What do Macklemore, Peter Gabriel and Wilco have in common? None are signed to a major label and they're all self-releasing albums. If you finished recording your album and are committed to going the DIY route, diving into promotion, distribution and live performances to promote your new music will comprise the next step. Making back some of the money you invested is an enticing endeavor, plus you're eager to share your music with your fans. If you're eyeing getting signed to a record label, however, you might be a little more hesitant about doing so.
Releasing an Album vs. Wooing a Record Label
You've probably heard that releasing an album yourself will kill off any interest from a label. There's some truth to that. If you release your music, make decent sales and get some press coverage, the label probably won't want that album anymore because you may have "used up" its coverage. The fans that want it, have it, and it's already been played and reviewed. There's not much left for the label to do.
That thinking, though, depends on scale. Sometimes, a label will conclude that your regional success doesn't preclude them from doing big things with an album nationally, for instance. There's no set formula, and in fact, there are so many factors at play rolled into this decision that you simply can't plan for them all. That said, if you've killed it self-releasing an album, you wouldn't want to re-release the same album anyway. In fact, you may not even want or need a label anymore. However, while a major success with a self-released album may mean the label doesn't want that one, it doesn't mean they won't want you.
What Is Today's Business Model?
There's a lot to be gained by releasing your own music, even if signing with a record label is your ultimate goal. However, are labels actually interested in breaking in brand new artists that haven't built up their own network of fans using social media and live shows? Labels want to work with people that have established a bit of a following. To achieve that, you have to venture into self-released music to some extent.
The more you can achieve on your own with your music, the more bargaining power you'll have when you do enter into negotiations with a record label. They'll need to build on the foundation you've set, and that will allow you to negotiate a better deal than an artist starting from scratch.
Consider Your Long Term Career Goals
Where do you envision your music playing down the road? If you want your music to have mainstream radio play, for instance, signing with a major label is the best route to achieve that. In a 2012 talk, Trent Reznor and David Byrne noted that today's choices today are not limited to signing with a label or striking out alone. Musicians now have a broader range of options and can make artistic and business decisions based on their individual needs including intermediate options, like contracting with a label services company.
In the end, self-releasing music when you're hunting for a label is a bit of a gamble, but the odds are in your favor. You may need to record a new album if a label comes sniffing around, but you're not a one hit wonder!