February 26, 2014 by alunparry
My experience of snubbing the record industry and being my own label
As an independent musician, I took an early decision to release my music independently of record companies. I faced the option of waiting to get signed, the holy grail of so many artists, or forget all that and get on with it.
I chose the latter, and released my first album Corridors of Stone straight away in 2006. Since then there have been two more albums and an EP.
So do I regret my decision? How has it gone? Would I have been better doing it another way?
Don’t Get Sued
I’m motivated to share my experience after recently watching the documentary Artifact. It’s a music documentary that would have been about the making of 30 Seconds To Mars third album. But their record company sued them for $30 Million for being impudent enough to try to get out of an illegal contract.
It put the release of their third album in doubt. The company owned them, and they couldn’t share their music unless the corporation said so. It looked set to end up in the courtroom. So the judges would decide it. A songwriter’s music could not be shared because the corporation said so, and a judge would have the final say.
It made me sick to the stomach to be blunt. That couldn’t happen to me. I am independent and I own my own music. I’m not contracted to anybody. I’m free. I felt for this band as a fellow musician.
The documentary was particularly interesting because it laid out how it works, even for a successful artist, in a record contract. 30 Seconds To Mars were playing stadium gigs. Their second album was a massive success. But they hadn’t seen a penny of the record sales.
In fact, they owed the record company!
Even after the third album was finally released and had millions of sales, the band still saw none of it. Despite all that work and success, they actually owed the record company $1.7 million.
I mean, how can you sell millions of copies of your work and be nearly 2 million in debt?
It reminded me of the analogy I read when confirming my instinct to be independent from the outset. It described a record deal with a major recording company as like getting a car loan where you end up still in debt but don’t ever own the car.
It summed up the situation of 30 Seconds To Mars. EMI got their music, and the band got a multimillion dollar debt. What a deal!!
But that’s not the only reason why I decided to stay independent, so I’ll share my reasoning for others who are making that decision.
Bye bye gatekeeper
I don’t like gatekeepers. I don’t like to be dependent on someone else’s say-so about whether I can do the thing I want to do. I’d rather do it myself instead of hoping someone else allows me.
These days, we have the technology to do it ourselves. A recording studio can fit into a small bedroom. The Internet means we can reach fans directly through mailing lists and social media, and we can distribute our music digitally, or online, or at gigs.
Why wait for gatekeepers? An artist’s purpose is to make art and then share it. I didn’t want to have to build a “career” before I was allowed to create and share. I wanted to create and share right away.
The days of the gatekeeper are gone. We can do it for ourselves. It’s the spirit of skiffle, the spirit of punk, applied to making records.
Total Artistic Control
I love the freedom of having total artistic control. I never feel the pressure to compromise on anything I do based on what my paymasters think, or the marketing department, or anybody else.
I don’t have a producer imposed on me. I don’t have anyone tell me what I can say or how I can say it. I make the records I want to make. This is liberating.
It means I get to be me, without a struggle or a fight. Nobody is shaping me or moulding me. I can simply be the kind of artist I’d want to go to see myself.
If tomorrow I suddenly want to go in some kind of weird avant garde direction with my music, I can. It’s up to me.
There are no suits for me to talk to. This works well for me. I can create without restriction because the only person who has any influence over what I do is me. It means complete artistic integrity, and I don’t get bent out of shape.
That’s not to allege anything about anyone with deals. I’m not trying to paint any caricatures here. I’m simply more at ease as an independent, and I feel happier with only me to answer to when it comes to my music.
I’m My Priority – But I’m Nobody Else’s
The closest I came to the “industry” was when my We Can Make The World Stop album got a distribution deal.
Usually, I handle all the distribution myself. I deal with the stores, I ensure digital distribution, I get it out on iTunes, all of that.
But I thought a distribution deal would be good for me. I wouldn’t have the record deal, but I would have some industry backing and industry credibility.
(In fact, I got this by switching onto Irregular Records, but I was still putting the record out independently and arranging everything else myself. I still owned everything. But having the Irregular tag on it was a device to allow the distribution deal to happen.)
The thing is, when you are your own label and distribution service, you are your own number one priority.
When you’re part of the pile of artists at a major distribution company (and it was one of the biggest that I was with), you’re not their priority at all. It’s nothing sinister. It’s just how it is.
If I’m Bob Dylan, they’re paying attention. If I’m Alun Parry, I’m one of many on their books.
I found that I did a better job of distributing the album than they did. With Corridors of Stone, on launch day it was in HMV, Borders, Virgin and more. With We Can Make The World Stop, it wasn’t even in the Liverpool stores on launch day.
Were they incompetent? No. Were they being horrible? No. It’s simply that I put all my attention to my stuff. There was no way anyone at this major company could have put the same level of attention in for me unless I was a bigger artist.
They got into the stores eventually. But in truth, I’d have been better doing it myself. I was the only artist on my books after all.
I’ve seen the same thing happen to artists at record companies. They can get lost in the system.
Often, they’re dependent on a particular executive who loves them. The executive leaves the company and the new one doesn’t think they’re so great.
They’ve now got a long contract with a company who are no longer that into them, no longer investing money in their publicity and promotion. The act, through a quirk of fate, are stuck. They are tied to the company, but the company no longer care. It can be a nightmare.
I always care about my stuff. At my label, the main man gives his all to my music. Because it’s me.
Experiments Can Happen
We live in an uncertain age musically. The Internet has changed everything. A new generation has grown up bemused that people pay for music at all. CD sales are falling and have been for years.
Everyone in the industry, small acts, large acts, major record companies, are in a place where experiments need to happen to find out how the new world is going to work.
What will the record industry be like in this new age?
How do artists get paid from recorded music?
Can they get paid at all from recorded music anymore?
Or does recorded music have a new purpose in this new age? Perhaps as an advert for the act’s live performances? Perhaps as something else.
The answers are still unclear. But in this uncertain space, artists need to get experimenting with new ideas and models of working.
Being independent has given me the ability to play around with pricing, to have special offers on my birthday, to bundle my back catalogue at a cut price rate just before the new album came out, to slash my prices for a student audience, even to try “pay what you like” experiments with physical CD sales.
Some of these experiments worked. Some didn’t. They all taught me something important. But if my records belonged to a record company instead of belonging to me, I wouldn’t have been able to do them.
I could decide tomorrow that all my music is free. I could decide that free music is the best way to get more supporters and listeners. And nobody could stop me.
If I was signed, I wouldn’t be allowed to.
I’d need permission. That doesn’t sit well with me. Permission just isn’t very rock and roll.
I Don’t JUST Do Music
The thing about putting out my own music independently, of course, is that it’s not just music that I do. After all, I don’t have people to sort my publicity, arrange my distribution, get the digital side sorted, run my website and all of that.
I do it.
Sometimes it’s a pain in the backside. But I know tons about the industry that I’d never have learned if it wasn’t for being independent.
And I’ve achieved things by myself that I’d have otherwise hoped a record label could have sorted for me.
I’ve had glowing reviews in the national music press, I’ve been awarded album of the week by the Liverpool Echo (my local press), I’ve had radio airplay, my albums are available in the major stores, I’m on iTunes, I’ve put tours together, my albums have had to be reprinted to meet demand, I’ve had my albums supported financially through sponsorship and crowdfunding, and I’ve even been played at Anfield during Liverpool Football Club home games.
What’s more, I’ve played with all of my musical heroes. Billy Bragg, Chumbawamba, Dick Gaughan, Leon Rosselson, Roy Bailey, The Men They Couldn’t Hang.
If a record company had promised me that at the beginning, I may have been tempted to sign one of those “I’ll buy the car, you own the car” deals.
But I got it on my own.
Being independent means that I’m savvier than I otherwise would have been. I know about all that stuff. I know how to book tours, get reviews, negotiate prices on CD printing, organise designers, make contacts with the media, know what promoters need, run social media campaigns, and know how to fund an album.
I know how to book a studio, and I know the various options I could take depending on funding. Such as, do I need a studio? Could I just book an engineer? Could I record it myself? Could I do a live album?
For instance, my first album was recorded within 12 hours on one day (including the mixing!) and there’s a really good reason why that could happen. I didn’t know these things before I became my label, but I know them now.
So I don’t regret a thing. At every stage I’ve been in control, both on the “business” side, and artistically. I’ve learned shed loads about how to be an independent musician. I know that there’s no such thing as “no” because I’m the only gatekeeper. I know that my supporters and fans are important to me, but industry suits aren’t. I know that nobody can get in the way of the direct relationship I have with the music lovers who like my stuff.
I also know that I don’t need a record deal to make it on my terms.
The truth is, if you’ve not got enough fans, the record companies won’t want you anyhow. Their calculators don’t like that.
And if you’ve built yourself a following of a ton of fans then you don’t need the record companies. You now have a direct link to all of your supporters, and that direct link is what you need to make it, not a middleman.
As I said earlier, being an artist is about creation, and creation demands to be shared. Why wait for someone to “permit” you to create and share?
You can set up your own label, and do it yourself. This has been my experience. What are your thoughts?