I really don’t think you should get a record deal.

Wait – let me rephrase that.

I really don’t think you should spend time, effort, money, and emotional stamina to get a record deal. I played music myself, once, and hungered after a contract. I never got one, and I’m actually pretty okay with that. I had a non-realistic view of what a recording contract meant, and I’m betting that the same sort of reality distortion is in effect for quite a few other folks.

Of course, my opinion doesn’t amount to a hill of chili (super chunky or otherwise) without some reasoning behind it, so here are my bullet points, in no particular order:

1) A recording contract isn’t a career, or even a job. It’s a loan.

Carlos has said as much on social media, and I agree. I especially agree because I think I might have been the one who came up with the idea that a record company is just an unregulated bank. (I think. Actually, somebody else probably came up with it long before I did.)

Anyway.

The whole point of a recording contract is basically to say, “We’ll help finance the creation of a recording and other things, because we think we can sell those things for a TON more than the price of the financing.” If it works out, it’s a sweet deal for the record company, because they very likely have all the rights to the sound recording of your songs – and they can keep selling that sound recording to as many people as they can manage. If you’re not careful, or don’t have enough negotiating power, they will probably own those rights “in perpetuity.” (That means “forever.”)

Record companies don’t give you money for anything. They “front” funds to produce something with your name on it, hoping that your brand will be great for them. If you manage to carve a long-term career out of that situation, then that’s great for you (and the label, for whom it’s probably an even better deal), but the loan itself isn’t a guarantee that things will work out.

Plenty of artists have been dropped by their labels, by the way.

And no, if you get dropped, you won’t be likely to get the rights to all that hard work you did in the studio. That belongs to the people who paid for it, people who aren’t you.

Sidenote: KEEP. YOUR. PUBLISHING.

Actually, just forget about all the record deal hoo-hah and keep everything.

2) Recording contracts don’t create careers. Fans do.

Musicians tend to think that a really snazzy recording, sold in all the big outlets, backed with a spendy video, and pushed with a fancy marketing campaign is what generates a career-powering phenomenon.

Well, no, what creates the phenomenon is people hanging on every note that you play.

Now, to be fair, all the fluff can help you get in front of more people. But you have to ask yourself if all the costs are actually necessary. Sure, it strokes your ego to have spent a whole year in a studio that makes a starship look dinky, and to have display ads in all the papers, plus a launch party featuring 100 white horses and an airdrop of 7000 popsicles over New York. Sure, that’s hard to ignore.

It’s also a frighteningly expensive way to reach a few folks who would have loved you for the music, glitz and glam or no. Yes, it takes more time and effort to find those people without all the hooplah, but if YOU find them, and YOU make the connection, then YOU are in control of your career.

And you might have an actual career, instead of just a big party that lots of people showed up to because of the free popsicles. Those folks are just there for the fun and spectacle, and will be gone in an hour. A career has to last longer than that. The shortcut isn’t a shortcut – it’s a conversion of money to time, and the conversion rate is lousy.

Oh, and of course that expenditure gets tacked onto the loan that the label made you.

Here’s another thing: Record companies look for products that are either selling themselves, or likely will be able to sell easily as the flavor of the month. If they see that you’re building a a real fanbase for yourself, they may come calling, dangling a juicy deal in front of you. Why? Because they want to make money off of what you’ve built.

Ask yourself: If you’re building it on your terms anyway, why should you sell it all off to somebody else for an advance that’s actually a lowball offer, plus the “opportunity” to do everything their way? That doesn’t make sense.

3) Recording contracts don’t do much that you can’t do for yourself anymore.

I’ve talked about this on other occasions. Back in the day of physical media, access to large-scale manufacturing was necessary to keep a large fanbase supplied. Back in the day of a few, tightly gated media outlets, money and clout were needed to dialogue with a significant number of people.

Now, it’s all digital. Making a copy of the entire, uncompressed contents of a full-length recording is trivial. Compression and transmission is only slightly less than trivial. Everybody can get on the Internet and say whatever they want to whoever they want, with the only real limit on audience size being the number of people who will listen. (Social media platforms ARE gated, yes, but not nearly as much as traditional media.)

You can do all of this yourself. You don’t need the label’s advertising machine to connect with your fans. They’re on your favorite social media platform already! Go talk to them. Be available. Answer and ask questions.

You don’t need the label’s production machine to have a music video. A half-decent phone-recording on YouTube can be a major attention grabber.

You don’t need the label’s recording machine to lay tracks. A few okay mics in an okay room can be connected to a $300 audio interface with basic software, and make a recording that sounds just fine. Maybe even great. Plus, you’ll own the rights to your music, and the recording, AND the means to make more.

You ARE the label. You ARE the contract. You ARE your fan-connection machine.

Why pay somebody else? You don’t need a record deal to make art and make connections. All the tools are readily available.

Back in the day, there was a mantra that was taught to songwriting musicians, almost without fail:

“Keep your publishing.”

As I see it, the mantra was a call to keep some kind of control in a world where a lot of control had to be ceded to others. Recording was very, very expensive, and so was the release of that recording. In the age of physical media (heck – physical EVERYTHING), the people with the money to produce the physical media called all the shots.

By “the people with the money,” I am referring to the many and various record companies.

This is not to say that DIY was completely impossible, but for a musicpreneur to actually reach a wide audience in a short time required very large resources. The holders of the resources tended to demand a lot of control in exchange for the privileges involved: Unless you had a lot of pull, they would control what was released, where it was released, and in what quantity, and your opinion wasn’t worth a whole lot.

And they owned the copyright to the sound recording. You could NOT just take your masters and do whatever you liked. The control of the recorded music belonged to someone else.

If the record company owned both the sound recording AND the rights to the underlying song, you really had nothing except whatever fame you had managed to scrape up. All the money involved in anything to do with your tunes would first go to the record company, and then they would cut you in later – likely for as little as they could get away with.

Keeping your publishing meant keeping some control. Having a say somewhere. Owning your intellectual property instead of just being allowed to represent it.

That’s why you should have your own website. Having a web presence that you own and pay for is a 21st-century, internet-enabled version of keeping your publishing.

Who’s Making The Decisions?

If you’re like me, you may have a complicated relationship with social media. On the one hand, it’s a great way to get your material out there. It’s often the digital way to “meet people where they are.” People are naturally present there, and it’s usually a simple process (requiring no extra sign-in) for those folks to request notifications when you have something to say.

On the other hand, social media can vacuum up your time, offer a really troublesome signal-to-noise ratio (people are being bombarded with input, which means your input may or may not be recognized), and it just generally may not line up with how you prefer to interact with others.

As a long-ish form, deep thoughts sort of guy, I don’t really get along with Twitter.

Anyway…

Social media is also not truly under your control.

Sure, you get to pretty much post whatever you want, whenever you want to, but you’re ultimately using a platform at the pleasure of the platform owners. If they want to change how your content is presented to other users of the service, you don’t get any individual say in the matter. If they want to run some traffic-shaping experiment that just happens to wreck your big announcement, that’s too bad for you.

And if they decide to take control of your account, or just dump it off the server, there is basically no recourse open to you. (You can send an e-mail and beg, I suppose.)

Yes, you can pay for being featured, but you originally signed up for free.

If you signed up for free, you are NOT a customer. You and your data are the product, and the company’s well-being depends on them managing their product as they see fit. This may or may not be a good thing for you and your content, and if you have no independent platform for your online existence, you are very stuck with what other people decide.

So, I say, leverage social media. Leverage it in any way that will work for you. Don’t let it be your only presence on the web, though. Have your own site. To whatever extent possible, have it be a far better experience than social media offers to your dedicated fans. You can make all your own design decisions on your own site. You can have a site built specifically to offer the functions you want to offer to visitors. If changes are going to be made, you choose when they happen and how extensive they are.

You also retain complete rights to everything involving the site, instead of sharing those rights with an entity that can modify its privileges at a whim. (I don’t encourage paranoia, but you have to recognize a power imbalance when you see it.)

I could have a lot of the more “compact” material from The Small Venue Survivalist live entirely on Facebook, but then Facebook would have control over that material – and that content would have no presence if it disappeared from Facebook. If I post a meme on the Facebook profile, I almost always create a post for it on smallvenuesurvivalist.com as well. I want complete ownership of what I say, and I also want that material to be search-indexed on my site.

I could have all my longform content posted and managed entirely on Patreon, but then I’d be stuck with the display restrictions that Patreon puts on posts. Patreon’s design is pretty nicely functional, but it’s generic from creator to creator. It doesn’t really fit my specific needs for hosting my full articles. When it all comes down to it, I don’t want to look like everything else on that platform – I want my work to be presented in the exact way that I want it presented, thanks.

Keep your publishing. Keep ALL your publishing. Have your own site, and be THE owner of both your content and its presentation. Be subject to your whims, instead of someone else’s.

I seem to do a lot of mentoring and coaching of other artists. This isn’t because I feel like I have this all figured out in building a music career, not even close. It’s mostly because I know how hard it is, first hand. I’ve been on this road for 17 years now. And, I also know how frustrating it can be to not have any help as an indie artist when you are trying to figure out the next step.

When I get asked questions from young artists, or artists new to Nashville, I can guarantee I will be asked at least one of these questions. So, I wanted to share the answers for those who might be wondering the same things. In fact, I might just send a link to this blog instead of sitting down for coffee with people from now on. 😉

1. I’ve written some lyrics, could you put them to music?

Usually about twice a month someone asks me to write music for lyrics they’ve written (or lyrics for music). The short answer is “no.” Why the answer is no is that I already have a great group of professional songwriters that I co-write with. We write some really good songs, and we also have some connections to further promote the songs we write- so it’s a win-win for us all. Yes, it is a harsh reality, but it’s also true for me too. For example, I haven’t had 20 #1 hits so I would never walk up to someone who has and ask them to write with me. It’s just one of the unwritten rules in Nashville.

Having said this, some professional songwriters will do paid co-writes with people who have never written a song. It’s one way they monetize their skill. I know a songwriter who does about five of these paid writes a month, and it’s a main source of income for them. And, you can also look for collaborators who are local to where you live too through local songwriting clubs like NSAI.

2. I’ve written a song that would be great for (insert famous person’s name here), how can I get it to them?

First of all, good for you! And, honestly, you have a very slim chance of even getting to the artist with that song and some MAJOR competition. The reason is that most artists write for themselves because they don’t want to lose money in songwriting and publishing royalties. Here’s the real deal…

On every given major artist’s country album, there are usually only about 2 songs that will come from outside the artist’s camp. The artist’s camp is comprised of their producer, publisher and songwriters they know. A good example of this is Luke Bryan. Luke has close-knit group of hit songwriting friends: Dallas Davidson, Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip (known as the Peach Pickers) who write songs with and for him. Dallas and Luke were roommates when they moved to Nashville and have been friends forever. So, unless you are a Peach Picker or writing with one of them somehow, you have a very slim chance of getting Luke to record your song.

So what about the other two songs on the record that weren’t written by the artist or someone in the artist’s camp?

The first place the label is going to go is to their catalog. For example, if Brad Paisley is looking for songs he didn’t write, Sony will go to their publishing company Sony/ATV and they will look through literally thousands of songs they have. The reason is that they have invested money in those songs because they paid staff songwriters (songwriters with publishing deals at Sony) to write them. They want to make their money back, and it makes total business sense they would want to keep that money in the Sony family.

The last place the artist/label is going to look for songs is from a song plugger (someone paid to pitch your songs for you, like an agent) or another publisher. Let me just say that there are a lot of sharks in the water in this world. If you want to try this route and are just starting, use a service like TheSongTuner.com because they actually work with reputable song pluggers and you only pay if you really have a song that fits what are looking for instead of a monthly fee. They also give you constructive feedback on the song.

3. How do you get your songs into film and TV?

Read this blog to answer that one.

4.How do you make money in music?

Ah, the big one. There are lots of ways to make money, but making a living is a whole other story. Let me give you a couple of real examples from my career.

About six years ago, I had my first song cut and released to country radio as a single. The artist spent around $1,200 recording it and $8,000 to promote it, and we were all really excited. The song climbed the charts into the top 60 or so, and got airplay on hundreds of stations. People were sending me emails about how I had ‘arrived.’ It was awesome, and it still is! But, financially from that song, we all made about $30 each on the songwriter/publisher side. Yes, that is all.

Here’s another real-life one. In my experience, indie films pay about $200 to license a song. Recently, I placed a song in an indie film for $75. This was because one of my cowriters really wanted their first film credit, and the story/actors looked reputable. We spent $350 on the demo of that song; we lost $275.

I wish I could say I make a full living doing music. But, I don’t yet. I have a full time day job to fund my music career. And the reality is that most people in Nashville do as well, or they have a bread-winning spouse, parents or an investor. And these economic realities are not only at my career level. I had a friend who was nominated for a Grammy this year, and they couldn’t afford to go to LA to the awards. They are obviously at the top of their game as a Grammy nominee, and they are also someone who has to pay the bills. Just like the rest of us.

5. Have you written any songs I would know?

If you watched Hart of Dixie then the answer is ‘maybe’ because I had some songs on the show. But more than likely, no.

So are you depressed yet?!?! Please keep reading…

Look, I don’t want to give you or anyone else the reality smack down. At the same time, I really don’t want you to have wildly unrealistic expectations of the experience and the economics of pursuing a career in music.

If you truly love writing and performing, and are willing to face the realities above, then move here and do it! It’s like I always say, dreams are free but hustle (and hard work) is sold separately.

We see it everywhere in the music biz: [Insert Artist Name here] has a new single!

But, what does that really mean?

Well, to break it down, there are SINGLES, Singles and singles…

The SINGLE- AKA Major Label Release or the Times Square Billboard

When a major label artist releases a single, it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because it means the label is investing tens of thousands of dollars (yes, that much) in advertising and promotion to get that single out there in the market. They literally have teams of people calling up individual program directors on a daily basis to get them to play the single on their radio station. This involves both relationships and favors. For example, a label radio promoter might ‘sweeten the deal’ with a program director by offering free tickets to a big name artist show in exchange for spinning a lesser known artist’s single. It happens all the time. Major labels pretty much own the content that gets played on major radio stations, which is why you hear the same playlists over and over.

And, just so you know, a #1 song in the country market will make a million dollars. So, if all the promotion works, it pays off big for the label, the artist, the publishers and the songwriters.

The Single- AKA Legit Indie Release or the Highway Sign

When a legit indie label or indie artist releases a single, they can hire radio promoters to work their single at radio for a fee or they can run a professional DIY campaign.

Now depending on the charts they are targeting, fees vary widely from a few thousand for the ‘life’ of the single – or however long it is still moving up the charts – or a few thousand a month. In country radio, for example, major label artists typically release and promote to Billboard charts and up-and-coming artists generally release to secondary charts (Music Row, Billboard Indicator). Even these secondary charts come at a pretty hefty price tag, and artists I know have spent $20,000-$30,000 on promoting one single. Because of royalty rates, don’t expect to earn a bunch of money back either. A few years ago, I was a writer on a song that reached the top 60 on the Music Row charts and it paid a whopping $30.

For myself as an indie artist, I’ve found a great option in radio promotion in the UK and Ireland. I partner with KEMC Global; they are reasonably priced, and they get results that turn into actual revenue because the royalty rates are so different there.

If you do hire someone to help you promote your music, make sure they have a track record of working with artists in your genre. And, as always, ask around to see what other successful indies are doing.

The single- AKA I’m Saying it’s a Single or the Yard Sign

This brings us to the last type of single. This is basically when you say you have a single, but what it really means is that you put it on iTunes and maybe your hometown radio station is playing it. It’s sounds cool, yeah, but it’s just not the same as the two types of singles described above. At the very least, if you’re serious about your career, consider trying a DIY campaign around a new single or album, or clarifying your release as an iTunes Single release.

The Closing Thought

So, there you have it. There are SINGLES, Singles and singles. While we can’t all be major label artists, the good news is that you do have options to run legitimate single promotions with an investment of time and money. And, remember if you want to be legit, then you have to work on getting your music on legit music industry charts,; ReverbNation doesn’t count.

Have any questions about radio promotions? Hit me- I’ll answer whatever I can!