Shifting Sands: Should You Seek A Record Label Deal Or Go Independent, In 2013?

TThe last time I sat down to write a piece on the music business, it was way back 2004. I was 18, at SXSW and having my mind blown by the festivals main talking point, the pending collapse of the music business, post-Napster. Since then, we’ve learned that it was the record business that really was to suffer as the music business that once served the record buying world morphed into a leaner, meaner animal.

Napster logo

I assume no one reading a piece on Dotted needs an re-cap of the carnival that has ensued in the eight year since but it’s always worth asking the question, “where are we now?” And if you’re an emerging band, these shifting sands have more than likely made it more difficult for you to make a simple decision. “Should you be expending my energies on finding a record deal or going it alone?

While it’s a given that bands who are self releasing, touring, selling out their shows/music/merch etc. are more likely to both do well and/or get signed these days, it is still important to know to what end do you work your arse off. If it’s for the money you make yourselves, great and it is still true that this may well be more than what you would make if trapped inside a bad record deal (which still exist). But if you’re working to attract a label or a team that can help you take it to the next level, that’s now cool again too.

Just a few years ago, in light of Radiohead‘s free giveaway of ‘In Rainbows’, there was a flood of independent bands giving their music away for free as this model was championed as the way forward. More recently Amanda Palmer has declared her incredible crowd funding success as “the future of music” but both Radiohead and Amanda Palmer, as lynchpin examples, are artists who found their audience during their time working within the traditional music business. Their ability to remove themselves from that structure and maintain or even build upon those audiences independently is to be applauded but as an emerging act, it still leaves you guessing about what path to take.

Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer

I recently spoke to a band who are starting out, doing well in Dublin and they joked “it seems like the career path that “works” is to get signed, build your audience within the traditional label structure, flop and get dropped or succeed and leave your record company but maintain that audience, once independent to achieve a notable level of creative and commercial success!”. And all jokes aside, this is who Radiohead and Amanda Palmer are, respectively.

But it’s important to note that although this may be a proven career path for artists established in a different age, it’s not exactly a career path one can map out. And for every band who may go down this road, knowingly or not, there are as many emerging acts who also understand that all you really need, in addition to your already humming local activity, is a reputable PR company who can generate a buzz nationally and a booker who can book you enough shows to deliver on the hype and help you build. And with all the free music services out there at the moment, it is doable, if you have the money up front.

So, what’s the answer. Well, as ever in this age of choice, it’s up to you. In 2013, the talking points are no longer about old world label deals vs the DIY ethos but rather about choosing which path is right for your band. Musicians now have a broader array of choices and can make decisions based on the needs of their art and career. As an artist, it’s more important now to not get bound down in a pseudo-political stance that will hinder you from making the right deal based on your practical needs and opportunities.

Now that the world has heard the voices of many independent musicians who, eight years ago, were only too willing (and right) to critisize the music business as a criminal system, judging that they would make more money per item sold if they did so out of the boot of their car, it is also true that if the cut you need to give up is worth the help you will receive in return, then the road more travelled may work for you too.

Niall James Holohan is an independent musician, songwriter and occasional DJ from Dublin, Ireland. He performs both as a solo artist and as the front man of critically acclaimed rock outfit Readers Wives. He tweets @ReadersWives