The Ugly Truth About Record Labels: How They Kill Artistry and Instincts
We’ve all heard the stories. Some of us have lived the stories. It’s not pretty. This article is not for you if you want to stay in your bubble about the music business and pretend one day that you’ll get a deal and be a big star. Or maybe this article is for you ;).
Imagine pouring your heart out for 12 months, slaving over your songs, digging deep, writing your heart out, exhausting your emotions to bring something to your fans that is worthy, that is raw, that is real. You’ve never been so connected.
So you prance into the boardroom meeting with the biggest grin on your face. Like you have the best-kept secret in the world in your hands. So you play the demos, one by one, feeling super pumped because you’ve never been so close to creating the vision you hear in your head. Only, they don’t. Hear your vision that is.
Comments like “we’re just not feeling it” or “I’m afraid it’s not what we were hoping for” or “why don’t you go write some more and come back to us.” “And try sounding more like Adele or more like __________” (fill in the blank with the latest next big thing.)
A couple of rounds of that — and the self-esteem you had when you got the deal — is now completely shattered — gone.
And if you’re a female artist? They’ll listen even less. You’re just a girl
It gets harsher. The music you made that you love, is not yours. Nope. It’s tied up in paperwork. It’s owned by the company. You can’t release it, you might not ever be able to release it. Imagine writing your best music ever and it’s, well, holed up in a life sentence. What??
Or the fact that you have to pay the label $7 per record. That one killed me. Wait — the music I wrote I have to pay for?? Omg ~ you’ve GOT to be kidding.
Then there are the stories.
In 2015, two days after Prince announced that he would release his new album HitNRun exclusively to Tidal, the singer revealed the reason he is sidestepping a record label and offering the LP directly through Jay-Z’s streaming service. “Record contracts are just like — I’m gonna say the word – slavery,” Prince said. “I would tell any young artist… don’t sign.”
George Michael took Sony to court in 1992, claiming he had little control over his work, with the company treating him as “no more than a piece of software”.He eventually lost the case, which put his career on hold for five years.
Joni Mitchell has often been called “the greatest ever female singer-songwriter”, although she has been known to object to the use of the word “female”.
Many of her hits, including Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock, are legendary; her albums, such as The Hissing of Summer Lawns, classics. After 35 years in the business, the original woman with a guitar is one of few artists on a par with Bob Dylan. She has inspired Madonna, Prince, and virtually every female singer-songwriter.
Joni Mitchell called the music industry a “corrupt cesspool”, the Canadian raged that: “I’m quitting because the business made itself so repugnant to me. Record companies are not looking for talent. They’re looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate.”
Look, not all labels are the devil, there are some earnest good ones out there – some fair ones — but for gosh sake don’t be in such a rush to sign on that dotted line. Read the f’ing fine print.
That’s where all of the potential horror stories live. And BE SURE to hire a bulldog lawyer who goes over every single detail. I still talk to artists today, who BELIEVE the people around them – the ones courting them – and don’t think there is anything to worry about!!! #WRONG.
And even if you have the best lawyer and play your cards right, you could STILL lose — just don’t ever let it strip you of your confidence or your love of music ~ ever.
As an artist myself, I know what that feels like. The label is not your friend. No matter how much they appear to bond with you, flatter you, seemingly believe in you — TRUST ME, they could care less.
They are only protecting their asset. Their money. It’s greed and corruption at its core. And I’m not bitter or casting stones, it’s been my experience over decades of being an artist and coaching thousands of careers.
I’ve always mistrusted the music business. Call it a sixth sense or whatever you want. I’ve been in those showcase rooms, and private meetings at Universal Records, Sony, Warner and _________ (fill in the blank.) And besides the big beautiful pictures of our beloved artists lining the hallways, It’s not what I hold precious about music. It’s everything I don’t.
Just talk to any artist who’s ever been signed and they’ll tell you stories that would rock your core, that would shock you.
I think the best thing you can do as an artist is to hold on to your integrity, develop your ideas and not give in to what you think people want to hear. Instead, hold fast to your instincts, write the music that is in your soul and nothing less.
Oh for sure, get musically educated, do the work, become a viable artist and an incredible songwriter ~ that’s YOUR job. But if you do that, you won’t have to worry about what to do when a label comes swooping in — you’ll see their colors on full display and you’ll have more power. Because you don’t need them.
You’re already on track, you’ve done the work and achieved a certain level of success on your own – without someone controlling you, or telling you what to say or how to be an artist. That is certain death. It will take every last moment of love out of your music. And possibly forever. Don’t buy it. Believe in YOU.