Record Deals…and Why

Dealby: Steve Riley

You can pretty easily spot someone who’s new to the realities of the music industry, or someone who’s an old soul who’s a bit out of touch by a couple simple words they’ll use: “…getting signed.”

If that phrase enters into a musical discussion as a clearly-defined “goal”, then I think a reality check may be in order. Not to say that you can’t “get signed” anymore, but that idea carries so little weight that’s it’s almost impossible to take it seriously.

I remember reading in a magazine a long time ago where a famous drummer said “People think getting signed is some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but in reality it’s whole NEW set of problems that can really screw you up in the end.” In fact, if you look at major label rosters over the years (which will have 1 recognizable name out of 10 signings), I’d venture to say that “getting signed” is more of a kiss-of-death to a promising band than toiling in obscurity is. This has to do with the “I got my shot, and I failed” principle. If you see a major label record deal as your ultimate goal, and you achieve it, but your album doesn’t sell and you get dropped, it can be a death-blow to your ego, and so disheartening that you give up on music altogether.

In the case of my friends in the band Depswa, they got signed to Geffen after about 10 years of building a fan base in the L.A. hard rock scene. Once signed they released one incredible sounding album “Two Angels And A Dream” (check it out, by the way, if you like heavy alt rock. They sound like Jeff Buckley meets Deftones or something) and they were a victim of being “too little, too late”. Papa Roach, Breaking Benjamin, Chevelle and a few other hard rock bands had sucked the well dry and there was no room for poor Depswa…a band with more integrity and talent than 10 Papa Roaches. “Two Angels…” didn’t sell, didn’t make radio, and flopped. They went on a couple support tours, failed to gain a mainstream buzz, and died out. The band is attempting a comeback at the moment, but the amount of wind taken out of their sails during the “major label process” was enough to essentially kill the band.

At this stage, in 2010, the band is responsible for itself. As well it SHOULD be. No band should willingly sign over the rights to their music and their lives (essentially) for a shot at 10% or less of their earnings. It’s such a ridiculous concept, that it’s amazing that it was ever legal. From the 1950’s through the 90’s, it only worked because there were enough perks to keep bands interested in pursuing it. Fame, sex, touring, fame, fame, fame, were all powerful drivers for the music industry. Bands made great albums on the premise that their song would get them a plane ticket to Tokyo where they could play to adoring crowds, have a giant orgy after the show, and get nice and wasted with their friends. They probably never saw any serious cash for their songs, but hey, they were temporarily satisfied with the lifestyle that the label had provided for them.

These days, labels can’t provide that, only bands can provide that for themselves, with some savvy marketing, intense hard work, a dash of talent and looks, and a bit of luck. You have to create a video that costs $0 and somehow make it seen by a million people. You have to go out and hustle a corporate sponser (think Energy Drinks) and have them fund part of your tour. And you absolutely MUST record your album by yourself, so that you can retain the rights of your songs. That way you can sell your songs to video games, corporations, marketing companies, film producers and anyone else who needs original music for their product. You must be 100% willing to see your music as a marketing tool for companies, because that’s what it is. American Idol uses the “idea” of music to sell a TV show…and it’s a sad fact that American Idol is one of the leading, driving forces behind modern music. This is a fact. Music is not sacrosanct any longer. It is a means to sell a product, it is background noise for a TV show. It’s not worth resisting it.

Labels, at this point, have no money or interest to fund the music industry. In the entertainment ladder of TV, movies, video games, DVDs, sports…music is firmly at the bottom. And it shows no signs of moving up rungs any time soon. Music is now a complement to the others, rather than a legitimate competitor. This means the “industry” as a whole is just broke. Sony, Universal, et. al, have no money or time or great incentive to go looking for bands. They’re not going to sign you! They’re essentially going to sign NOBODY anytime soon. Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s also safe to say you’re not going to win the lottery, either. You can just kind of accept that and move on, right?

Think about how many NEW famous musicians there are: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Justin Beiber, Kesha? What do you or any of the bands you know have in common with them? They’re all in their early 20’s or younger, all look pretty good on a magazine, and are all singular artists with simple marketing plans. Hell, Katy Perry is famous for kissing a girl and liking it. And Justin Beiber is a walking haircut. Sure, they all have a bit of talent, but talent didn’t get them signed. Being a singular marketing entity that can easily be exploited is what they have going for them. I think an honest look at what you or your friends has to offer will yield the ultimate conclusion: it ain’t gonna happen.

If you’ve taken this article at face value, can accept that what I’m saying has merit, and are unfazed, then you may have what it takes to be successful in music. This is the age of THE NEW CREATIVITY. The idea that you have to design your future in this business, on your terms, on your own merits, and by your own sweat and blood. Not only do you have to write the songs, you have to film your videos, you have to strategize your marketing, you have to make your website, you have to find sponsors, you have to publish your own songs and get them placed in movies. You have to do what YOU have to do in order to be successful and get your music heard. And I dont think I’m wrong in thinking that that kind of full-investment into a craft and art will lead to great things in the future. And, not only that, it is a trial by fire that will only leave the most creative, inventive people standing…and isn’t that who we want to remain standing? Let the labels have the Ke$ha’s and Beibersof the world, let the people have the true artists and innovators!

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