Back in the old days, it was pretty straightforward. As a new artist, the only way to get heard beyond your postcode was to sign with a record label. To achieve this meant knocking on a thousand doors, blanket-bombing A&R men with your demo and wallpapering your rehearsal room with rejection letters. And then maybe – just maybe – you’d become one of the infinitesimal percentage of bands whose music was allowed into the public domain.
Times change. Of course, for many of us, the traditional record deal – ideally signed aboard a superyacht and toasted with champagne and cigars – remains the Holy Grail. But with the playing field blown wide open by the Web, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what sort of artist you want to be, and by extension, whether recording, releasing and promoting your music under your own steam might actually suit you better. Here’s a rundown of the advantages that come with self-releasing – plus a few of the pitfalls.
Advantage #1 – You have total creative control
We’ve all heard the horror stories about bands being forced to scrap their album because the chairman “doesn’t hear a single”, or ordered to perform in lederhosen because the label is convinced there’s an oompah craze around the corner. An undeniable advantage of self-releasing is that you get to make the music that moves your soul, without an iota of compromise. It’s a key benefit for indie singer-songwriter Jay Tennant, whose recent single Transmission was tipped by BBC Introducing. “The best thing about self-releasing,” he says, “is that you have complete artistic freedom. There’s no label exec trying to push you in a new direction or get you to write with a ‘hit-maker’…”
Advantage #2 – You get all the money
The BBC recently calculated that when a CD is sold for £8, the record label typically pockets £2.40, while the artist receives just £1.04. As a young band, you’re unlikely to be in a position to play hardball over the small-print of your contract, which explains why so many musicians end up handcuffed into punitive 360 deals (meaning that you fork over a percentage of all other income streams, including gig takings and merch). But when you self-release, you sign nothing, and there are far fewer middlemen with their hands out for a slice of your pie (even if the size of the pie itself is far from guaranteed).
Advantage #3 – Your music is out there
Assuming you’re not entirely motivated by money, there’s nothing to beat the dizzy thrill of knowing that your music is out there in the world, being heard and enjoyed by actual people. The danger of holding out for a traditional deal is that it never materialises, and the music that you’re so desperate to express ends up sat on your hard-drive for all eternity, unheard and unloved. Go it alone and you could have it slapped all over the Internet by lunchtime.
Advantage #4 – It’s a great shop window
For some artists, self-releasing can be a means to an end, raising their profile and building a buzz until the big boys come knocking. It certainly didn’t do any harm to the careers of FKA Twigs (who self-released her EP1 debut on Bandcamp before signing to XL) and Ed Sheeran (whose Orange Room and You Need Me EPs paved the way to his cash-hoovering deal with Atlantic). Plus, by building a fanbase with early self-released material, you’ll be in a stronger negotiating position if you do ultimately sit down with a label.
Advantage #5 – You decide where your music is sold
None of us know for sure where music consumption is headed next. But one thing is certain: if you’re in sole charge of your material, you can react faster to the twists and turns of the evolving industry, and be ready to embrace a new platform or delivery system while a traditional label is still dragging its heels and consulting with its shareholders.
Pitfall #1 – You take the financial risk
Say what you like about record labels, but virtually all of them will give you some kind of advance to cover the recording, manufacture, distribution and promotion of your album. As an unknown quantity self-releasing your own material, not only will you have to foot the bill for these costs, but you’ll probably have to do so upfront. If you end up with a garage full of unsold CDs and a maxed-out credit card, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Pitfall #2 – You’ll have to make your own contacts
Any serious label will have a bulging contacts book, calling on trusted producers, manufacturers, distributors, PRs and friendly journalists to grease the wheels of their releases. You’ll have to build your contacts from scratch, which can be tough: imagine trying to convince a sceptical distributor to take you on, or get a busy rock hack to review your album when you’re the eighth unsigned act to land on his desk that morning. Even if you take the more straightforward digital-only route, no band is an island. “All the bands that I know who say they can do it all on their own,” says Steve Beatty, managing director of Plastic Head Distribution, “are all failing dismally.”
Pitfall #3 – It’s unbelievably time-consuming
Don’t be fooled by the immediacy: self-releasing is far from the easy option. By the time you’ve spent your morning licking envelopes and liaising with pressing plants, and your afternoon chasing up invoices and cold-calling journalists, don’t be surprised if your nerves are fried and you’ve got no mojo left to pick up your instrument. If you can’t handle the prospect of all that admin, better hold out for the major-label deal and the superyacht…