can do what I can’t—but I haven’t sat back and let others do for me, without me. I’ve been in the trenches right along with them, watching and learning and then doing it for myself as much as possible. It’s been overwhelming at times, but I persevered, just like I did when I first started playing.

The good news? It’s starting to pay off. I’m writing and recording the music I want, playing with phenomenal musicians, and performing to wonderful crowds of fans. I’m connecting with those fans online and at shows. I’m selling my merchandise. I’m able to pay my bills by doing what I love: playing my guitar.

I’m starting to feel like a success.

Why Am I Telling You This?

I know how I defined success years ago. Having traveled that path and now traveling the one I’m on, I humbly admit that I was wrong. I wish I knew then what I know now, but I can’t change my past.

I can, however, help others avoid the mistakes I made.

Every day I hear talented musicians pining for a record deal—from up-and-coming young artists to old pros who have been burned by labels before. I see their hunger for that definition of success; I hear it in conversations with them, in their posts online, even on those reality TV shows. Yes, record labels can do a lot, and you might be able to sign better contracts than I did. You might be savvier than I was.

But, you might not need a record label, and you might be better off without one.

Today is the best time in the history for making music as an independent artist. There are so many tools available that simply didn’t exist before. Moreover, it’s truly fun to be an independent musician, evolving without any strings to tie you down and hold you back. Yes, there’s a lot of work involved. But for me, the hard work is so much more enjoyable knowing who and what I am working for!

Want to know more about me? Check out my new album or biography or find me at a show near you. I’d love to meet you!

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Are Tours the Right Choice for Your Band?

Are Tours the Right Choice for Your Band?

By NationWide Source Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

There are people who argue that bands shouldn’t tour. They cite the wonderful internet, the high price of gas, and better uses of time; they argue that you can build a fan base on social media, distribute your music on any number of websites, spend your “free time” rehearsing, and be A-OK.

I get what they’re saying and where they’re coming from. I’ll even concede that these efforts—social media, distribution, rehearsing—benefit bands.

BUT, I disagree with their argument. There are times that touring is the best move your band can make. It’s simply a matter of understanding what type of tour is right for your band, and why touring is important to begin with. The internet cannot replace a live event, and live events do a great job of creating fans who will actually purchase your music.

Different Types of Tours, and When to Choose Each

Now, choosing the right type of tour for your band can make the difference between a successful tour and a frustrating, expensive headache. Consider tackling the following types of tours in the order they are presented.

The Local Tour

The first type of tour you should tackle is the local tour. This means:

  • reaching out and playing every relevant venue in your area (say, within an hour or so of your home base),
  • booking steady gigs (ideally, several nights a week),
  • packing the house,
  • selling your merch until everyone has it,
  • mastering your set list and performance skills, and
  • gaining the attention of local media (bloggers, papers, radio stations).

If your band is starting out, you should focus on this type of tour.

Once you’ve mastered the local tour, you might feel like your local market has had its fill of you, and staying with those same venues and same crowds becomes less exciting and less profitable (since no one’s buying merch anymore) and feels more like you’re treading water. At this point, you have two options. The first option is to refresh your act: focus on creating and releasing new material to reenergize your fan base. This can do wonders for your fan base and for your own frame of mind.

The Regional Tour

If that isn’t enough, your second option is to plan a regional tour. This has a couple different formats.

You can use your local momentum to branch out to surrounding areas, maybe expanding your reach to venues within five hours of your home base. This needs to be done strategically, to keep from wasting your hard-earned money by driving back and forth. Ideally, you’d do a set of shows in one local area, then move on to the next area and do another set of shows there, and so on. Be sure you maximize each area you stop in.

The other format for a regional tour is picking a large market further away from your home base and playing the heck out of it. For example, if you’re an indie folk artist based in Philadelphia, you might look at booking a month-long tour of Texas. Since you’re traveling all that way, it makes sense to schedule sets of shows, perhaps playing several nights in Houston one week, then Austin and San Antonio for a week and a half, then Dallas/Fort Worth for a week and a half. It’s worth noting that this format of regional tour becomes more difficult with larger groups of people group. It’s a lot easier (and less expensive) to make arrangements for one or two people than it is for six or ten.

Regional tours are great for pulling your band out of its “local band” status and pushing it to the next level. They can also help you catch the eye of bigger media—influential music bloggers, or bigger radio networks, or music magazines.

The Cross-Country Tour

The next type of tour is the cross-country tour, and it’s probably the type that comes to everyone’s mind when they think of a band hitting the road. It’s also likely the type of tour that people say bands shouldn’t take. To be honest, it can be expensive, especially with larger groups, and the risk of losing money is greater. If your band isn’t at the right stage of its career, or if the tour is poorly planned or poorly marketed, it could be a mistake.

So, how do you know if you’re ready? If your band:

  • has mastered the local and regional tour and performing live,
  • is gaining attention on a national level after regional tours,
  • has connections with artists, venues, and media across the country,
  • regularly performs multiple shows a week to sold-out (or nearly sold-out) venues,
  • has merch stockpiled and ready to sell,
  • has new music ready to release and perform, and
  • has a ready resource of booking agents working for you,

then it might be a good time to plan a cross-country tour.

Cross-country tours do require some intense planning and networking. You’ll either need to utilize the tour-planning skills you developed from your local and regional tours plus all of your industry connections and your fan base, or you’ll need to bring someone on board to help plan it, or both.

We’ll get more in-depth on how to plan a tour in a future article. Now that you know the types of tours available and when they apply, we’ll address why touring, on any level, is important.

Why Touring Matters To Your Fans

It might be tempting to throw a swanky music video up on your website, retweet a fan or two, and sit back to strum your guitar, but, if that’s the extent of your willingness to connect with fans and get your music out there, you probably won’t go far. Retweeting your fans might give them a momentary thrill, but that thrill pales in comparison to what a good live performance can give them.

If you’ve been to a great concert before, you know what I’m talking about here. Great concerts are experiences. They leave fans with the permanent memory of standing in a room with dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of other fans watching a band perform, feeling the music vibrate through their body and the crowd, singing along to the chorus as the lead singer thrusts the mic out toward the audience, shaking hands with the band at the merch table, taking home a memento at the end of the night. A great concert is something you tell your friends and family about in the following days and weeks, something you relive with fellow attendees when you get together, something you tell your children about years down the line, something you close your eyes and relive anytime that band’s music comes on. Great live performances are something attendees carry with them for the rest of their lives.

For all their glory and convenience, the internet, distribution options (digital or physical), and social media can’t compete with great live performances. Since your fans can’t always travel to see you, it’s up to you to take the opportunity to them… whether that’s on a local tour at a venue 45 minutes away, or on a national tour to a city that’s a seven-hour flight away. Thus, the need for tours.

Why Touring Should Matter To You

Just like the internet, distribution options, and social media can’t live up to live performances for your fans, they can’t give you what live performances can. Yes, you might get a little rush from recording a song, releasing it to iTunes or SoundCloud, and watching the download or play count slowly tick up. Yes, it might be a source of income for you. Yes, you can interact with fans online. No, you shouldn’t abandon the internet, distribution, or social media altogether.

You also shouldn’t use these tools—that’s all they are, really—to replace actual interaction and performances.

First, rehearsing or recording in a studio—with multiple takes and all the mixing and mastering and scrubbing and perfecting—doesn’t give you the skills and experience that live performing does. There are no retakes in a live gig. You get it right or as close to perfect as you can on the first take. The crutch of being able to do something over again is gone; you either stand or fall. If your band is going to make it, this is one place where you prove that.

Live performances are also an ideal opportunity for your fans—the people on an adrenaline rush after a once-in-a-lifetime show—to buy your merch. If you wow them with your act, they’ll want something to remember it by, and they’ll be more than willing to support you (especially if you’re at the booth selling and signing merch). If you’re touring with new music (which you should be), there’s at least one product that they won’t already have. If they are new fans, odds are they won’t have much of your stuff at all. If you’re setting out on tour, regardless of the tour type, you should have merch with you; if you send people to your site, you lose that opportunity to make a sale. If you send them to third-party sites, you lose out on both opportunity and profits. In what universe does it make sense to tell eager supporters to wait or shop elsewhere?

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, touring gives you a connection to your fans. Live performances bring you face-to-face with fans. You meet the people who love and enjoy your music. You meet the people whose purchases put food on your table. You watch them from the stage, dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of fans standing in a room, swaying to your music, singing along. You watch them from the merch table, as they come up to shake your hand and buy a little piece of you to take home and cherish. That’s something that the internet and social media can’t replicate.

That’s why it’s important that your band gets up and gets out there—across town, across your region, across the country. That’s why you should care about touring.

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Getting Back to Your Indie Roots—How to Succeed by Looking to the Past

By NationWide Source Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Sometimes I allow the past to fade from my memory too quickly. With things changing so rapidly in the digital age of music, it’s easy to forget just how different things in the music business were just a short time ago. One of my mentors always told me that it’s hard to move forward into the future when you’re focused on the past and looking over your shoulder, and, for the most part, he was right.

But not in this case.

Looking Over Your Shoulder

In the 90s, if an independent artist wanted to “make it” as a musician or performer, they had to beat the street and perform in front of real live people. How else would anyone hear their music? Artists needed fans, and live performances created fans.

Since creating fans is no easy task, that hard work was just the beginning. They spent hours writing music, picking band members, rehearsing, recording, mastering, ordering discs, and spending money—all of this just to acquire fans.

Now, the fans themselves weren’t the goal. “Making it” was the goal. What did this mean? To most independent musicians, it meant financial sustainability, which itself might lead to fame and fortune, if you were one of the gifted and lucky few.

To many artists, “making it” also meant widespread recognition. Because earning that recognition through constant touring and performing was slow and required hard work, some artists also banked on radio play, sending countless CDs to radio stations in hopes of breaking into the on-air market. Sadly, most of those CDs ended up in the trash and were never played over the air. While artists had hoped radio play would be a short cut to success, it was often a short cut to disappointment and unnecessary expense. So, starving artists either quit or kept on gigging.

The Internet Promise

The 90s passed by, and the next decade offered a whole new opportunity to artists with the launch of music sites on the internet. When the internet came, it promised easy access to self promotion and fame for indie musicians. Artists became enamored with the idea of getting their music on every internet portal for music, starting with iTunes.

The conversation changed; no longer did a musician have to work gigs to gain fame and make it in the business or wait on radio stations to pick up their music. With an internet short-cut to success, everything was finally going to be great. Fame was now possible without traditional air-play. An independent artist did not have to rely on gigging to make it any longer.

Not so fast.

The internet did deliver a wide variety of options for promotion of music, but it came at a cost. Fame was possible now, but money, which had always accompanied fame in the past, did not follow. In the 90s, more exposure turned into more revenue for artists; now, more exposure can actually turn into less revenue for the artist.

This doesn’t seem to make any sense—more exposure equals less revenue? But fans at shows today might hesitate to purchase music, since it is readily available online for free. In some cases, it seems that the more popular an artist becomes, the less likely it is that they could sell their music. But what could the artists do?

The Internet Is Not The Problem

Artists in the 90s had to make their way by touring and playing gigs. It was accepted as a necessary prerequisite to success.

Scratch that. It wasn’t “a” prerequisite. Touring and gigging were the only options available to an indie artist hoping to make it in the 90s. There was no internet, with its alluring digital tools, to distract and mislead musicians from the task at hand.

Here’s how it worked: a few gigs turned into a few more gigs; those gigs turned into better gigs at bigger venues. Eventually, gigging turned into touring and playing concerts. If you were good and lucky, you might even get radio play. If you did it right, all of this effort created fans who spent their money on your music. 

It is exactly the same today.

Let me be clear about the internet age and what it allows artists to do with their music. The age of the internet has empowered musicians with countless digital tools to expose their music to potential fans. The only problem is that most of those digital tools do not generate any reasonable income. Therefore, the problem artists face today is exactly the same as, and yet completely different than, it was 20 years ago.

What Is The Problem?

The lack of income needed to sustain a career in music was a problem 20 years ago. It is still a problem today, and it’s actually getting worse. Surprisingly, the answer to the problem is also the same, but with a little twist.

In 1995, artists fought obscurity by gigging. As their fan base grew, people purchased music, and the artist began to make a living.

Due to the internet, obscurity is no longer a problem. This sounds like good news for musicians, but an internet fan base does not necessarily turn into music purchases. That is the significant difference between music today and music in the past.

Internet Fame Does Not Equal Income

The question most artists ask when starting a career in music is, “How do I get my music out there so people can hear it?” Unfortunately, this is not the right question.

(By the way, the answer is simple: load your music onto every streaming source you can find, and bam, you’ll have thousands of people listening in a short period of time!)

The right question to ask is, “How do I make a living as an artist?”

As odd as it may seem, the answer is the same today as it was 20 years ago. Gigging is a great way to create fans that will purchase your music and merch… as long as they can’t get it all online for free.

Four Things You Can Do

If you want to find success today as a performing artist, focus on the things you need to do that will create more local fans. Here are a few points to consider:

  1. Perform by gigging and touring as much as you can.
  2. Release new music often, and sell it on your merch table.
  3. Capture your fans’ information and communicate with them.
  4. Limit how much music you offer for free online.

Here’s my last piece of advice: keep looking over your shoulder for answers to today’s problems. It may seem counter-intuitive, but some things really don’t change, no matter how different they may seem. Do not become infatuated with internet fame unless you can turn it into income.

The key to indie musicians’ success is the same today as it was 20 years ago: Find fans that will purchase your music.

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Is A Record Label In Your Future? What You Need To Know Before Signing

Is a Record Label in Your Future? What You Need To Know Before Signing

By NationWide Source Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

An artist friend of mine likes to say, “If you choose to self promote your music, it’s probably because you aren’t good enough to get signed by a label.” This same artist has been signed by several labels over an extended music career… but he has nothing good to say about record labels. After two decades as a professional musician he has very little money to show for his career in music, doesn’t own the rights to a large portion of his own music (so, no royalties are coming in), and he still has to tour to make ends meet. He blames record labels and their practices for his situation. Such is the dilemma that musicians face.

Record Labels Poor Reputation – It’s Not All Deserved

Let’s face it. Record labels seem to have a bad reputation, and much of it is deserved. But you should not be too quick to lump them all into the same category. A large number of indie labels have emerged over the last several years and they have filled a real need for the indie artist. These smaller labels have successfully guided countless artists through the maze of the music business with great rewards.

On the other hand, countless artists have sounded off about their failed relationship with a record label, and, for the most part, these labels do not defend themselves. Why? Because they are behaving exactly as the artist describes; they really are doing all of the things that artists complain about. So, what is there to talk about? How can a record label defend themselves if all the negative comments are true?

Record labels tend to do exactly what their contract allows them to do. The rub comes because an artist doesn’t really understand the relationship before signing on the dotted line. The artist is agreeing to a contract that allows the record label to do what they do—and possibly own everything an artist creates—without really knowing what it all means. Specifically, the artist needs to know how the relationship will work, how much money the label is putting up, how that money will be spent, who is financially responsible for what, who approves marketing and production expenses, and which party owns the rights to what is produced.

Most of the time, record labels are not the devil. They’re simply businesses that are designed to make as much profit as possible. Artists, on the other hand, are usually the furthest thing from a profit-driven business. They are creative souls, not accountants. An artist who is also a great business person is a rarity… just like my doctor friends who are great physicians but, for the most part, terrible business people.

Why Sign with a Record Label?

So, why in the world would an artist sign with a record label? That’s easy: the artist wants the business experience the label has to help launch or grow their career. Artists need partners with vast experience, impressive connections, and lots of money to promote their music. A good label will help with everything from song selection to recording, booking, marketing, and distribution of their signed artist. When I say help, I really mean that the label may have complete control over these things.

After all, an artist is asking for help from the label, and no label is going to invest time and money into an artist without securing some control. The label wants to get paid back and make money. Big money, if possible. Most performers signed by a label do not pay off; they just lose money. Someone has to pay for the flops, and the only way to do that is get the highest possible rate of return on the performers that do succeed.

It may not seem fair, but a successful artist has to pay for other artists’ failures.

Think of it this way: Suppose you receive a mail order catalog. You didn’t request the catalog, but there it is, in your mail box. The company that sent out the catalog knows that 98 of 100 of those catalogs will be thrown in the trash—no purchase will be made. The two people out of 100 that do make a purchase have to pay for all of those catalogs that were thrown in the trash. It is called marketing expense. When the company prices its products, it adds enough profit to cover the expense of creating and mailing those catalogs that go in the trash. Otherwise the company would lose money and fail. Record labels are no different.

A good record label is selective about who they sign; the ratio of successful signings to failed signings is crucial to their success as a label. A label should know which artists it can help and which do not fit.

A smart artist is also selective about who they sign with. Why would an artist sign with a label that has a bad track record of signing successful artists? Make sure the label has prior success promoting artists who have a similar style to your own. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions, and don’t accept general statements. After you become convinced that the label is a good fit, do your homework and read the contract carefully. Have a professional look at it on your behalf. Make sure you know what you are signing up for.

Some artists really need a label to help them make crucial decisions about their career, not to mention the money to ensure a successful launch. Without that help, a talented artist may end up failing and giving up on a career in music. Most of the decisions the label makes will be focused on creating a long-term money-making success of the artist. Yes, a label is in it for the money, but there is nothing wrong with that. Let’s just make sure that the artist understands what that means.

My Friend Lionel

Lionel had a band back in the 70s, and they were a regional success. Great music with lots of exposure in good venues and a loyal fan base that was growing weekly. A local radio station approached Lionel and asked if he would like to hear his music played on the air; of course, Lionel was excited at the prospect and jumped at the chance to meet with the radio station executives. An agreement was reached quickly, and Lionel was on the air that same day.


It was not until years later, when Lionel went to record his hit song and self release a CD, that he discovered that he no longer owned the rights to his own music. The radio station owned his music. Finding this hard to believe, Lionel contacted the station to follow up. He was told that the station did in fact own the rights. The people he originally spoke to no longer worked for the station, but when he authorized the station to play his music on the air, Lionel had signed a document that gave away his rights. He hadn’t read the entire document. He didn’t realize he was giving up his rights. He thought it just granted the station the rights to play the music over the air. After all, that’s what the station execs he’d met with had told him.

Four Things You Must Do

1. Find a Good Fit. Check out the record label and make sure they can demonstrate past success with artists similar to you. Ask for documentation.

2. Get details. Labels have engaged in signing bands countless times, so I can promise you that record labels are much better at the signing process than artists are. Have the label outline a detailed plan for your launch and continued growth. Get them to explain why they think this partnership will work. What are they bringing to the table? What are you bringing? You should also understand how much control you will be giving up.

Ask who has control over expenditures, where are the funds for expenditures coming from, who owns the rights to the songs and recordings, how are marketing decisions made, and how much input you have on the decisions that are made. When does the contract expire and who has an option to renew? What rights does the label have after the contract expires? Most of all, require transparency and detailed reporting on all financial expenditures.

Do not be afraid to take your time, and don’t allow anyone to rush you. Don’t become infatuated with the idea of getting signed and quickly agree to whatever is offered.

3. Negotiate. Interview with at least two labels and compare what they have to say. If you’ve asked the right questions, you’ll be able to tell a good deal from a bad one. You’ll also be able to pick out bad terms and negotiate for better ones. A small indie label may be a better fit than a traditional industry giant, quite often smaller is more flexible with the terms of the contract and quicker to move on your project.

4. Get advice from an industry professional. Hire an entertainment attorney who has experience with labels and contracts. It would also be a good idea to talk directly to other artists that this label has signed in the past and get their feedback. Who better to tell you how the label has performed?

Remember Lionel. He signed a contract with the radio station much like artists sign today with record labels. If he had slowed down and taken the contract to an entertainment attorney to get an explanation of what he was signing, he would not have agreed to the deal. He trusted his gut and that was a big mistake. One additional day of negotiation and a little advice would have made all the difference for Lionel.

My friend no longer thinks that self promoted artists are going it alone only because they are not good enough to get signed by a label. For the first time in his career, he is doing his own promotions without the help of a label. Times have changed. A label is no longer necessary to succeed as a performer, but there are many pitfalls. Self promotion has it’s advantages, and it’s easier to accomplish today than it has ever been in the past, but don’t assume that going it alone is easy. On the other hand, record labels can create tremendous value… just make sure you know what you are agreeing to.

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