Over the last 6 months, in talking with many people I work with and based on my own personal experience, I’m starting to notice that many of us (us, being musicians) feel that we haven’t “made it” if we haven’t signed something to a label. 20 years ago this may have been accurate, but nowadays, this idea seems totally debatable. Finding a record label to work with isn’t what it used to be.
How can signing with a label benefit you? A label can:
- Give you access to online stores and sell your music, as well as manage sales and accounting.
- Get you in touch with a network.
- Give you credibility with other musicians and labels.
Yes, I know, these are pretty important benefits. However, if you’re constantly chasing after labels to get signed, it is not worth it. If your music has been turned down by multiple labels, maybe your song is not “ripe” enough to be out. Maybe it sounds outdated or too different from market trends. Perhaps it needs a better mix. If you keep pushing it, maybe it will sell eventually but perhaps the numbers will be so low that it makes releasing it questionable. I’ve released with little labels before and some songs sold for less than 20 copies. In these cases, I feel like I should have just given the track to friends instead.
The same goes for my own label. With some releases I’m blown away by how amazing they sound, and how innovative and beautiful they are, but despite the time spent on promotion and networking (or even using a PR company), these releases sold 20 copies as well. Why? Well, it’s mostly because the market is already saturated with music and people’s attention is constantly in demand. Gems get lost. I like to compare music to people who paint. It’s not because one paints a great canvas that means it will automatically sell.
We have a promotion list of about 200 people – including media and DJs – and even from this list in which we give them the music for free and push out multiple reminders, we barely get 15 downloads (sometimes 25 when there’s a spike of interest). That’s less than what we’ll sell. Sales will decline too if a release got promoted intensely, which is strange. It’s a pretty discouraging thing to try to promote music and not get any reactions at all. It’s a common thing that many, many musicians do, almost daily, and to see only a few reactions to their work can make them feel that perhaps their music has something wrong with it. But there isn’t anything wrong with it, it’s just not targeted properly
Ok, so if finding a record label isn’t the way to go, then what is?
Reduce your promotion efforts and target people that might be interested in the music directly instead. If you have to push so hard to get people’s attention and you’re putting yourself in a “begging” position, why not just keep your work for the people who actually might want it? I don’t think it’s healthy for anyone to fight to be seen or heard. In the long run, it makes people jaded and resentful.
What about giving the release away for free on Soundcloud? Many people do this and I think it might do more good than harm, if you don’t do it too often. If you start putting your quality tracks out there, some people will add them to their playlists. TIP: use tags to make sure your music gets noticed and check out my post on how to get feedback. Soundcloud now has a way for DJs to use tracks on the site for DJing.
Put your release on Youtube and make a little video. I did a survey not long ago and I was impressed by how so many people use YouTube to listen to music. You could also use services to get on Spotify and you can easily put your music on Bandcamp.
The main thing you want to do is to be everywhere. No reactions? It doesn’t matter, keep doing it. Keep some gems secret for when a label will come to you to sign you, if you feel like that might happen. Don’t insist on getting traction. Focus on those who care.
Social endorsement is the best promotion tool you can get. When people like what you do, they do the promotion for you. I’ll use Villalobos as an example here. He makes so much music compared to what he simply releases. He has a strong John Cage influence, but I’m not sure if he knows it. Basically, Cage suggested spending a lot of time in the studio and to always try new things, to have “barely controllable chaos” and to record it all. Ricardo has over 5,000 songs and plays some in clubs when he feels like it. Many tracks leak to friends and are relayed online among fans. But those fans really care about the music and cherish it.
Perhaps its time to keep the music we love to ourselves? By this I mean keeping it for the people who reach out, who want to listen. I’m personally fed up of trying to “get attention” or convince people that music I make is worth listening to. This is what I’m doing now. I’m giving some tracks to people I know who ask for them or who I know care. I feel very excited that 20 people really listen to my music compared with trying to reach to the whole world. Maybe making music hard to find again and keeping it mysterious is the way to go.
But then again, that’s just me.