Lessons from Madonna and Ani DiFranco: What Indie Musicians Should Ask Record Labels (And Vice Versa)

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As a metal music journalist, I mostly review albums and interview people who are involved with either small independent labels or large extreme-music labels that, while they offer quite a substantial number of artists, are still considered outside the mainstream. I am always interested in the artists' perspectives on the music industry. For the most part, the people I talk to are pretty realistic about how much labels factor into their careers ... usually very little.

That's a big difference from when I was a teenager and thought the big-name bands I admired were rolling around in hundred-dollar bills every night. But with the decline of record sales, and record labels going belly-up, and the publicized complaints from artists about the lack of creative control they have with major labels, the rock 'n' roll dream that existed in the '70s and '80s has pretty much shriveled up and died.

In the past decade, independent record labels have become a more realistic pursuit for individual artists and bands. In terms of creative control, artists are able to produce the music that they want; for women musicians, the emphasis on image plays a slightly lesser role in their signing. The general public might still choose who they like based on an artist's gender or physical characteristics, but the artist has more control over what to present to the audience.

As I have mentioned before, I attended a number of really interesting panel discussions at the South by Southwest music festival (SXSW). During the "Labels of Love" session, panelists provided some sage advice as to what musicians -- especially alternative artists who are not interested in becoming the next pop artist -- should aim to do when looking for a deal.

Some artists, like folk singer Ani DiFranco, start their own label. Grammy winner DiFranco, who founded Righteous Babe Records in 1994, is probably the most successful independent artist. She has the best "success story" out there -- primarily because she chose to chart her own path before a number of other artists realized that major labels, despite their promises of money, didn't allow for the creative freedom they craved. Recently, the Dillinger Escape Plan, a popular (albeit underground) metal band, inked a deal to release their music through their own label, Party Smasher Inc. and inked a distribution deal through a mid-size French distribution metal label, Season of Mist.

In the panel, executives from the Matador, Kill Rock Stars and PPM Records / No Age labels discussed their arrangements with artists. They had some really great advice -- both for artists who want to start their own label, and for artists in search of an indie label:

1. Spend as little money as possible. If you're starting your own label, you do not have as much money as you think you do. While the passion to promote bands is key, you need to spend as little as you can; otherwise, you will quickly shut down your business. Do not spend a huge portion of your annual budget on a band that you think is going to be the next big thing. Always keep your eye on trying to accommodate your entire roster, instead of just one band that shows the greatest promise.

2. Don't expect your band to sell thousands of units with its debut. One of the label execs said that, on average, her most successful bands have only done well on their second or even third album. She said that basically, it comes down to intuition. If you truly believe that an artist or a band has the goods, you have to be patient. The chances that bands are going to come out of the gate and be successful are slim. The true, dedicated artists are those who are willing to pick themselves up and move forward, even though their debut might have sold poorly.

3. Ask questions. One of the panelists admitted that he had been so enamored with the members of a band -- they looked "the part," he personally loved their sound, and they seemed to have already solidified a fan base -- that he didn't see that the lead singer's drug use caused him to be erratic and unreliable, as in not showing up for performances. Essentially, he saw what he wanted to see, but didn't ask questions about their work ethic or how many shows they had done beforehand, and didn't notice personality quirks that deterred them from building a professional relationship. In the end, his company lost money because they had invested in people who were not ready to make the commitment to their label. He suggested that label heads and musicians ask about the business practices, and find out how knowledgeable people are about the music industry to gauge how they will be able to handle issues if they arise in the future.

4. Contracts. Most people have heard of Madonna and Jay Z's contracts with Live Nation. They were each offered the 360, in which the artist is given a lump sum and the label takes all the profits from their concerts, merchandise sales and endorsement deals. The panelists said that this is unrealistic. First, they argued, it is a crappy deal, because it limits the freedom of artists, especially those who are not interested in mainstream success. Second, a label will only offer an artist that deal if it were guaranteed to make the money back. Madonna is a guaranteed seller. So is Jay-Z. How many artists have that kind of success?

Instead, the label execs discussed ways to design contracts that benefit both the indie artist and the indie label owners.

1. Find out what the band really needs. What are their weak areas? Touring support? Help getting radio play? Money for merch? Money for recording? By finding out the strong areas, there is room for negotiation. Perhaps an artist is willing to pay for, sell and receive profits from the merch (T-shirts, buttons, stickers, CDs), so the label doesn't need to pay for its production. Perhaps the band has a fan base through extensive touring but needs some support for recording their album. No contract should be identical.

None of the panelists gave advances, stating that it was too much of a gamble and difficult to recoup the funds. One label head, an artist, created unique cover art for his bands via silk-screening, which made his label stand out from the others and made the products easier to market. It cost a bit more money, but it was a "hook" that helped it stand out out from other record labels and artists.

2. The 50/50. While no contract should be identical, all the panelists agreed that, regardless of the specifics, when it came down to it they all offered their artists a 50/50 split of the profits. The difference is in where the money is coming from. Is it through album sales, merch or touring?

The last bit of advice: Tour, tour, tour! Touring helps you make money (but think wisely when negotiating with venues), and helps you build up your fan base before you even approach a label. Whomever you talk to at a label will want to know about your current audience. How many people are coming out to your shows? Who do you know that could help both the label and you in your future collaborations? In this economy, getting to the people through live events is key.

Related Reading

Rob Fields from Bold As Love, a blog dedicated to promoting black rock and alternative artists, is also a marketing professional. He recently blogged about the marketing techniques of the Black Eyed Peas, and while they are the stereotypical "corporate" band, he lists some great ideas that will benefit any musical artist.

Information is Beautiful recently blogged about how much money musical artists are making online through record sales.

And the Cynical Musician also has a great post up about some of the problems with selling music online for independent musicians.

Contributing Editor - Race, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com

Writer: Hellbound: www.hellbound.ca


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