|Becoming a 'Priority' at a Record Label
by Christopher Knab - Fourfront
Media & Music - September
Back to Music
In an effort to educate artists and bands that still think signing a record label contract is the be-all and end-all
of their existence, this month's column is about the challenges of staying in the label's good graces once they
have signed you. In past columns I have written about the huge risk so many aspiring artists are willing to take
to get the almighty recording contract. This month I take you on a journey inside the mysterious world of becoming
a priority release at a label, once the label has decided to release your recording.
Just because an artist or band gets signed to a record label doesn't automatically mean that they will be treated
well by their label. Once a record has been scheduled for release, a number of factors will determine if it becomes
a "priority" at the label in terms of the amount of attention it receives. The term 'priority' is used
to designate which of the hundreds of records a year a label releases will get the most promotion and marketing
The reasons why one artist's new release may be more important to a label than another are varied and often hard
to understand. The major labels--and many independent record labels-juggle a lot of apples and oranges when they
go about the business of trying to sell records. There are a number of circumstances that contribute to the sometimes
irrational decisions being made regarding what records will become a 'priority' and what records will not. Some
of these reasons have to do with cold, hard business realities. Others are quite emotional and complex.
When it comes down to deciding when a record will be released, and deciding whether or not to spend very much time
and money to help sell it, there are some complex issues that come into play, but the biggest one is this: music,
after it has been created, becomes a product.
To sell music you must put it in a physical container of some kind. (Even in a digital world, a compressed audio
file will still have to deal with this reality. That is why the recording industry has been so concerned about
how these files will be used by consumers.) That container today is usually still a CD.
It is at this point that art enters the world of commerce. When a product containing an artistic creation becomes
something people can buy, art encounters commerce and the two worlds collide. In today's music business environment
the party that pays for the creation of the artistic product usually wins any arguments about how the art contained
within the product will be marketed
Music is an emotional product, and because of that there will always be issues that come up during the recording
of the songs, the marketing of the record, or in the personal relationships that are developed that can deeply
affect the success or failure of the project.
Music is not the same kind of product that a shoe is. You don't sell a shoe the same way you sell a CD. If you
want to sell a shoe, the shoe itself will not object too much about how you sell it. Not so with music. The artists
and bands that make music have an emotional investment in their creation. As 'artists' they concentrate more on
the creative side of music, and rarely are they well versed in the intricacies of the business world. So, as creative
creatures they can easily develop conflicting opinions on how their 'art' should be marketed
Songwriters may write songs as a creative expression. Musicians and singers may record a version of that song,
but a record label pays the bills for the recording, and then has to find a way to convince listeners of the song
that owning it will bring some kind of pleasure to their lives. (Devising a plan to do that is called marketing.)
Business people usually know more about commerce than art, so the tensions that exist because of this dynamic can
lead to misunderstandings, and misunderstandings can lead to disappointments for all parties involved.
Many solo artists and bands that get signed to record labels get themselves into trouble with record label executives
because they think the only thing that is important is the music itself, while the record label executives and
their team of promotional representatives have very little emotional investment in the songs they promote.
From their point of view, it is the responsibility of a record label to find a business way to sell the recording
they invested in. They may try to preserve the emotional investment their act's have in their songs as best they
can, but they will stop at nothing when, for example, a promotional opportunity comes up that may be at odds with
the image or ethics that the artist may hold. If the label executives see a potential profit coming from some controversial
promotion campaign, they will usually do what they have to do to take advantage of that marketing opportunity.
However, at the same time, if the artist is creating such a nuisance to them, they may sense a threat to their
investment or even their egos, and decide to cancel a promotion campaign at a moment's notice.
It would take another book to fully explain the strange dynamic between the fragile emotions of aspiring musicians
and the egos of materialistic record company executives, but let's take a look at some fairly common situations
that come up in the complex world of record labels, marketplace realities, and artist relations.
Factors That Determine Priority Releases
Major labels often find that they have over-extended themselves by signing too many acts within a short period
of time and scheduling too many releases to come out at the same time. So, when they discuss which scheduled records
have the best chance of success in the marketplace, they may simply push back a release 6 months to a year. (Regretfully,
depending on an act's actual contract, there may be no guarantees that a label has to ever release their record.)
Another situation surrounding priority records is this. If a label signs an act because they play a genre of music
that is currently hot on the charts, but the negotiations for signing the deal, or the recording process took too
much time, they may have missed their opportunity to cash in on a current popular music trend, and realizing that
fact, simply decide not to make the record a priority release, but to 'sit on it' and wait to see if another time
of year for releasing the record would be more opportunistic.
To complicate matters even more when it comes to what records will be given the most attention by a label, a label
executive may sign an act only to stop a competing record label executive from signing them to his label, and when
the record is released any interest in promoting the record takes second place to the personal satisfaction of
having 'one-upped' a competitor….and the act is left out in the cold.
But the ego issue can also work positively for a recording artist. A label executive may sign an artist in order
to impress and influence the manager of another similar hot act, with hopes of getting the band on their label
someday. So, when the record of such an artist comes out, the label executive may pull out all the stops promotionally,
to show the manager what a great job the label can do. If the label shows it can do a good job with a newer artist
on that manager's roster, perhaps the manager will send one of his established stars over to the label, when the
existing record contract with the established artist runs out.
Here's another reason why a record might become a priority at a label. We're constantly hearing about corporations
downsizing, and companies reducing their staff with every new merger or corporate buyout. At the same time, many
major labels are merging with other large labels--and increasing the workload for the remaining staff. It can be
important for a label executive to demonstrate to the shareholders of the corporation and to staff at the label
that the downsizing issue is not a concern, so a particular act's new release is given a stronger push to impress
all concerned parties.
Be forewarned, however. When downsizing occurs, an artist's record may be shifted to a different priority level.
Key personnel who were excited about and instrumental in "breaking" a new label act may be fired, or
asked to take early retirement. When it comes time to release the new record, a different person may be assigned
to work the act; someone who may not care much about, or even like the music on the artist. Will that record remain
a priority? There are no guarantees that the new employee will be excited about that act's music. They may have
their own pet projects to put ahead of any previous arrangements.
"Bidding wars" also affect priority status. Bidding wars occur when a new band is the hot topic of the
industry grapevine. One label makes an offer to sign the band, another label hears about it and ups the bid, a
third label offers even more money. The winner of this bidding war will probably be forced to make that act's initial
release a priority. The label will need a sizeable return in sales dollars from the new band's recording to recoup
their large investment. Interestingly, no band or act signed from any bidding war has ever gone on to major stardom.
Music trends come and go. In the early and mid 90's Grunge came and went. What followed in the late 90's, and into
this new millennium, was young boy bands, and young, blond girl ingénues. When a hot new music style comes
on the scene, any act that is signed to take advantage of a new popular music trend will usually become a priority
at the record label that signed them.
By the way, usually, all new releases by superstar acts are automatic priority records because of their star status
and the simple fact that they sell a lot of product consistently.
So, take heed. Many people think signing a recording contract with a record label means automatic stardom. That
is not the case, and musician approached by a label for a deal would do well to research that label's track record
and reputation for making their releases priorities. Take my word for it though, if you are perceived as a troublemaker
by the label executives, or if they decide that your record shows no signs of being accepted at radio, other media,
and music retailers, that piece of paper you have in your possession called a recording contract may be about as
valuable as a sheet of Kleenex.
The issues I have discussed here have come up often enough to contribute to a change in the attitude of many musicians
toward working with record labels. Over the last two decades more and more musicians have taken charge of their
own business careers, and the list of artists and bands releasing their own records, and marketing them themselves
grows longer every day. Perhaps the level of success these entrepreneurial musicians reach may not equal the success
of major superstars, but at least when they wrestle with the dynamics created by art meeting commerce, they are
wrestling with themselves, and are dealing with the business realities of the music industry on their own terms.
Note: This month's
column is an edited version of a chapter in my book, Music Is Your Business available on this
website, as a printed book or a pdf file version.
Christopher Knab is an independent music business consultant based in Seattle, Washington. He
is available for private consultations on promoting and marketing independent music, and can be reached by email at: email@example.com
Chris Knab's new book, 'Music Is Your Business'
is available NOW from the Music Biz Academy bookstore.
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