The question these days for musical performing artists seems to be whether it is better to do it yourself ("DIY") or sign with a major record company. The answer is: it depends.
It used to be, back in the 1970s, '80s, '90s and even into the start of the new millennium, that the major record companies had talent scouts scouring the country and searching the clubs for talent. There were layers of A&R staff at major labels (A&R stands for “artist and repertoire”) who were often producers that would take artists into studios and make recordings. That way a record label could find out what an artist might sound like on record before proceeding further. The A&R staff would also review songs from publishers and songwriters to choose “hits” for the artists already signed to the label to record. Sometimes artist managers and lawyers would pitch talent to the A&R personnel, a process which was commonly referred to as “shopping” an artist to a label. For the most part, those days are done.
These days the A&R staff could more accurately be referred to as R&D (research and development). They no longer need to scour the clubs or take demos shopped to them by managers and lawyers. Artists can make state of the art recordings in their homes and distribute it digitally with the push of a button. The labels can search the internet and websites like TikTok and YouTube to see what artists are garnering interest from the public. These days, a new artist's mission is more about creating a “buzz” with an online presence and doing live shows to build a fan following. The record companies are interested in analyzing data before they take an interest in investing time and money in a project.
The major labels are now less about finding and developing raw talent and more about marketing and promoting the artists that have developed themselves and built the widest public appeal. Rather than bring new artists into the studio to work with them, the labels tend to find artists that are already performing live and drawing crowds, and already have at least some recordings commercially released and available online. Since an artist can create good quality recordings in a home studio, and easily upload music for commercial release through any number of online distributors, any artist can make music and get it out to the public without the need for a major record label’s assistance. The labels actually want the DIY artist to develop its sound and test market itself. When there is interest from the public, voluminous hits on an artist’s website or YouTube video, substantial sales of the artist’s music, and long lines at the live shows, then the major labels start sniffing around. The contractual downside of signing with a major record company is that in most cases their contracts assign ownership of your copyrights to the company in exchange for funding (an advance and a promise of royalties); the DIY artist can retain ownership of its copyrights and then use and exploit them to generate income.
On the up side, as an independent artist these days you can make and distribute your own recordings online through the digital streaming services and promote the music through social media and with live performances - and keep 100% of the copyrights and 100% of the profits. In the "good old days" an artist needed a record company to fund the recordings in state-of-the-art recording studios and then print, warehouse and ship the physical records to brick and mortar stores. Before Spotify, AppleMusic and other digital streaming services, radio was the only gateway to the public, and you needed a record company to market and promote the music to radio. You no longer need to go that route. You can do it yourself if you prefer.
If the DIY route is not for you, then you still need to do some legwork to get the attention of a major record company. What you, as an artist, need to do, first and foremost, is work on your art. That can be a combination of writing great songs, making great recordings, making interesting videos and creating a great live show – any and all of those things. You need to build your websites and develop your social media in order to link your fans to your work so that the public can hear your music and see your performances. An artist needs to create a “buzz”, create excitement and interest for what the artist is doing creatively. Some artists do it with a killer song and others do it with an interesting video. You need to create something unique and interesting that the public just cannot resist. It is not easy. It takes hard work and perseverance – and requires a little luck to get attention. However, if the alternative is to give up and go work in a grocery store or some other day job, then you might as well hone your craft and give it all you have to try to create something that demands that people pay attention. Then, if you want, you will get signed to a major record company that will, hopefully, help fund your expanding efforts and spread your artistry to a broader audience around the world.
Wallace Collins is an entertainment lawyer handling contract negotiation and general copyright and trademark law matters in the music, film, television, book, fine arts and technology areas. He was a songwriter and recording artist for Epic Records before graduating from Fordham Law School. T: (212) 661-3656; www.wallacecollins.com