The Evolution of the Music Business
"Record contracts are just like slavery. I would tell any young artist... don't sign."
Having spent the last 12 years touring and devoting myself to the world of music I've heard my fair share of horror stories that still keep me up at night.
I played with a psychedelic indie-punk band called Cud a few years ago, who told me cautionary tales of signing to a label, in this instance a subsidy of Sony Records.
Cud came to fame in the late 80's and although I was only a toddler at the time I can still easily listen to their entire back catalogue... without having to find any of it in HMV.
This is one of the perks of living in the 'digital era', almost all of the music ever recorded is available online, and most of it you can find for free.
Fancy listening to some Manitas De Plata? No problem, you only have to know how to spell his name. No more searching through endless record stores only to come away empty handed.
Life as a music listener today is easy, and life as an artist is getting easier every day.
It used to be you had to sign to a label and publisher if you wanted anyone to hear your music outside of your circle of friends and family.
The standard record contracts are usually divided as such; 90% of profits go to the label, with the remaining 10% going to the artist and their management... not very profitable for the majority of musicians. This is hugely simplified, but you get the idea.
Back to Cud. They told me that when they signed to the label, and Sony quickly racked up a bill of about 15 million dollars in promotion.
I initially thought ‘wow, I'd love that kind of promotion from such a major record company’…
Unfortunately Cud’s contract stated that they needed to repay all costs to Sony before getting anything themselves.
"But surely they knew what they were doing, that kind of promotion must have done wonders for your popularity?" I asked.
"Not really, we had no idea what they were spending it on. We heard that a label employee flew to New York on Concord and charged it to us because they mentioned us at a dinner."
"So you had no control on what they spent the money on?"
The band told me that they all chose to pursue careers outside of music because they can't earn any money without first paying back a mammoth loan to Sony.
This is by no means the only case of such frivolity on the part of a major label. Numerous bands and artists have gone to war with them. Prince, 30 Seconds to Mars, George Michael, Ke$ha, the list goes on and on.
So, for a while, it was a tough call as an artist; sign and be in with the chance at the big time, but lose most of your rights and control, or don't sign and risk drifting into obscurity.
Then the Internet came along and shook everything up.
Napster allowed people to share their music collection with everyone. This terrified most people in the music industry, so labels and bands, most famously Metallica, started sueing their fans for stealing.
Then came iTunes, which monetized digital distribution for the masses, and now we have companies like CD Baby and Band Camp that let anyone release their music worldwide for the price of a coffee and a scone.
You no longer have to give up 90% or your profit and worry about an executive flying half way around the world on your promotional budget. You can record in your home studio and get into every online music store for next to nothing.
I self-released with my old band Echotape, and with the support of an online fanbase we had a single chart in Austria – a country we had never previously played or done any promotion in.
With new platforms coming out every other week like Patreon and YouNow there are more ways than ever to live off being a musician. You don't have to wait to be picked up by a big label with a fountain in the lobby or ping-pong table in the office, in order to finally move out of your parent’s house.
Put something on YouTube, share it on Facebook and send people to your Band Camp page if they want more.
It's easier than ever to get what you've created out in to the world. Give it a go, you might have fun.
Daniel is a session musician formerly of the band Echotape