Once upon a time, in a land far far away, a young maiden got a record deal. She got to play her music for the world. She even got paid money!! And she lived happily every after. (Of course.)
I love my team at UMG very much. They have taught me enormously, and encourage me every day. They even inspire me….and most importantly they have allowed me to afford to make the music that I long to make. The music that wakes me up at night….and I hope very much that I will get to share it with you. [Insert shameless plug asking the powers that be to release my album.]
But, I thought I would take a minute and demystify the “record deal” for you. Now, these are only my own observations, from my experience with ONE record deal with EMI & Universal (they merged in 2012.) For a little bit of back story leading up to the record deal, go to my about page.
First, some words on fame.
When I was “shopping” for a deal in 2010-2011, I didn’t think that a record deal would “make me famous,” and I’m not being coy about that… that wasn’t what I was really looking for—fame. Fame is a weird, sometimes positive, outcome of doing something in the public forum, that people are paying attention to.
Here’s what the dictionary says about it:
(We can also chuckle that I had a single called “Famous,” but if you know my music, you know it was a cheating song!)
What’s odd is that—for the most part—in country music, there is no “in between;” there is no “middle class.” (As a friend of mine recently put it.) You’re either an emerging artist (which is what people call baby acts or newish acts,) or you’re a “star.” (A word that still kinda gives me the creeps. [The uber popular girls in my high school were referred to as “the superstars,” which is a term I actually think one of their mother’s coined…which is just…EW.] But back to the “star” word…there isn’t a lot of room in the middle. In country music, most success occurs via the radio (recent Chris Stapleton events not withstanding) and radio is a massive platform. So, when radio gets behind you in a big way, you yourself become quite “big”.
A song is either a “hit” or it’s not, you know it or you don’t…the vast majority of listeners don’t remember the songs that went to number 25 of the charts. They remember the big hits. And if you’re having hits on the radio, you will have a pretty big career. Naturally, there are some one-hit wonders that come and go, but for the most part you’re either famous, or you’re not…and what that really means is you’re able to have a touring career. And in the era of the 360 deal, touring is how you make your living.
But this piece isn’t really about fame, it’s about getting into business with the record companies that put out music…signing a record deal. If you’re an aspiring artist, writer, singer, whatever…do not assume that a record deal will get you the career that you want.
A record deal MIGHT help get you the career that you want…but really YOU have to get you the career that you want. By making the music that you believe in. Period. And if you get a record deal, and a lot of things really work out in your favor, you might be able to make a living making your music. Which is a very beautiful thing. [Now someone here reading this is gonna get all cranky on me about how you can have a successful music career outside of the label world, and that’s just fine. There are ways to do that. By touring extensively In Texas. By releasing music in other genres….but I’m talking about making mainstream (or somewhat mainstream,) commercial country music. Hate on me in the comments….]
So…What does a record deal really get you?
- Money. OK, not really PERSONALLY. (Usually you get signing bonus, but you don’t really get paid to have a record deal.) But you do get access to all kinds of financial support for your business. People love to joke that you’re never poorer than the day you sign your record deal. But—especially signing with a major—gives you access to much deeper pockets for recording, tour support, radio promotion, marketing, etc…than most people have on their own.
- Expertise. A lot of really smart, oftentimes passionate, people work at record labels and they know how to do stuff that, as an artist, you don’t need to be an expert in. I’m not saying don’t be business-minded, but I AM saying pay more attention to growing your art, and your craft than learning all the nitty gritty of, say, radio promotion. Let them be experts, so you can be an artist.
- A team. This actually is one of the most important things to me. Building a team, inspiring a team, and empowering a team of people with your vision is really really important. And it’s something that I’m very passionate about. I also just happen to love being ON a team. Good things happen creatively when we’re in relationship with other people. And it’s FUN.
- Credibility. It does. It gives you some street cred. Now, this town can get hot on somebody, and then move on in a heartbeat…so it definitely doesn’t give you LASTING credibility, but it does raise your “IT” factor a bit.
- Opportunities. The people running these companies are very very very well connected, and they are going to be “in the know” about a lot of opportunities that the average person, or even a decent manager, isn’t gonna know about. They can connect you with opportunities, and help line up opportunities that can create a success story.
Things I wish I’d known before signing my record deal plus some things to keep in mind.
- You are still driving the boat. Seriously, just like when you were an indie artist, you really must drive the boat. People are attracted to a vision, a plan, and it gives them confidence, when you’re confident.
- Do not ask for a ton of opinions. Because opinions are like………noses. Everyone has one. I really think that I’m being a “good partner” at times when I ask for feedback, advice, or opinions from my label team, but sometimes it just muddies the water. And yes, don’t be an asshole, be teachable, be kind. But you KNOW (hopefully) who you are and what is authentic to you. Don’t let the people around you determine how you feel about your music.
- You cannot please everyone. (Just keep repeating it to yourself.)
- It is a machine. It is a machine made up of some lovely individuals, but it is still is a very big machine, and you are not the most important thing. You are not unimportant, but it’s business…you can become more or less important based on what is happening with your business.
- Hire a great manager. A manager is like a spouse. Seriously. Don’t rush into it. A great manager can help you navigate the label, and be an advocate for you, so you can keep your relationships with the label really positive. Be bold and be yourself, but there are plenty of conversations that you as an artist just do not need to be having. Let your manager be your advocate, and be your voice.
- Record labels are great at traditional, proven music models. They are OUTSTANDING at that. But they are NOT very nimble, usually. Because they’re a corporation, and there are a ton of moving parts, it’s just hard for them to really tailor a business plan/marketing plan to an artist that isn’t a model they’re already comfortable with. That doesn’t mean they never take risks, or “think outside the box,” it just means that they have a harder time with acts that may need a less traditional model and ones (like me) who don’t immediately “work” at country radio in a big way.
- A record deal does not mean that you will get to release an album. It means you *might* get to release an album. Outsiders find this unbelievable, but there are a thousand stories of albums by artists you’ve never heard of (and some you have heard of) with albums “in the vault” somewhere that are never released.
I hope this is helpful. Share your questions and comments with me and I’ll be glad to reply.
Haute Hippie jacket, black silk dress by Stark (which i got at Emerson Grace in Nashville). Old (sorry can’t find them anywhere) Jeffrey Campbell booties. Necklace (which I made out of antique chandelier crystals for a CMT event.)
Some Fringe Jackets that I’m loving: