Getting signed to a label: What can go wrong?
October 19, 2020
What happens after you get signed to a record label and how could things go wrong? An insider from the music industry gives their view
After an artist gets signed, the list of what can go wrong between an artist and a label is quite long. Often problems will come from bad communication. The music industry is no different from other walks of life: communicating clearly and listening well is key.
Promises from labels or artists can fall through
With high expectations, it’s easy for resentment to build on either side, and this resentment usually stems from some form of misunderstanding, combined with the project not achieving the planned goals and targets.
For example, in the planning stages of the record, the artist may have mentioned touring plans and festival offers which never end up happening. Similarly, there might be a long list of video or photo ideas which don’t end up materialising, leaving little support for the promotion of the record.
On the other end, the label might promise the artist the world in the beginning, for example press and promotion opportunities, or links with higher profile artists. These are wobbly promises to make as they rely too much on outside interest, which can never be guaranteed. If they don’t happen, the artist will be disappointed.
With high expectations, it’s easy for resentment to build on either side, and this resentment usually stems from some form of misunderstanding.
Not all campaigns go to plan, and that’s totally normal. A lot of labels (and artists) will want to look more long term, with the understanding that, for a lot of artists “success” doesn’t happen overnight. However, if this isn’t communicated and fully understood it’s easy for artists to feel disappointed and to portion out blame — which can turn a relationship sour, and in turn, end it.
The truth of the matter is that sometimes results just don’t come through — and it really is nobody’s fault.
Bad managers can ruin a record deal
Not all artists will be in direct communication with the label so it’s also worth thinking about whether your manager is representing you right. Are they pushing when they need to push? Or are they bulldozing through and upsetting people? I’ve encountered the most easy going, hard-working artists with terrible managers who make everything more difficult.
Bad managers come in many forms: sometimes they are unnecessarily combative and pushy, other times they can be totally clueless and unresponsive. I’ve worked with managers I’ve found tricky only to (gladly) find that six months later they’ve been fired by the artist and now the project is looked after either by the artist or someone new. The relationship is then able to revive. Equally, your manager might be perfect for you but it might just be a case of incompatibility with the label. Either way, who your manager is and the way they work is important.
You need to be realistic with your expectations and aims and try to negotiate with your label until you find a more comfortable position.
A music contract might not meet your needs
If the label is busy in its output, working with a full roster of different artists, it might be that you feel you’re not high enough up the priority ladder and it’s harming your project. It’s a valid concern and worth assessing whether your needs are being met.
You need to be realistic with your expectations and aims and try to negotiate with your label until you find a more comfortable position. If this isn’t possible, it might not be the right fit and time for you to move on. From my experience we’ve never forced an artist to continue working with us if they would prefer to leave, and all of our contracts have “options” after each record in which we mutually agree to go forward or not.
It may be worth taking a look at your contract, if you do get offered one, to see if your expectations are in line with what it includes. An example scenario: are you disappointed the label won’t fund your music videos? Check the contract — it might stipulate that one or more videos are counted as the “delivery materials” that are covered by your advance. Until you deliver these out of your own pocket the label has no obligation to fund more.
A second record might be too expensive
When a label invests in an artist it can come at a large financial cost. These days, for small independent labels even a few thousand spent on marketing and publicity can be a big strain on the bank. By the time the campaign is wrapped up for a release, the money spent on the whole project can be considerable. One event in which an artist might be “dropped” is simply that the label doesn’t have the funds to continue with the next record.
The music industry is often criticised for pushing artists down certain creative paths and “dropping” artists for refusal to compromise or be told what to do.
If your account balance with the label is deep in the negative, it simply may not be viable for the relationship to continue. This can feel disappointing or unfair but it’s the unfortunate reality of finite funds and the current state of the industry. I’ve encountered this situation sadly too many times — but it can go two ways. Either you part on good terms, or there is bitterness and it ends badly. I’d advise to part on good terms if at all possible, as I’ve also had a situation happen (more than once) in which the label is unable to continue with a project, but years later the artist has a new project or is collaborating with another artist, only to re-approach the label and join the ranks again.
In music, relationships come and go
The music industry is often criticised for pushing artists down certain creative paths and “dropping” artists for refusal to compromise or be told what to do. While I can’t speak for major labels, none of the indies I know would be too pushy about an artist’s image. We have had creative differences with artists in the past where we've felt artwork or photos could be stronger and asked if the artist felt the same, and whether they would re-do anything. Sometimes, our view gets taken on board, though it's not uncommon that we just let an artist do whatever they want if they disagree with us.
Rarely is an artist “dropped” without the warning signs showing well in advance, and often the parting of ways is either anticipated or mutual. The phrase “being dropped” feels old fashioned to me — you must remember that as an artist you have agency too, a parting of ways rarely comes out of the blue and you also may want to initiate an exit if you feel the fit isn’t right.
An artist/label relationship doesn’t have to be like a marriage, not all relationships are supposed to last forever. Artists (and labels) change and grow, this doesn’t have to be considered something wrong or disastrous.
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