Three Reasons Why I’ll Tell You NOT To Pursue A Record Deal

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.

About The Author

Danny Maland

Danny Maland appears here on loan from The Small Venue Survivalist, where he muses about all kinds of things related to doing local shows.

  • Very well said, I have acquaintances who were dropped from contracts even though things were going well for the band, because the label decided to focus on another genre or whatever. Also, if you get a good label offer because of all your personal investment and hard work, keep that up, because if (or when) they drop you, it’s hard to get that momentum going again. Some artists are worse off AFTER having label support (and counting on the label to keep things going) than they were before the label, when they were doing everything for themselves.

    I spent a good chunk of the 1980s being bitter because labels that I tried to get signed with signed folks from the same pool with – frankly – less talent and work ethic. Then I saw how they treated those folks, including NO artist development, running them ragged until their initial investment paid off and then dumping them for the next “great new thing,” and then I thought, maybe my life isn’t so bad.