The Myth (Of the Record Deal)

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:

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 8.26.18 PM

(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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. You cannot please everyone. (Just keep repeating it to yourself.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Much love.

Outfit details:

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:



13 Comments on The Myth (Of the Record Deal)

  1. Brittney Hitch
    November 18, 2015 at 5:20 pm (2 years ago)

    LOVE THIS! Thank you for your honesty and opinions. I feel that this is a must-read for any young professional going into the music business. As one myself going into publicity, how would you from an artist standpoint describe the relationship between the artist & the publicist? ( I know sometimes the artist can choose one independently or they are assigned one from the label. )

    • Kelleigh
      November 18, 2015 at 5:24 pm (2 years ago)

      Thank you Brittney! We can always use more smart passionate women on the publicity front. You’re right, some people have publicists on retainer, in addition to the label publicist. I work with the publicity team when there is a specific project…like a new single, or a new promotion, or a big news item. I would say it’s really important to feel like your publicist understands your brand (this sounds obvious I know…) but also really cares about helping communicate about your brand…not just going after the easier “gets.” But being thoughtful about what outlets to pitch to. Also, it really helps if you believe that your publicist genuinely is passionate about your music. Honestly, I wish I got more time with the publicity team. Does that help at all?

      • Brittney Hitch
        November 18, 2015 at 5:35 pm (2 years ago)

        Yes, this helped!! Thank you very much!

      • Tammy
        November 19, 2015 at 8:26 pm (2 years ago)

        I love this! Publicists are among the most under-appreciated members of the artist’s team.

  2. Tammy
    November 18, 2015 at 5:30 pm (2 years ago)

    This is brilliant! I just want to add one thing regarding the “Money” section that young artists hoping for that record deal often don’t know about.

    Yes, Kelleigh, you are so right. You do have access to deep pockets. The more successful the record label (a/k/a. The more acts they have in their stable who have record, chart and tour success), the deeper those pockets are. And some labels even have investors who have access to what seems like endless amounts of funds.

    However! Recording costs, tour advances, promotion costs (including those radio tours you hear about) are all almost always…RECOUPABLE! Which means while the label fronts that money, in the long run, you are paying it back. That’s why 360-deals are such a big thing now. It gives the label additional outlets to make their money back if one area falls short.

    This isn’t a bad thing. This is the label showing they believe in an artist, their talent and their ability to be a success. It costs more money than you realize to launch a new artist, a new single, a new album, a tour. Not everything is in the label or artist’s control, though and sometimes, it just doesn’t happen for a multitude of reasons. In that case, the label is not going to recoup.

    But they believed! And that’s worth something.

    Savvy artists will ask what is and isn’t recoupable, and in some cases, recoupables can be negotiated. When Dierks Bentley was just a “baby act,” he always asked what was and wasn’t recoupable. And Kip Moore toured in a white van for MANY years after he got his record deal because he knew that tour bus was going to cost him so bucks!

    Anyway, something to keep in mind as you aspiring artists prepare to put pen to paper to sign that coveted recording contract. A good manager, and Kelleigh – you’ve got one – will likely ask all these questions, but be in the know yourself. It is your career.

    • Kelleigh
      November 18, 2015 at 5:36 pm (2 years ago)

      Tammy! THANK YOU. THANK YOU.To be honest, I was afraid I would confuse people if I tried to explain recoupable/non-recoupable costs…but I think you articulated it PERFECTLY. And Clearly. YES YES YES…ask. It does matter what they spend money on, and how much is being spent…and you cannot just blindly assume that a label has your best interest long term at heart…they’re running THEIR business, not yours. Thank you!!

  3. Vivian Lindsay
    November 18, 2015 at 7:01 pm (2 years ago)

    LOVE the honesty in this post!!

    As a publicist who wants to transition into the music industry, this was such a great read and reaffirms everything I’ve been learning and everything I wish more people had a better understanding of. These are also some of the reasons I make an effort to seek out those artists who haven’t had the big radio hits – there’s so much underrated raw talent in this business.

    Still hoping to hear you on the radio someday out here in California. In the meantime, keep kicking butt at what you do!

    P.S. Your closet is to die for 🙂

    • Kelleigh
      November 18, 2015 at 8:13 pm (2 years ago)

      Thank you Vivian. So glad you’re thinking about joining us in the industry.

  4. Mark
    November 19, 2015 at 1:47 am (2 years ago)

    Thank you for your candor. A very interesting read.
    One thing I’ve never understood—-when an artist and label part ways without releasing an album even though one is completed, why doesn’t the label just go ahead and release it digitally first.

    • Kelleigh
      November 19, 2015 at 1:19 pm (2 years ago)

      Thanks Mark. You know, I’ve never really understood either. My guess is that the company doesn’t believe it’s worth putting it out. If they believed it would sell, they would put it out. So my guess is if they’re dropping an artist, they don’t believe it would sell. Or that the sales would be so minuscule that it wouldn’t matter to their bottom line. Just a guess.

  5. Emma Wallace
    November 19, 2015 at 5:49 am (2 years ago)

    Hi Kelleigh,

    I look forward to your posts very much and found this one particularly helpful and honest. 🙂

    As a new artist who has just started pursuing her dream of creating and producing my own music, I have on more than 1 occasion said ‘If I had a record deal, I’d leave my job’ or ‘it would be so much better if I had a record deal.’ Your post made me realise, that, although there are obvious benefits, you can’t rest on the idea that your music will only be good or promoted if you have a record deal!

    You always inspire me to stay authentic and true to the music I want to make and maybe one day, someone, at the right label, will have the same vision and passion about my music that I do, but, until then I am going to just keep making music and performing, because that’s what I love to do.

    Hope we get to hear an album from you one day. I’ll be first in line to buy it!! 🙂

    Thanks again,

    P.s. why is ‘Famous’ not available on itunes in the UK? I love this song, but, hate that I have to go to YouTube to listen??? I want it on my phone so I can listen whenever I want 🙂

    • Kelleigh
      November 19, 2015 at 1:21 pm (2 years ago)

      Hey Emma! I just emailed my manager as far as the UK iTunes store…
      Thank you for reading! And I just want you to feel empowered, being indie has it’s pluses too–for example–the freedom to put out music WHENEVER you want. That’s an incredible opportunity to connect to fans. So, good luck to you girl, and keep at it. Proud of you!!

  6. Kevin Kind Songs
    December 28, 2015 at 4:25 pm (2 years ago)

    Hmmm, there is a lot here. I do marketing in my day job and one thing I see is that the web destroys all value – especially creative work. Look at journalists – they are making less and less money, same with all creative activity. When everything is available all the time – nothing has much value.

    That said more music is being consumed then ever before but, perhaps, making less money. But there are a lot ore performers. Arguing without data and from anecdotes is hard.

    A good songs does get attention – by definition….lol. How to make money from that song, or written article, painting or creative project…don’t see that happening much.

    I track the research and business side of all this an have to say, I see no great ideas. I do see indie artists earning a living in the UK, touring in EU.

    America is too frickin’ big to tour AND it demands selling to the biggest market – ‘tween girls – to make any money. Actually, apparently, selling to their mothers! Also, it does seem like Urban Contemporary artists are the best business people.

    What say you?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment *