This post is a long one; literally my post about getting signed followed by my post about the RIAA. Since I haven’t posted in a while I figured I’d put these two together, so that all my info about what it means to get signed is in one place.
Jan 01, 2014: As I’ve said before, getting signed today isn’t what it used to be. Radio used to be the means for an artist to become nationally known, and while it’s illegal for someone to pay a radio station to play their songs, there are ways around this (paying for “advertising,” etc.). But that’s not the case anymore; nowadays radio stations rely on the labels to provide them the songs that will keep people listening (and often, radio stations have to pay for it). Radio is free because it’s paid for by advertising, and advertisers pay when a radio station can show that people are listening and therefore will hear their ads.
Now back to label contracts- Everyone imagines that it works this way: A band comes out with the “Coolest, best, most original/artistic etc.” music, records a quick home demo and sends it to a label exec. This person listens to the recording, really likes it and decides that your band could be the next [insert favorite major band name here]. They come and sign you, pay you a huge signing bonus, pay for your professional recording, reproduction/duplication of cd’s and merch, and send you on the road. Now, before I read Loren Weisman’s book The Artist’s Guide To Success In The Music Business (http://tag2nd.com/), I already had a basic understanding of how it really works, due to my work with a promoter. This book basically informed me way more in-depth about the business aspect of it all. Here’s a quick answer to why the above method doesn’t work anymore, and how it actually does work-
First of all, you have to look at a label not as your savior and ticket to the big-time, but as a business. Everything mentioned above costs money. Recording, distribution, advertising, etc. requires someone at each stage to be paid to make those things happen. Think of “getting signed” as exactly what it is- signing a contract. A lot of people think that labels just want to steal all the ownership of your music to sell themselves. But if they don’t take some of it, how will they get paid, and if they won’t then why would they sign you?
A quick breakdown of each stage of putting out a cd- First, you need a recording studio and a producer/mastering mixer. This usually costs more money per day than you would expect or be willing to pay. But unless you really know what you’re doing, a home recording just won’t cut it (be honest with yourself about your level of experience here, because you’ll only hurt yourself if you’re not). A professional recording is your product to be sold. Now, how to get millions to hear it without giving it away (since you’ve just dumped a ton of money into the recording)?
Promoter/advertiser- A promoter is usually someone who will get people to come to your shows by having posters made, radio advertisements, internet ads, etc. The best way (as far as I understand right now) for a band/artist to get paid is by touring. To do this, you need a booking agent (unless you want to do this yourself, though paying a professional to do it can get you into places you may have not had the option for yourself, and might also guarantee you a higher pay), and you will need a promoter/promotion team in the area of each show to ensure that people know what’s going on, and to entice them to want to come.
Now you’re at your show- Sell cd’s, sell merch, sell everything you can! This is where you make money. Don’t forget though, that to get this stuff costs money (and is always cheaper in bulk, if you can front the expense). Making shirts, stickers, physical copies of your albums, and anything else you will want to offer your fans will cost money. You can of course also sell merch and music online (and I don’t think anyone would ever recommend against it).
Now you’ve toured, you’ve sold tons of albums, merch, you had a great time and did decently for yourself. Plenty of artists/bands do this without being signed, but again, it costs money, and without a contract or some kind of fund raising efforts, it will not be easy. So if you’ve gotten signed, the big question is how much of this work did you do yourself? Anyone who put money into this is going to want their money back, with interest. If you’ve hired a booking agent, they’ll want a percentage of every show they’ve booked for you. This might just be 20% off the top, or they may want a percent of merchandise sales too (and a venue might as well; read your contract). Promoters will also want a cut (and you can’t expect them to work for free, so honestly if they’ve put the work into you, they deserve to be paid). Recording studios might want a percentage of your music sales on the album they recorded regardless of how long after the initial recording your cd sells. You can get out of this by paying more for the recording session, but it’s something you need to be aware of (again, READ YOUR CONTRACT).
So, with or without a label, you see that the amount you’re getting paid is starting to dwindle. If you’ve signed with a label, they can take care of a lot of this work (and stress) for you, but everyone involved needs to get paid. What I’m stressing here is that you need to be aware of how many people it really takes to make you a success; This doesn’t just happen because your music is amazing.
A quick rundown- 5 people in your band means that (unless otherwise agreed upon in advance) each person makes a maximum of 20% (after all expenses paid by whomever in the band paid them). For one show, you give a booking agent 15% (this is low by the way), and a promoter takes another 15% (again, low). Now you’re left with 70% to divide by five, and that’s with only two people helping you. You can see now how quickly your percentage of the pie starts to disappear.
As far as a label giving you a signing bonus, THIS IS NOT YOUR MONEY! This is a fronted amount that they will recoup from album sales, etc. You will owe them this money back, so don’t go out buying fancy cars and shit. Put this money into band travel, recording expenses, whatever. If you work your contract right (not that you’ll have much choice), you can minimize the percent of the pie that you have to give away.
A quick note I learned from the SoundOnSound article A Guide To Contracts For Producers (http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul08/articles/agreements.htm#Top), make sure to be aware of all aspects of the ownership of your music, i.e. can the label sell it to advertisers for tv and radio play, etc, and if so, what do you make from that. Hire an entertainment lawyer to look over a contract before you sign it; yes, it’s another expense you need to front, but can really save you later.
If there’s one thing I learned from Loren Weisman’s book, it’s this: Treat your band/album, whatever- your music, as a business. A professional business. Think of getting signed as signing a business loan. This is the key to being treated like a professional and retaining your rights.
The above piece tells you why to expect to pay out to a label if you sign with one; the below piece gives you reasons you might not want to. It sounds grim but the truth is that getting signed is more likely to help your career than to hurt it. Before you read on though, I HIGHLY recommend you read this article by Spose (http://www.cracked.com/article_20939_7-things-record-deal-teaches-you-about-music-industry.html) and then this one by Courtney Love (http://www.salon.com/2000/06/14/love_7/). It’s a lot of information, I know, but definitely worth it if you want to learn more about what it really means to sign a record deal.
Jan 25, 2014: The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is the subject of much debate in the music world, whether you’re an artist/musician or just an avid music listener/enthusiast. These are the guys who sued Napster, had Kim Dotcom arrested by the FBI (illegally, I might add,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Dotcom#Dotcom.27s_arrest_in_New_Zealand), constantly and consistently screw artists and bands out of their rights, and will “legally” fine you thousands of dollars for downloading/sharing music files in any manner.
Founded in 1952 by a collective of top music distributors (“labels,” Sony, Universal, and Warner, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recording_Industry_Association_of_America), their original goal was to “administer recording copyright fees and problems, work with trade unions and do research relating to the record industry and government regulations.” Now, their goal is to protect “intellectual property owners” from theft. So who are these copyright owners?
The labels, of course! In an article by Courtney Love (written in 2000, mind you, during the height of the Metallica vs Napster issue, (http://www.salon.com/2000/06/14/love_7/) she explains what it really is that a label will do “for you.” Long, but definitely worth the read, she explains from an inside perspective what I talked about in my article about getting signed (first half of this post). Basically, be aware as a band or artist that if you sign a contract, you’re bound to it. Don’t let the large amounts of “fronted” money persuade you into a bad contract; have an entertainment lawyer look it over for you.
As for copyright ownership, be prepared to give it away the minute you sign a contract. Courtney Love breaks it down beautifully, and much more in-depth than I did. My post about contracts was intended to make bands/artists aware of how many people it really takes for you to “make it;” to explain why a label should get a piece of the pie. That’s assuming they’re not trying to steal the whole pie, as this post assumes they will. Now, I’m not saying that the RIAA speaks specifically for any of its member labels (of which there are over 1600, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_RIAA_member_labels), or that any specific labels aren’t to be trusted. Just know that a label’s only in it for the money, and if totally screwing you is how they’ll get more of it, be aware of that.
RIAA Tactics: Sue, Sue, Sue! They’re basically the Scientologists of the music industry. They not only sue websites that don’t even host copyrighted music but simply link to it from other sites, but they even tried to stop the release of the common mp3 player in 1999 (http://www.internetnews.com/bus-news/article.php/139091), saying that as a device that can “download” mp3s, it facilitated piracy. They cite music piracy as costing “$12.5 billion dollars in losses to the U.S. economy as well as more than 70,000 lost jobs and $2 billion in lost wages to American workers.” (http://www.riaa.com/physicalpiracy.php?content_selector=piracy_details_online). The fact that they cited this a from a “credible study” tells me that it’s not credible. Statistics are a funny thing, so easy to manipulate. On the other hand, here’s a study claiming that Napster and similar services have actually helped to boost music sales- http://news.cnet.com/Study-Napster-users-buy-more-music/2100-1023_3-243463.html. If you don’t believe that “illegal” downloads do in fact help, RIAA.com has admitted they do: “While industry revenues from digital formats continue to grow, and in 2012 surpassed $4 billion for the first time ever, up 14.0% versus the prior year after crossing the 50% threshold for the first time in 2011, digital music theft has been a major factor behind the overall global market decline.” (http://www.riaa.com/physicalpiracy.php?content_selector=piracy-online-scope-of-the-problem). UP14%? Where’s this so-called “global market decline?”
How can you protect your music in an effort to make it to the top of the charts? Copyright it yourself, and DO NOT EVER relinquish your rights to your music. At this point, if you haven’t read Courtney Love’s article (http://www.salon.com/2000/06/14/love_7/), you need to if you want to understand why I say this. So, how to quickly and easily copyright your music? This article at WikiHow explains it in simple detail- http://www.wikihow.com/Copyright-a-Song. It’s $35 a song and can take about 4.5 months (for each copyright), but it’s the absolute official way to legally make your works yours (in the US). The old method was to mail a copy to yourself to prove the existence of your work at the postmarked date, but this method has been proven to not hold up in court. Don’t risk it, get your copyrights and be aware of label scams such as labels “pending” contracts with you and then illegally licencing your works to others (http://boycott-riaa.com/article/42548.html).
Also, DO NOT SIGN A CONTRACT WITH A “WORKS FOR HIRE” CLAUSE!!! I cannot stress this enough. If you hire someone else to work on your song, such as a session artist, they are a work for hire, paid a one-time fee for their work and retain no rights to your royalties. If you sign a contract that says you, as the band or artist, are a “work-for-hire,” then you have given all copyright rights to the label, saying that they hired you to write, perform, record this music, whatever, and you will own none of it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recording_Industry_Association_of_America#The_.22work_made_for_hire.22_controversy).
Termination Rights- Know what they mean and how to use them! Termination rights are the rights of the artists to take back copyright ownership from a label after (for simplicity’s sake) 35 years. This means that bands that were huge in the 70′s are now getting theirs back- or they’re supposed to be! Record labels and the RIAA are actively fighting to keep these rights, as this would be a huge financial blow to them if they lost all of them en masse. Again, know what “works for hire” means, because this is one thing record labels are trying to claim they had over these 70′s artists in an effort to not lose the copyrights, despite “works for hire” not being a thing back then (and clearly doesn’t apply to 99% of the music of that time). Here’s a great article on Termination Rights and the fight between artists and labels- http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120302/03503317944/emi-sneakily-trying-to-pretend-many-its-artists-cant-reclaim-their-copyrights.shtml.
For more information in general (not already linked to above), check out these articles-
I think that’s all I’ve got right now, definitely feel free to comment if you have anything to add or debate this, I’m always open to other opinions. 🙂 So in closing I’ll leave you with this, Dan Bull’s song (and my personal favorite by him) about this subject in general- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvWR6C0VvY0.