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Written by Ramsey Brown
There has long been a negative connotation in the music industry surrounding record labels and signing record deals. If you are an artist who is trying to make it big, I’m sure you’ve had the mental battle between staying independent or pursuing a record label.
You’ve probably been told that signing a record deal means signing your life away, and though that assumption is not entirely false, there is a big distinction to be made between major record labels (AKA the ‘Big Three’) and independent record labels, or ‘indie labels’.
The Big Three consist of Universal, Sony-BMG, and Warner. These companies operate on a global scale with huge corporate funding and have been known throughout the industry for their unfriendly artist contracts and deals.
Independent record labels are smaller companies that operate without major funding or affiliation of the ‘Big Three’. They rely less on mainstream music or mass sales and are able to offer artists much more opportunity for artistic freedom and experimentation.
There has been a growing number of artists turning to indie record labels and the popularity is due to the artist to label relationship. Every artist has specific aspirations and career goals, so it’s important to fully understand a label to ensure the company morale aligns with your own as an artist. Each label operates differently, and it’s important to consider all of their pro’s and con’s to determine your best options before signing.
There are many notable mentions to be made in the Independent Record Label game. We are going to discuss some of the top contenders and how they got started and operate today. By examining these labels, we hope to give you insight on how to compare and contrast different label advantages to determine the best path for you as an artist.
When XL Recordings was first founded in 1989, it started as a niche dance label supporting the sounds of London’s underground rave scene. Their first international success came when the group ‘Prodigy’ landed their album “The Fat of the Land” at #1 Album on Billboard's Top 200 in 1997.
Since then, XL Recordings has worked with artists such as Adele, Vampire Weekend, Radiohead, Tyler the Creator, and more. Even with artists of such caliber, head of the label, Richard Russell, keeps a relatively small roster with modest numbers of annual releases.
Dropping on average only six albums per year, top executive Richard Russell believes it is more important to devote the maximum time possible to the fewest number of records to properly focus on the artists.
XL Recordings is devoted to treating their artists fairly and have multiple policies in place to reflect that. They prioritize artists whose music is fundamentally original but also aim to deliver commercial success. Unlike major labels who are known to drop artists after one failed release, XL allows their artists to continue releasing material even if it isn’t immediately accepted commercially.
Operating without any shareholders and only twenty-six employees, the label prides itself on being small and staying small. Though this independent company holds a much different ethos than major record labels do, XL Records likes to consider themselves a ‘hybrid label’.
This sort of small label integrity and large label ambition is exactly why the company’s notoriety continues to be recognized throughout the industry.
Brainfeeder is an independent record label based in Los Angeles, California that found it’s early inspiration from LA’s underground beat scene. Formed in 2008 by American producer Steven Ellison AKA Flying Lotus, the label has created a space for artists at the intersection of Hip-Hop and Electronica.
From Ellison interning at an Indie Hip-Hop label, to becoming one of the electronic scene’s most well-known figure heads, he always had the dream of starting his own label for outsiders to push beat music.
Now with an impressive roster of artists such as Lorn, Samiyam, Tokimonsta, Thundercat, and more, Brainfeeder has a simple but effective trajectory in mind... artist experimentation.
In 2010, Brainfeeder decided to widen their musical imprint and join forces with one of the most credible UK Independent labels, Ninja Tune.
This visionary label much like Brainfeeder, offered Ellison a music distribution deal that he couldn’t refuse if he wanted to further grow his brand. Ninja Tune now manufactures, distributes and promotes Braindfeeder’s catalogue worldwide, with Alpha Pup remaining as their U.S. digital distributor.
This deal not only validated the recognition and praise that the label was receiving across the globe, but created an authentic synergy that is now integral for the two separate but connected labels.
Brainfeeder continues to shift the music world, challenging its artists to step out of their comfort zone and challenging the industry in that unordinary and exploratory music is a thriving field.
Ninja Tune is a firmly established UK independent label formed by duo Matt Black and Jonathan More, better known as Cold Cut (an English Electronic music duo). Founded in 1990, Black and More primarily created the label as a means to escape the creative control of major labels.
As pioneers themselves of the emerging Eighties Hip-Hop/Electro scene, they sought out to form a platform where more music of underground nature could be released. Now spanning over 25 years, the label has continuously defied music odds and genres through diversifying releases heard in sweaty UK underground nightclubs, to the prestigious Royal Albert Hall.
Despite some critical and commercial acclaim, the label has signed an admirable range of talent such as Tycho, Run The Jewels, ODESZA, Diplo, Bonobo, and more. As if their roster wasn’t impressive enough, Ninja Tune created its own publishing company ‘Just Isn’t Music’, incorporating interactive technology and innovative uses of software.
To even further the list of achievements, Ninja Tune has carried it’s progressive vision to its operations. The label is dedicated to social activism and developing a dialogue with their audience on relevant social issues.
Founders Black and More have taken several steps in developing a more sustainable operation strategy, such as converting their London office to a 100% renewable energy provider and publishing all new releases in card packaging rather than plastic jewel cases.
The label is continuously looking for new and innovative ways to develop the brand. What started as a two-man brainchild has now grown to a highly recognized organization with 70+ employees all over the world.
Jagjaguwar is an American independent rock record label based in Bloomington, Indiana, that now has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin.
A small entity originally formed by Darius Van Armam as a way to release his friend’s album, quickly caught the likes of Chris Swanson, co-owner of the record label Secretly Canadian. Van Arman and Swanson joined together to develop a partnership which opened the door for a new era of artists. The sound described by Swanson as “Dissonant music with an overriding emotion or sentimentality.”
Jagjaguwar introduced a string of new artists that would see both critical praise and dedicated fanship. The impressive roster includes Bon Iver, Julie Doiron, GAYNGS, Okkervil River, Skygreen Leopards, Peter Wolf Crier, The Besnard Lakes, Lightning Dust and Small Black amongst others.
In 2007, the label signed Justin Vernon, or better known as Bon Iver. Vernon would later go on to win two Grammy awards for his self-titled album, ‘Bon Iver’. During his Grammy's speech Vernon thanked Jagjaguwar "for having transparency and friendship”.
With the huge success of Bon Iver came the evolution of a global label and center for collaborative projects. Jagjaguwar was listed at number 4 on Paste’s Magazine’s Top 10 Record Labels of 2018, becoming one of the labels many awards and honors.
Independent record labels have many positive attributes compared to major record labels but like anything else, they both have upsides and downsides. Ultimately, the choice is up to the artist to find out the best path for him or her to follow. Here is a list of some pros and cons to better help you make the decision before signing a record label deal.
Creative Freedom - Indie labels tend to sign artists because they like and believe in your music or brand. There is less pressure on the artist to be a money-making machine and more opportunity to be creative and in control of your sound.
Personal Relationships - Because independent labels are smaller in size, artists get the ability to have face-to-face interactions with the labels executives as well as other artists on the roster. Indie labels tend to work closely with their artist and can offer mentorship and individual attention.
Artist-Friendly Deals - Since indie labels are not solely aiming to turn a profit, their contracts are normally more beneficial for the talent. These labels tend to pay out larger royalty percentages meaning artists are able to keep more of what they earn. There is more transparency in indie label contracts and artists have more bargaining power in negotiatians.
Tighter Funding - The lack of money is the biggest downfall of independent labels. It takes a lot of money to market an artist and smaller companies can’t provide the financial support that a major record label could. Less money means the label may not be able to afford big venues, tours, production, or fancy recording packages.
Smaller Influence - With indie labels being more of a niche and grassroots market, they have fewer industry connections than a big record label would. Because they have less strings to pull, it could mean less opportunities for the artist.
Size - Though Indie labels are smaller and can offer a more boutique experience to their artists, it also means sharing a roster with other artists of the same caliber. Some artists may find it harder to stand out in a pool of other artists that are very similar to them in sound and size. With major record labels, their smaller artists inherit publicity just by being on the same roster as a much bigger artist.
More Money - The biggest advantage to signing with a major label is the greater amounts of funds they have to put towards their artists. Bigger budgets means higher quality production, better marketing, larger tours, massive distribution, elaborate videos, and more.
Connections - With a big company comes a big name. The major labels have been around for years and have a much greater access to industry connections. They are established with the press and other media outlets which is advantageous for artist promotion and achieving their career goals
Faster Path to Success - Due to their size and access to resources, major labels have the ability to pull more strings with advertising, media, manufacturing, publishing, and more. The bigger labels are also behind the vast majority of music being sold today. Their scale of operation makes it easier for their artists to rise to fame more quickly.
Money Over Music - Major record labels are bound to shareholders and directors and are solely geared for making large profits. Artists are under extreme pressure for their records to sell and can be dropped by the label at any moment if they don’t. Bigger labels also offer artists less royalty payouts and less rights to their own music.
Less Control & Creativity - Because contracts are always set up in the label’s favor, this allows them to decide what kind of music artists make, what the lyrics will be, and even the album artwork and cover. If the label disagrees with any part of the creative process, they have the power to change it.
More Competition - Big labels have a huge roster of artists who are all competing for the label’s attention. Artists are a small fish in a big pond and find themselves spending more time fighting for recognition within the company than actually working on music.
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