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The Truth About Major Labels
by David Hooper - Kathode Ray Music, August 2002

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The Pinnacle of a Music Career....
When I was growing up, I always thought that being signed to a major label was the pinnacle of a music career. It was my dream at the time to one day get a record deal, play arenas throughout the world, and earn millions. The media made it look so carefree and easy! All it would take is that one A&R guy to see me at the club down the street, that one demo tape I'd blindly send out, or my friend of a friend who had an uncle that worked in the accounting department at Warner Bros.

Of course, I'd sometimes see bands like Men at Work or Culture Club on MTV talk about never seeing any of the millions of dollars their music was earning and basically being broke. How could it be that somebody with a Top 10 album and air-play all over the place is broke? I didn't believe it and choked it up to the probability that Boy George and I just had a different opinion on what exactly a ton of money was.

Fortunately, I eventually gave up the pipe dream that a major label deal is the key to a successful career. Surprisingly enough, many musicians have not. It still amazes me to this day the number of clients I get that think
they are ready to take on the world with a major label after only selling 1000-2000 discs...and how many of them have the same friend of a friend with an uncle at Warner Bros! Those bands don't understand what a major label really is.

Although I prefer independent music, I am definitely not anti-major label by any means. In fact, I really think major labels are the best thing for some artists. I also think they're perhaps the worst thing for many others. Jumping to a major label before you're ready can kill your career before it really starts. It doesn't look bad to get dropped from an indie, but getting kicked to the curb by a major label and coming back home to your gig as the house band of the hole down the street is humiliating!

A Major Label is an Extension of Your Band
They're basically going to be doing the exact same thing that you're doing now (or should be doing now), but on a much larger scale. While you're only able to earn one fan at a time, a major label can help you earn hundreds. While you're only able to get a small endorsement with a local music store, a major label can get you hooked up with national sponsors.
While you're only able to get in a regional music magazine, a major label can get you in something nationwide. A lot of doors can open up.

A Major Label is not a Magic Pill!
There are always exceptions, but most bands don't just come out of nowhere. There really isn't such thing as "artist development" these days and major labels are picking up bands who already have the fan base, musicianship, songwriting skills, and professionalism in place.

Major labels don't care about music...they care about selling "units." They're big corporations who look at numbers rather than the people behind them. If your band started a buzz by farting and belching, a major label would release a CD of you if they thought they could make any money.

You've probably heard the saying that banks don't like to give out loans to people who really need money. Those with good credit get good rates, while those that don't have good credit have all kinds of extra charges and hoops to jump through. The same could be true for major labels and record deals. Those who don't really need the deal can get a good one with a major while those who are in need of SOMETHING to help them make a
living get can really get the short end of the stick...if they get anything at all.

Labels love to pick up acts that already have a good foundation in place. It's less work for them as well as less chance of losing money. You have to show the majors that you don't need them in order to get their attention and get a good deal. Dave Matthews, KC and the Sunshine Band, Def Leppard, Ani DiFranco, and Hootie have all put out their own releases and done very well on their own without major label help. Those who have decided to move on to major labels have gotten great deals that have made them megastars. Those who haven't signed on with a major are still making a very good living.

You can't go wrong with a good foundation! Nobody is going to care about your career until you start caring about it yourself. A major label is great to jump you from 50,000 in sales to 500,000 because you've already done a lot of the leg work at that point. They're not going to be that great at getting you up from the 2000 level though. For those guys, they're just throwing it out there to see if it will stick. Most of the time it doesn't. Even if it does, that still doesn't mean you'll see any money. If you don't mind those odds, go ahead and sign. If you'd like to hold out for more of a sure thing, get out there and start building that foundation one fan at a time. Your deal will come in time.


David Hooper is the founder of Kathode Ray Music and IndieBiz.com. He is a music marketing consultant, and co-author of 'How I Make $100,000 a Year in the Music Business."

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