Music News
5:15 am
Sun July 6, 2014

To Sign Or Not To Sign: Artists Big And Small Face The Label Question

Originally published on Thu July 31, 2014 7:51 am

You might be surprised to learn that the chart-topping duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are not signed to a major label. Neither are veterans like Peter Gabriel and Wilco. They're all self-releasing albums.

But if you self-release, you still need someone to get your name out there, get your product into the marketplace, and get it sold. In other words, you need someone to do all of the stuff record labels used to do. You could do it yourself — or you could hire someone like Kevin Wortis of Girlie Action, a leading music marketing agency based in New York.

"Here we offer sourcing, distribution, sales. We also handle marketing, digital marketing, social media, press and radio promotion," Wortis says. "We have clients that come in who have chosen not to be with a record company; they want to control all the revenue and they want to do things in their own way."

Girlie Action's clients include Pretty Lights, Amanda Palmer, and The Crystal Method. The French recording label Naïve hired the agency to provide label services for Marianne Faithful's last record. Girlie Action is now working on its third album for Meshell Ndegeocello.

Ndegeocello herself says that, in today's environment, musicians don't have the luxury of just sticking to music.

"The music business is changing," she says. "I enjoyed the smoke and mirrors, and now I have to be really involved in a way that sometimes — there's no other way to say it: I just wish I didn't know." She adds, laughing, "If it was totally up to me I'd fail horribly."

Ndegeocello's manager, Alison Riley, sees clear advantages to the label services model.

"The charm, I think, of a major label is that they have all of the resources in house. But you lose a lot of creative control and you lose a lot of control of one's career," Riley says. "It's a much more collaborative, cooperative experience to work with label services. We have a much greater say in the channels things are pushed out through."

Under the old system, the label called the shots and often owned the rights to the artists' recordings. But labels also fronted the money for recording, promotion and distribution. Musicians had to pay it back, of course, which sometimes meant not making any money from record sales.

Today, if you contract for label services, you generally pay up front; only the biggest stars can attract advances from label services providers. The top firms typically charge $4,000 to $6,000 per month to promote an artist or record. With album pre-release campaigns running up to four months, it's not cheap, and only a select few can afford it.

Unlike many recording artists, Suzanne Vega — who had a Top 10 hit in 1987 with "Luka" and was then dropped twice by the majors — maintained publishing rights to her songs.

Four years ago, Vega founded her own label and started re-recording her back catalogue. To get it out there, she signed deals in the U.S. with Red, Sony's label services division, and internationally with the U.K.-based Cooking Vinyl.

"Rather than being the one waiting to see if they are going to renew my contract, it's me renewing theirs," Vega says. "And that makes a difference."

Vega recently self-released her first album of new material in seven years, and she's back on the charts for the first time in two decades.

"As it happens, this new album has done so well so far that suddenly I see that my first two albums are being re-released this year, in June, without my consent or permission or participation," she says. "So I'm competing now with my own back catalogue. I find myself competing with myself from 25 years ago!"

With label services deals, artists can keep the rights to their music and about three quarters of their sales revenue, and providers get paid whether or not the album sells. In the last two years, all three of the remaining major labels have hopped on the label services bandwagon.

These deals may work well for established artists, but they are out of reach for up-and-coming musicians like the Philadelphia punk trio Cayetana. The three musicians had been playing together for about six months when they recorded the song "Hot Dad Calendar" and put it up on the online music site Bandcamp. Bassist Allegra Anka and singer/guitarist Augusta Koch say they were floored by the response.

"A few days after that, Tiny Engines contacted us about really enjoying our demo and asking us if we'd be interested in working with them," Anka says.

"As soon as I saw the email I was like, 'Oh my God!'" Koch adds.

A small indie label like Tiny Engines can't provide the kind of marketing push available to artists like Meshell Ndegeocello or Suzanne Vega.

The label is releasing Cayetana's debut album this summer as a digital download with a limited vinyl pressing. It's also helping the band cover the cost of renting a van for its first-ever national tour: five weeks, 31 cities, on a shared bill with three other bands. With tickets going for less than twenty bucks a pop, this isn't exactly the limousine life, but Augusta Koch says that's OK.

"I don't really care about being on a bigger label or being famous," Koch says. "I just want to make more music that people like; I think that's the best part of it. Especially outside of Philly, seeing that people actually like our music blows my mind."

Still, as Cayetana hits the stage for a sold-out Philadelphia show, Allegra Anka isn't dreaming of rainbows and unicorns.

"In five years, and after that, I just hope we're still making music," she says.

For now, she's also hoping their day jobs are waiting for them when they get back.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Music industry analyst Nielsen SoundScan just released its midyear report, and digital music sales are down again, nearly 15 percent from the last - same time last year. Online streaming services, like Spotify, saw sizable growth, but musicians complain they are seeing little of that revenue. Everyone's looking for a way forward at a time when even established artists have been dropped by their labels. And unknown bands find it almost impossible to get labels' or listeners' attention. But Allyson McCabe reports, there may be a solution for some artists. It's called label services.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hey, Macklemore, can we go thrift shopping?

MACKLEMORE: (Singing) What, what, what, what, what...

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: You might be surprised to learn that the chart topping duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are not signed to a major label, neither are veterans like Peter Gabriel and Wilco. They're all self-releasing album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")

WANZ: (Singing) I'm going to pop some tags. Only got $20 in my pocket.

MCCABE: But if you self-release, you still need someone to get your name out there, get your product into the marketplace and get it sold.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")

MACKLEMORE: (Singing) I'm like, yo, that's $50 for a T-shirt.

MCCABE: In other words, you need someone to do all the stuff the record label used to do. You could do it yourself, or you could hire someone like Kevin Wortis of Girlie Action, a leading music marketing agency based in New York.

KEVIN WORTIS: Here, we offer either the complete package or services a la cart. But the hub of label services is project management, which includes all the production services, sourcing distribution, sales. We also handle marketing - digital marketing, social media, press.

MCCABE: Girlie Action's clients include Pretty Lights, Amanda Palmer and the Crystal Method. The French recording label Naive hired the agency to provide label services for Marianne Faithful's last record. And Girlie Action is now working on its third album for Meshell Ndegeocello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONVICTION")

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) You came to change directions, seeking protection. You're back now, right where you started. Back in the lie.

MCCABE: Ndegeocello says that in today's environment, musicians don't have the luxury of just sticking to music.

NDEGEOCELLO: Now I have to be really involved in a way that sometimes - there's no other way to say it. I just wish I didn't know. I do have to think of it as a product. I do have to think of ways to get people interested. I find it very important to hire public relations people, where that's their art. If it was totally up to me, I would fail horribly.

MCCABE: Ndegeocello's manager, Alison Riley, sees clear advantages to label services model.

ALISON RILEY: The charm, I think, of a major label is that they have all of the resources in-house. But you lose a lot of creative control, and you lose a lot of control of one's career. It's a much more collaborative, cooperative experience to work with label services, in that we have a much greater say in the creative - in the channels things are pushed out through.

MCCABE: Under the old system, the label called the shots and often on the rights to the artist's recordings. But the labels also fronted the money for recording, promotion and distribution. Musicians had to pay it back, of course, which sometimes meant not making any money from record sales. Today, if you contract for label services, you pay up front. Only the biggest stars can attract advances from label services providers. The top PR firms charge four to $6,000 per month to promote artist's record, with album pre-release campaigns running from six weeks to four months. Each deal is a little different, but none are cheap, and only a select few artist can afford them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUKA")

SUZANNE VEGA: (Singing) My name is Luka. I live on the second floor. I live upstairs from you. Yes, I think you've seen me before.

MCCABE: If this version of Suzanne Vega's 1987 top-ten hit "Luka" sounds a little different than what you remember, you're right. Unlike many recording artists, Vega, who was dropped twice by the majors, maintains publishing rights to her songs. Four years ago, she founded her own label and started re-recording her back catalog. To get it out there, Vega signed deals in the U.S. with Red, Sony's label services division, and internationally with U.K.-based Cooking Vinyl.

VEGA: Rather than being the one waiting to see are they going to renew my contract, it's me renewing their's. And that makes a difference.

MCCABE: In the last two years, all three of the majors have hopped on the label services bandwagon. Vega recently self-released her first album of new material in seven years, and she's back on the charts for the first time in nearly two decades.

VEGA: I think that this new album has done so well so far that, suddenly, I see that my first two albums are being re-released without my consent or permission or participation. So I'm competing now with my own back catalog, which I guess is a good thing. I'm not sure. It's like the wild west out here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEVER WEAR WHITE")

VEGA: I never wear white. White is for virgins, children in summer, brides in the park. My color is black, black, black.

MCCABE: With label services deals, artists can keep the rights to their music and up to three quarters of their sales revenue. Label services providers get paid whether or not the album sells. These deals may work well for established artists, but they're out of reach for up-and-coming musicians, like the Philadelphia punk trio Cayetana.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT DAD CALENDAR")

CAYETANA: (Singing) There's a difference between things that we say and we mean, so take a deep breath. breathe in through your chest. And you're lying face first on your mother's floor, saying, oh, dear God, what'd you do that for?

MCCABE: The musicians have been playing together for about six months when they recorded this song and put it up on the online music site Bandcamp. Bassist Allegra Anka and singer and guitarist Augusta Koch were floored by the response.

AUGUSTA KOCH: A few days after that, Tiny Engines contacted us about really enjoying our demo and just kind of asking us if we'd be interested in working with them moving forward. So as soon as we saw it in the - in our e-mail, I was like, oh, my God.

MCCABE: A small indie label like Tiny Engines can provide the kind of marketing push available to artists like Meshell Ndegeocello or Suzanne Vega. The label is releasing Cayetana's debut album this summer as a digital download with a limited vinyl pressing. It's also helping the band cover the cost of renting a van for its first-ever national tour - five weeks, 31 cities, on a shared bill with three other bands. But with tickets going for less than 20 bucks a pop, Allegra Anka isn't dreaming of the limousine life.

ALLEGRA ANKA: In five years and after that, I just hope we're still making music.

MCCABE: For now, she's just hoping their day jobs are waiting for them when they get back. For NPR news, I'm Allyson McCabe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.