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Start a Label and Build and Empire
Part One.

by Mike Grebb.

This article first appeared in The Musician's Atlas' December 2005 Atlas Plugged Newsletter and is used by permission. The Musician's Atlas is a fantastic resource for musicians, containing over 30,000 music business contacts.

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The traditional goal for many aspiring artists has always boiled down to two words: Get signed. These magical words conjured visions of stretch limos, screaming fans, endless bags of moneyÖ and most importantly seemed to guarantee that all of those earthly worries (the crappy day-job, running errands, worrying about where to mooch the next free meal, etc.) would fade into the ether and you could finally concentrate 100-percent on music. Getting signed meant freedom.

Of course, today's artists are a lot smarter. They now know that "getting signed" seldom equals eternal bliss and security. In fact, having a label behind you (big or small) can even be detrimental to a career. Just ask any number of artists who have found themselves held "hostage" by a label that refuses to promote them or release them from their contracts. So much for freedom, eh?

Thatís not to say labels are bad. The majors still can catapult an unknown into superstardom (and are uniquely suited to do so). And some small indie labels are great at spotting talent and nurturing it along to the next level. But artists have gradually realized in recent years that the do-it-yourself model of putting out records and managing a career from the grassroots can yield certain advantages. And in many cases, creating your own label can give you much more control over your musical destinyóall without the pressure to sell millions of records.

Ani DiFranco, the poster child for the successful artist-run label, is a major underground force with a multitude of adoring fans and the admiration of mainstream press and industry analysts. In addition to creating music that resonates, her success as an artist/entrepreneur and CEO of her own label Righteous Babe Records, is supported by her tenacity, perseverance and goal-oriented approach to her career.

Not all of us will be so blessed, but her success has inspired countless musicians to shift their goals. Following DiFranco's example, many unsigned artists now focus on starting their own labels and growing their own fan bases, which is really the only thing that attracts interest from larger labels these days anyway. Like most things in life, once you start making things happen for yourself, the offers will usually start coming your way. Whether your goal is to eventually get signed or build your own empire, a successful artist-run label could expand your options if other labels ever do come sniffing around.

For emerging artists, establishing your own label is often the first psychological step toward thinking of your music as a career. "If someone wants to make money from their music, they have to think in terms of themselves as a business," says Daylle Deanna Schwartz, a self-improvement guru and author of several music-business books, including Start and Run Your Own Record Label and her latest title, I Donít Need A Record Deal.

And, you donít need to spend a lot of money or even get incorporated. Simply registering yourself as a business with the county clerkís office will suffice. Once you have officially established yourself/your record label as a recognized entity, you can open a separate bank account for all your music business.

Of course, once you become official, you must act like a real business and follow certain protocols such as budgeting and keeping track of your expenses (as a business you get taxed and tax write-offs). Software such as Quicken can help you keep track of these pesky details. And, it may sound dopey, but the truth is that bookers, clubs, managers, and even music journalists are more apt to give your stuff a listen if it looks like youíre organized and professional. "When they see a CD that looks like it came from a label, they take you more seriously," says Schwartz. So a professional looking logo, CD, merch and press kit are even more important for Indies.

Unlike the majors, which are often creatively stymied by their corporate bean counters, artist-run labels are usually much freer to explore and experiment. While some operate solely to support the artistís own artistic expressions and releases, others like DiFranco and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, use their experience and clout to achieve an even grander goal. DiFranco's empire supports artists such as Andrew Bird, Utah Phillips, and Sara Lee. Ray's "nonprofit label", Daemon Records, nurtures diverse talent such as the 1990ís darlings, "The Ellen James Society" and 2004 Independent Music Award winners, "Girlyman."

Troy Johnson, a former Motown and Word/Epic recording artist, just released a self-titled CD in 2005 on Sought After Entertainment, a record label that he co-owns with business veteran David Turner. The label is fast expanding "to develop artists with powerful music and a positive message," Johnson says. He calls the labelís promotion of the group Chica "a great proof point. Weíre already getting an amazing response from BET, LATV, SiTV, R&R and members of the print media."

The truth is that you never know where an artist-run label will lead. Musician and singer/songwriter Aaron Cohen, founded Instatone Brand Records in the early 1990s so he could put out records by his own band, Paint, as well as other Indie bands that needed some help. Over time, the label evolved into more of an Internet radio station for "do-it-yourself," or DIY, artists, who can upload their songs to the site for free. Cohenís new site will be re-launching in a couple of months complete with podcasts and a rating system that Cohen says "will enable listeners to let unknown musicians rise to the top based on our star-rating system," and will soon launch a service that will sell MP3s directly to the musician's fan base."

One of my best friends is Ben Dixon, a Philadelphia artist with whom I played a lot of open mics in the Washington, D.C., way back in the 1990s. Ben began his Edgimo record label during that period but soon found himself using it to help out other artists with promotions and booking.

"In the beginning it was no more than just a name, a logo, a mailing address and a point of contact for all the business related matters such as press, online sales, etc.," he says. "But as time went on, it evolved into a brand and attracted other artists who wanted to take advantage of the systems I'd established and my experience."

Eventually, Ben used the entity as an umbrella for his other ventures, including his growing freelance Web-design business. "While it has evolved into a different company than I originally intended, the direction it took is mainly due to my changing interests and better understanding of what the business requires," Dixon says.

The bottom line is that running your own label can take many forms and take you many places, but if you start a label, you must be prepared to run a business. If your goal is to showcase and monetize your own recordings, Schwartz suggests a simple test to determine whether youíre ready. "You have to be good enough where your song and performance can shut people up at a bar," she says. And letís face it: If you can do that, skyís the limit.


(Mike Grebb is a writer, journalist and singer/songwriter based in Washington, D.C. He just completed his debut solo record, Resolution, which is available at www.mikegrebb.com, as well as digitally on iTunes, MSN Music, Musicmatch, Yahoo! Music Unlimited and other sites. You can also be his friend on MySpace! www.myspace.com/mikegrebb).

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