What to Know Before You Start a Record Label
Are you thinking of getting into the record label business? Starting your own record label, whether for fun or with hopes of turning into a real, live business, is hard, hard work. Before you make the leap, find out what you are getting into and what you should have in place, so you're set up to make a good go of it. Here's what you need to consider before you start planning that first release.
I know, I know, you're doing this for love, not money, right?
Unfortunately, everyone you're going to need to work with start your label is unlikely to be so giving. Pressing albums costs money, and there are additional costs that add up more quickly than you might imagine - postage is a huge one that can really send you for a spin. Promoting an album also costs a bundle. There are things you can do to keep your costs down, but don't head out in your brave new label world with a credit card and a dream. Research, figure out a realistic budget for your goals and be prepared to not see a return for a very long time.
If you want to make some of that money back, you need some way to get your releases into the hands of music fans. The rub? Most distributors are averse to working with start-up labels. They're looking for labels with proven track records and with a release schedule that will give them a steady supply of new records to sell. Be ready to get creative at first, putting your music in all the stores (online and physical) that will have you, working to let people know they can get your stuff there, all while you're working to get another distributor on board to take over for you.
Just like you need to give people some way to buy your albums, you need to let them know that they exist in the first place. To do that, you have to promote, promote, promote. When you're just getting started, promotion can be a real uphill battle - it takes time to build up the contacts you need so you can relax in the knowledge that when you put out a record, someone is going to talk about it.
If you don't do your promotion in-house, it can get extremely expensive, with no guaranteed payoff. Promotion is a necessity, but it's hard work, and be prepared for a huge learning curve.
Working with Bands
You're no doubt thinking of starting a label because you've heard some music you love that you want to share with the world. Now, all you have to do is deal with the band. Some bands really, really "get it," are happy to grow with you and the label, and know how much time and money you are dedicating to get their music heard. Some bands really, really don't. When you're just getting started, skip the prima donnas. Also, take the time to work out the financial stuff. If cash does start coming in, misunderstandings can blossom with ease - and you don't need that kind of stress. It's a pain personally and for the label.
Get a Collection of Hats
because you're going to need a lot of them. That is to say, when you're running an indie label, you have to do the jobs that are spread out among many different people at big labels. When you're an indie label, you may find yourself acting as manager, promoter, agent, video director, graphic designer, PR officer, radio plugger, A&R, accountant, lawyer, distributor, webmaster, travel agent, secretary and maker of tea/coffee and snacks.
And that's just for starters. If only you got paid for doing all of those jobs!
The Two Most Important Things
That long list of tasks you often have to take on when you start a record label demonstrates the two most crucial things you need to know about getting into the indie label business. While manufacturing, distribution, and promotion might be the practical things you need to release a record, before worrying about that, know this:
- You must be able to juggle several tasks at once, and you must be self-motivated to keep it going, even when it's not so fun.
- You have to absolutely LOVE what you are doing. If you don't, you'll get tired of the hard work and ups and downs very quickly.
More Money and The Fine Print
I started out emphasizing how expensive releasing records can be, and I'll finish by stressing that point as well.
But here's the thing - you can be creative and keep your costs down considerably. Do some PR in-house, do artwork by hand, don't spend money on cool but expensive vinyl and so on. You can, in fact, trump any of the challenges facing a small label - getting decent distribution, getting reviews, etc - with a little patience and creativity. Consider the rest of this article a reality check, not a "don't do it!" warning. Look before you leap, but if you like what you see, leap away. It CAN be done.