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Okay, so I am absolutely not saying that none of us should ever do a record deal under any circumstances. Most successful musicians from the recent past have, in the course of a career, been on and off major labels, indie labels and used crowd funding projects too when the occasion demands. But in the future all bets are off, it’s hard to call who will want to do what and how we’ll all collectively work it, as we’ve got a lot of choices these days. However I think we can say with certainty that if you do commit to a record contract, there needs to be a really good reason for it. Here are three reasons to think again when a small indie offers you a £15K advance to commit to multiple albums over many years, or if a major label sniffs around assuming you’ll be flattered and impressed by their attentions…

Streaming royalties

We’ve all figured this out now and some people are getting really good at actually earning money from Spotify plays and other streaming platforms. Amazing isn’t it? Proper good news! So the guys who are maxing this out at the moment all have developed skill in placing new music into influential playlists or even creating their own. It’s not easy to get this right – if it was then the major labels wouldn’t be courting the playlist creators and tastemakers and buying up their brands and output. But it is possible to make some headway yourself and also to hire in a specialist agency to work your songs onto Spotify and Deezer. And this might cost less than you think. For example, you could check out a company like Liberty Music PR. They can offer great quality advice on Spotify playlisting. Contact Dan, Adam or Bee and mention Bruce from WaterBear.

So this is all great but if, having done a record deal, you have signed away the rights to your masters, then the record company will take the bulk of the streaming income. The proportion due to the writer of the song here is so small as to be almost non-existent. It’s a very odd deal structure that reflects the fact that initially no one really paid much attention to the detail, as it was felt that streaming ‘wouldn’t catch on’. Sigh….

So, where the writers lose out, the person(s) who own the masters (the audio recordings), wins. Very approximately, one million streams clock up to about £6K income in pounds sterling so ten million streams might give you a reasonable income of £60K and, although this sounds a lot, you can see independent artists making this work all around you.

So think twice before you sign away the rights to your recordings. This could well determine your financial future.

Maximise your own physical and digital sales income

I think of a record company like a bank. A source of funding – and an expensive one at that! A bit like the payday loan companies, it’s there if you have no other option, but by God you’re going to pay dearly for it.

Of course there’s more to a record company than just money – specialist skills, distribution, clout and probably a roster of other acts that substantiate your position and add leverage for touring slots, supports and festivals, etc.

But don’t forget you can raise money to make the record another way (crowd funding, for example) and then simply buy in some specialist services as required, be that radio plugging, press, PR or streaming income generation. All this can be much more affordable than you think, hundreds of pounds rather than thousands in many cases.

It’s important to realise that by signing a traditional record deal you wont be able to sell the recorded work without an agreement in place. So no CD’s or Vinyl on the merch stand for example, which for some genres is a big earner – big enough to pay for most of the costs on a support tour. That’s quite a lot of income to lose.

If you own your own record then 100% of the sale goes to you, the artist. If you use a crowd funding platform on presales, or a delivery platform for a shop window you might lose 15% tops. An old school record deal gives you 12-18% of the gross dealer price, i.e. about 60p on a £10 CD or £1.20 on a £20 CD, and out of that you have to recoup the cost of recording the thing plus promo costs, video costs, etc., and even then you won’t own the thing anyway!.

There’s a lot of difference between £10 a unit and 60p…..before we even think about the streaming issue.

This is why you increasingly see old bands rerecording their seminal works and re-releasing. It’s not just nostalgia, it’s good business as fans are generally very happy to compare the new versions with the old and the band gets to exploit these new recordings and actually earn some cash to keep the show on the road.

Retain your independence

The DIY Model is something we are big fans of. It’s not the complete answer and admittedly hard to manage on an international level, but how else could you make the music you want without having to justify if or deal with company politics?. Some might say there are enough politics in the average band without introducing record and publishing companies into the equation.

You can make the music you want, have the artwork you want, and choose how you manage your campaigns. Critically, you have that option to buy in any expertise you need, budget allowing. That’s what a lot of record companies would do anyway. If you are objective and self-aware enough to admit weak areas creatively and professionally, then all gaps can be filled.

You’ll also have this amazing direct relationship with your audience through social media. This is why any and all of this is possible in 2018, where it was impossible in 1998. There is no limit to how far you can take this and also no ‘sell by date’ for your life as an artist. So long as you have an audience and deliver value to them you will enjoy a life in music. No one can take this away from you. And that’s got to be a good thing, right?.

Why crowdfunding could work for you

These days, pre-orders and advance sales can play a big part in launches and releases (e.g. for a single, an EP or an album). That’s not just true of music biz releases alone! Look at video games, including massive franchises like Red Dead Redemption. Game publishers put so much time and effort into generating awareness, anticipation and buzz, and into generating orders before the official release date. Other fields where pre-orders have become important (and big business) include phones, gaming consoles, book publications, movies and TV releases.

Pre-order campaigns

Pre-order campaigning generates interest and can rack up advance sales. This in turn bumps up the sales numbers at the official release, which can be great for publicity and charting (as we’ll explore later) and that’s very, very useful in the music industry, especially from a PR and promotional point of view. What’s more, the revenue generated by advance sales can be a real boost for artists just starting out, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, or building their career, as we’ll also discuss below.

For this blog, we’ll be interviewing EBA Award-nominated rising star Elles Bailey. Elles released her debut album ‘Wildfire’ in September 2017 after using the PledgeMusic platform to handle pre-orders. ‘Wildfire’ and Elles herself have gone onto gain commercial success and critical acclaim. ‘Wildfire’ charted at No.2 in the iTunes Blues Chart, reached No. 1 in the Independent Blues Broadcasters (IBBA) charts, and has now clocked up over 2.5 million streams on Spotify. Her forthcoming follow-up album ‘Road I Call Home’ also uses the PledgeMusic platform for pre-orders and will be released on 8th March, 2019.

We’ve caught up with Elles to get a successful new artist’s take on all things ‘pre-order’ and her particular experience of using the PledgeMusic platform.


WB:
So Elles, can you tell us about your pre-order campaigns?

Elles: “Ok. So this is my second pre-order campaign as I ran a successful campaign last year for my debut album Wildfire. I originally went with Pledge because I had used them as a customer. I liked the set-up: it was easy to use and I enjoyed the access pass, and the backstage area curated by the artist for their pledgers. I also used them as every pledge is chart-eligible.

WB: What are the advantages of setting up pre-orders, especially chart-eligible ones?

Elles: “You may ask why’s that important for an indie artist? It’s not like you are going to chart anyways! Well, actually, it is possible for smaller DIY artists to chart in their chosen genres’ charts (Side note: I didn’t chart in the main blues charts, but I did come in at Number 2 in the iTunes blues charts). The pre-order can give you hundreds (if not thousands) of pre-sales before the record comes out, amounting to a great ‘first day’ of sales and those sales can lead to charting, which is something to shout about, especially as an indie act.”

WB: How did you approach your second album’s pre-order process?

Elles: “I returned to Pledge the second time around and I’ve found it even better. Unknown to me, as soon as my pre-order went live, an email was sent to everyone who had pledged on Wildfire, leading to great number of pledges in the first few days, and three that came in just seconds after I had gone live! So much for my big social media announcement! Everyone already knew!

WB: Can you give us an idea of the pros and cons of using various options and platforms?

Elles: “The 15% take that Pledge take: that could be a non-starter for a lot of people. It’s a big cut. My strongest argument for using Pledge is that they have a huge database and it’s in their interest to push to that database to increase your pre-orders. I know I have made super fans who, if it wasn’t for Pledge, wouldn’t have found out about me; also many more sales from people who before Pledge were not aware of me or my work.

“Sometimes the thought of a business/team taking a cut of what is essentially all your hard work and money is hard to swallow, but it leads to a bigger question: As an artist do you want to grow? Or are you happy with your own fan base and keeping all of the dollar! (N.B. Another side note: Both yes and no are totally legitimate answers.)

“Agents take at least 15%; labels can take most of the percentage; distribution will take a percentage; and managers will take at least 10%! Once you get to a certain level, there will always a someone working with you who will take a percentage, but if it relieves the pressure, and allows you to grow as an artist, increase your fan base and give you opportunities that without them you perhaps wouldn’t get, then they more than deserve their cut!

“Pledge take 15% revenue, so do Bandcamp; Indiegogo take 5% . As for the totally DIY option? Just whatever your hosting and PayPal costs are (probably around about 2%!)

WB: What about other platforms and options?

Elles: “Bandcamp is good, but it’s more of a long-term thing, I’m not sure it’s the best place for a pre-order campaign? But contradict me if I’m wrong!

“I haven’t worked with Indiegogo, but I have heard good things, and the cut is significantly less than Pledge. 

“The DIY option: I did consider that, I have a good growing fan base, who I know like to support my ventures, but what Pledge offers is far better than what I can offer from a pre-order campaign; plus when they featured my campaign last week on a mailshot, I sold 25% of my current pledges. 

“So for me, I’m all for Pledge: from my point of view, they earn their 15% but what’s right for me isn’t right for everyone, so I’ll let you make up your own mind!”

Thank you for your advice and feedback, Elles, and good luck with the new album ‘Road I Call Home’!

 

Conclusion:

We in the music business (including acts just starting out and their management and PR) can make use of pre-order campaigning and advance sales. In today’s music business, such marketing has become very popular, often in tandem or parallel with direct-to-fan marketing, crowdfunding, and DIY promotions and distribution.

Pre-order campaigns can be fantastic tools to generate interest in an artist and build up their fanbase. Campaigns also drum up anticipation and excitement for an upcoming release.

Many platforms provide pre-order services (and similar ones, like crowdfunding etc.) They’ve got infrastructure, databases, and contacts from which you can benefit. Platforms like these do offer different levels of service, terms and pricing. PledgeMusic? Indiegogo? Bandcamp? Do your research. Check out the services, their terms, cost and payment models, and decide what works best for you. Alternatively, as Elles said, Do you go totally DIY and host from your own website?

A bit extra

An extra point for your consideration; Marketeers also note that it’s possible to leverage additional pre-sales by offering various forms of perks and incentives to the early adopters. Exclusive content and special editions work well; editions that are only available to pre-order in limited quantities can have particular kudos and thus raise advance sales. Exclusive merch also acts as a perk. Check out our previous WaterBear blog on print/produce-on demand merchandise and fulfilment. It might work well with your campaign.

Also, as Elles noted, Advance sales provide a great way to raise valuable funds before having to order physical units and to pay for the PR campaign. That too makes pre-order campaigning and advance sales strategies worth considering!

We’ll take another look in detail at the PledgeMusic platform in a later blog, with some expert, inside information on what it can provide for artists including its crowdfunding and direct-to-fan services, as well as the pre-order campaign management we have covered here.

www.ellesbailey.com

Photo Credit: Alex Berger

Here at WaterBear, we’re ever-mindful that the music business keeps changing. Also that, as Charles Darwin once said, “…those who survive are the ones who adapt best to the new conditions.”

In this blog, I’ll be discussing some of the pros and cons of signing with indie labels compared with the major record companies. I’ll also be exclusively interviewing another industry insider expert to get their valuable perspective on the business and their advice for aspiring and up-and-coming artists, like yourselves.

When considering a recording deal, it’s vital to match yourself, your band and your brand with the right label. These days, with the music business continuing to change and evolve, there are more options available to the up-and-coming artists; even ‘no deal’ options for bands who operate outside the traditional labels system, self-publishing their songs, album, etc. often making use of new media channels for distribution, publicity and creating fan followings. WaterBear has plenty of advice on such approaches – for example check out Bruce John Dickinson’s video blogs. The college course content is also full of useful info.

If you’re after a deal with a label, at some point you’ll have to weigh up the pros and cons of whether to sign with an independent label or a major record company. Which is best suited for you? Which will work best at given points in your career?

N.B. What we mean by the major record labels are the large media corporations, based in New York and Los Angeles, which tend to sign major acts. We’re talking about Sony, Universal, Capitol Records, etc. Such companies have a lot of money behind them. This enables them to fund the biggest artists on the block, throw big budgets into promotions and marketing and so forth. What’s more, their resources, established presence and contacts give such labels huge clout. Naturally enough, many up-and-coming artists aspire to sign with them.

However, it’s not as simple as it seems and there are many issues to be aware of, especially in this ever-changing business. The rise of the digital music market, along with the impact of piracy (given leverage by peer-to-peer networks) has hit the major labels hard. They’re fighting back, supporting legal streaming services such as Spotify (as we discussed in an earlier blog), digital music retail stores such as iTunes and Amazon. Despite this, major releases still get leaked and spread via the Net before their official release.

The impact on the major labels and their revenue and control of the marketplace has been considerable. This has given smaller, indie labels a chance to shine in this brave new world. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of signing to an indie label a little later. Now, though, we’re delighted to exclusively interview another industry expert, Dante Bonutto.

Dante has worked in A&R (Artist & Repertoire) for various labels, including Universal Music Group, and is the head of Spinefarm Records and Snakefarm Records’ European team. He’s also been described as “a legend in rock magazine circles” and has written for Record Mirror, Kerrang! RAW, Classic Rock Magazine, and other publications.

The WaterBear interview

HI Dante. Thank you for speaking to us and sharing your insights with WaterBear.

Q1. Could you please tell us a little about Spinefarm/Snakefarm?

“Spinefarm Records started life as a highly-successful independent label in Finland, with some of its early signings including Nightwish & Children Of Bodom; acts who continue to enjoy considerable kudos and success in the international arena. Universal Music Group acquired Spinefarm in the early 2000’s, and a UK office was set up a few years later to spearhead the development of the label, the idea being to build a genuinely global set-up based on signature artists, plus a structure that empowers and encourages those artists to deliver their music and their vision without compromise. Key to the rapid rise of the label has been the opening of a powerful US office, from where the development of all aspects of Spinefarm activity are now overseen.

“Snakefarm Records is a newly-launched imprint of the parent label focussing on the heavier end of country, along with Blues, Soul, Folk and Roots music in general. The intention with Snakefarm is to build a strong global brand that taps into the core qualities of the genre (legacy, tradition, authenticity, etc.), providing something of cultural as well as musical worth.”

“Of course, there’s music to be recorded and albums to be made, and it is often the role of A&R to source producers/studios/mixers/mastering engineers, and to bring the whole project to fruition on a previously-agreed budget. These days, however, with many albums being licensed in as finished masters, the making of the record isn’t always a part of the equation. Choice of singles, however, remains an important A&R function, although the promo team would doubtless have input into this, too.”

 

Q2. What’s your role as A&R?

“With A&R existing less in its strict traditional sense, the role of the modern A&R person is a varied one, touching on all aspects of a project – marketing, promotion, touring, etc. In other words, anything that makes it possible for the act in question to achieve worldwide success. In this respect, the A&R person is also something of a ‘cheerleader’; first of all, exciting the record company about a new act, then using that excitement to ignite the interest of the wider music-buying public.

“Of course, there’s music to be recorded and albums to be made, and it is often the role of A&R to source producers/studios/mixers/mastering engineers, and to bring the whole project to fruition on a previously-agreed budget. These days, however, with many albums being licensed in as finished masters, the making of the record isn’t always a part of the equation. Choice of singles, however, remains an important A&R function, although the promo team would doubtless have input into this, too.”

Q3. What are the differences between indie/major labels, and the pros and cons of each?

“The main difference is probably that the major label systems tend to function best where there is already momentum and a degree of rising success; then the ‘machine’ can be a powerful and positive force helping to take things from Point A to Point B and beyond. When it comes to developing artists from the ground up, however, this kind of work is often better done by supportive management companies or independent labels, where in theory the workload may be lighter and the need for immediate returns less pressing.”

Q4. How would you say labels have had to adapt over the last few years?

“I think labels are now well-versed in looking at the bigger picture. Rather than simply ‘signing’ an artist, the aim – especially with newer, younger acts – is to effectively join forces with them, creating a meaningful partnership allowing both parties to benefit from down-the-line across-the-board success.”

 

Q5. Do you have much input into the live side of your roster?

“As I said before, if you bring an act into a company, it is your responsibility to oversee the growth of that act, to create the right kind of climate for success to take place. These days – especially in terms of rock and metal – the live side is a crucial cog in any campaign, so, yes, being involved on that front is pretty much a given. Strategic touring is a powerful driver of sales and artist development, so having a sound knowledge of the live scene plus relationships with agents and promoters is a useful thing… in fact, it’s essential! ”

 

Q6. How do you go about finding the bands you sign?

“No single way. The media, personal contacts, online, festivals, but I’d say the primary discovery channel is word of mouth – knowing the right people. Also, the more experience you have, the more contacts you will doubtless acquire. Of course, you have to have a good reputation or else people won’t come to you, but if you are well-regarded and professional, it should be the case that a certain amount of projects will naturally move in your direction.”

 

Q7. What do you look for in a band/artist?

“A singular vision, work ethic, the desire to be a market-leader. Oh, and great songs!”

Q8. Do you have any tips for bands/artists on how to approach labels? Dos and don’ts?

“Probably – don’t approach! It’s generally better to just get going and create some waves. Once you’re out there building a following and being talked about, chances are the labels will start coming to you, which puts you in a position of strength.”

Q9. What has been the biggest challenge for labels over the last few years?

“With the sands of our business shifting pretty constantly, it’s important for labels to be ever-mindful of how best to run their affairs. For me, one of the biggest challenges is finding a way to work with artists or acts on a long-term basis. In the ‘old days’, it was generally the case that a band would be given, say, three albums to find their feet and truly make their mark, but such traditional values no longer apply – which is difficult when you’re dealing with rock and metal acts for whom there is generally no short-cut and the foundations of a secure career need to be planted over time. The answer to this is to employ a long-term strategy that encompasses more than a single release, plus of course a competitive on-the-road element.”

 

Q10. Where do you see the future?

“I’m very positive about the future, as for every door that closes, many others will open. There’s no turning the clock back, of course, so it’s important to just get on with things and work with bands in a bespoke manner, focussing on those elements that are important to them and will make a difference to their fortunes. The great news is, music plays a bigger part in people’s lives than ever before, which is encouraging for what lies ahead…”

 

Thanks Dante. Good to talk to you!

Swings and Roundabouts: The Pros and Cons of Signing with an Indie Label

Ok. Let’s define some terms. Any music recording label that operates without the funding or control of the major labels and their parent corporations can be considered as an indie (short for ‘independent’) label. The major labels usually own and operate their own production and distribution infrastructures. Indie labels, by contrast, tend to work with other companies for distribution and publishing. However, indie labels can offer other benefits, which have prompted many artists to sign with them.

 

Benefits

Diversity & Creative Control
Indie labels tend to be more diverse in the range and kinds of music they sign and work with. There’s less pressure on an artist to conform or compromise for corporate or commercial reasons, such as the need to leverage chart success, or generate immediate returns on the label’s outlay. Indie labels tend to sign acts because they like the music and believe in the artist.

Closer Working Relationships
The smaller size of the indie labels offers a benefit too. Whilst they have smaller staff numbers, their artists are often able to develop closer working relationships with the personnel who work with them. That helps you get in touch with the relevant people when you need to and enjoy closer communication.

Contract Terms
Contractually, you may also find that the smaller indie labels offer greater freedom and flexibility than their larger indie counterparts or the major labels. That can help you retain greater creative control. It can also help you avoid being locked into long-term contracts, which can bind you to a label for multiple albums.

There are of course downsides to working with indie labels:

Downsides & Drawbacks

Finances & Resources
The major labels have financial strength. Indie labels can’t match that. Some indie labels are well-resourced, but others teeter on the brink, trying to break even or make a profit, and some do sink.

The indie labels don’t have the same budgets for recordings, or for promotion and exposure as the major labels. That means that the indies often have to substitute ingenuity for raw budget and be creative with their promotional work to get artists and releases exposure.

Indie labels can’t afford to pay out for large advances, big recording budgets, lavish tour support, major advertising or marketing campaigns, or provide other perks you might get from a major label.

Working Methods
Another aspect to consider are the labels’ working methods and operations. The major labels have more staff, thus more manpower, and often more structured ways of working. The smaller outfits have fewer, less, and less structure. They may still have talent and be effective, though. However, you might find that the larger labels are more efficient and organised, as they have more formalised and established procedures, e.g. their accounting procedures, contracts, etc.

Clout
The other obvious aspect to consider is a given label’s size, leverage and clout. As you might expect, there’s often a sliding scale. The smaller labels have more intimacy and adaptability. However, their smaller coffers don’t give them the purchasing power for recordings, promotions or marketing (as noted above). Also, the smaller labels are unlikely to have the same degree or influence with the press as the major players, who’ve built up contacts and cultivate them via public relations, corporate entertaining, etc.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are pros and cons to signing with an indie label, compared with a major record company. Choose wisely, and take on board Dante Bonutto’s advice!

 

Special thanks to Dante Bonutto of Spinefarm Records and Snakefarm Records.

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