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Entertainment, Music

Do We Need Record Labels?

DSC02877The short answer is absolutely not.  10 or 15 years ago, labels were comprised of creative, imaginative people, with a great deal of money at their disposal and the knowledge and vision as to how to best utilize both. Almost all those people are gone.  They have been replaced  by people that are desperate to hang onto their jobs and maintain their lifestyle. A notable goal, but not necessarily the best scenario for the artists  with which they work  They really can’t afford to make too many mistakes. Also, every person who works at a label looks at his job as a temp job.  Any day it could just be eliminated.  Not an environment that is conducive to notable work.

If you are not streaming music by now, you are officially a dinosaur.  I used to love dinosaurs, especially the Brontosaurus. But, if you are someone who only listens to CDS and the radio you are getting closer to extinction every day.

In the past labels were driven by two entities.  The A&R people who discovered the artists and worked with them to create their albums and  promotion people who got the music played on the radio.  Every other department at a label relied on these people to do their jobs.  The marketing people and sales people then had chance to move some product.

Labels were also headed by creative people.  Folks like Ahmet Ertegun, Mo Austin and others.  These people focused on making great music and felt that sales would eventually follow.  Clive just looked for ways to sign the most commercial music and take the most credit for it.  He handled both  tasks with equal aplomb. Label heads as well as promotion and A&R people worked their butts off and did it for the love of their craft.  They wouldn’t have done it for free, but they would have done it even if they had gotten paid a lot less money.  Somewhere in the late 80’s the salaries for label heads and everyone else went through the roof.  This brought a whole new element into the industry.  Those seeking wealth and celebrity and a way to satisfy their egos.   That was not a good thing for the industry.  It was the beginning of the end for the real artist as well as for record labels.  Money became king.  This happened about the same time  major corporations such as Sony was getting into the business in the U.S.  There were large corporations involved before, but sometime in the 80’s somebody in the corner office of these large corporations realized there was lots of money to be made with record labels.  It started to become about quarterly profits. That was a dagger to the heart of the industry.

The only service labels provide today is that they pay for things.  Mostly they just pay for things that pertain to pop or urban artists, because with the exception of country, that is where the money is. There is less and less involvement on the part of the A&R people.  In some cases the label head may be involved in the record, but mostly the records get delivered finished.  If you are not a pop or urban artists  you need to realize that the contract you signed is as good as a prison sentence. You are tied to that label and  they are not going to do much for you, but you won’t be able to leave without a fight.  A fight that will probably cost someone a lot of money.

Promotion has lost its relevance to a great extent.  The main reason is that compared to the recent past, hardly anyone is listening to radio.  If they are, they are not buying CDs.  So what exactly are you trying to accomplish?  A&R people don’t sign nearly as many acts as they did in the past.  There was a time when the label head was just basically a rubber stamp. If an accomplished A&R man wanted to sign an act, the head of the label would let it happen.  I don’t know if that ever happens any more.  Money is too tough to come by.

Independent labels are not much better. If you are an artist that signs to an independent label there are a whole bunch of other issues that come into play. The main problem is that they have very little money.  You can talk all you want about the ability of the internet to make music accessible to the masses.  But you have to let the public know it is there.  With a few exceptions that takes money. As a result most acts get their albums released, but nothing much happens.  There is no tour support, no radio airplay, no stores to stock the record…NOTHING.  After a brief period of acting like something is going to happen, the indy label turns its back and moves onto something else.  Unfortunately the act is tied to the label for a minimum of three options and will have to spend what will probably be the rest of their recording career with that label.  Very few bands survive if they are unable to keep building a fan base.

Look, there are always exceptions, but very, very few.  What new acts need these days is someone to help them navigate the waters.  Someone who will not only “manage” them, but who will also help them become better writers, find better producers, help the act find other writers to work with and ultimately become a legitimate artist.

In the “old days” a young act would get signed and a label would assign them an A&R guy to help them with these issues.  That doesn’t happen any more. The acts that get signed to major labels almost always have a lot “going on” in the market place.  Maybe they started in Europe like Adele, or maybe they have a viral video or a large live following. Something that will give the major label some traction.  Again, outside of pop acts, majors very seldom are willing to start from scratch.  They want someone else to do the hard work…getting things started.  Once there is a pulse it is much easier to build on it.

I am working with a young artist named Billy Keane.  James Taylor and his wife Kim sent Billy my way, because they thought he had potential.  Billy came to me with a load of talent, but he needed guidance.  He had a couple of good songs, but no great songs.  He has an amazing, unique voice that most singers in the world would kill for.  In 1999 he would have been signed to a major  for $200,000 and he would get a similar publishing deal.  The label would assign an A&R man to work with him, find or write songs and make a good album.  None of those things would happen at this time. He needs someone to help him with this and to also identify which of his songs are his best.  It is impossible for any artist to be objective.  They need to have someone that can tell them the truth. They need to have someone they can trust.  There are thousands of Billy Keane’s out there who will never get their chance.  Not knowing about them will be our loss.

Acts at this  level need to surround themselves with people who have vision and experience. Frequently they will have someone (usually a friend) who has helped them at the beginning.  This is called a “Friendager”.  Usually someone who is passionate, honest, hardworking and totally ignorant about the music business.  It is good to have these people as fans, but not as business partners.

Money is also a good thing to have.  Artists need to make the best music they can and they take it to the marketplace.  This may take time.  You don’t open the doors for your store’s grand opening until you have stock on the shelves.  The same holds true here.  Create the best music you can (a few terrific songs, not 10 mediocre ones) and take it to the market.  Don’t spend money on a project just because you think you finished it.  It may be done, but that doesn’t mean it is any good.  This is where someone with experience comes in hand.  Spend money wisely and be patient  These are traits that no major labels possess.  Time and patience are things they don’t have in large quantities.

If you are an established act, you should  finance the project  yourself.  Spend the money to record the project and OWN it.  Hire the people you need to promote and market the project and keep the profits for yourself.  No reason to get involved with a label.  You can hire better people than they have on staff.  Once you get involved with a label they will find ways to charge back lots of things that don’t have relevance to your project, so your chances of making any money at all are slim.

Unless you strike gold like the Lumineers you are not likely to make any money on an album.  By the time you pay for  recording, marketing, etc.,  you will be lucky to break even.   Think seriously about not recording a whole album.  It is all about one or two tracks for most acts.  That is all, even your most avid fans care about, or will even know about.  It costs a helluva lot less to record a couple of tracks as opposed to ten or 12.  It only takes one song to get your noticed.

It is all about licensing (commercials, TV, movies) and touring.  Radio airplay is gravy and should not be expected.  Save your money, spend it wisely and think in real terms with your brain, not with your ego.  Is your career going to be about feeling like a rock star or being a serious musician who makes his living with his music.  When it comes to money, it is not what you make, but what you keep.  Be smart.


About jimdelbalzo

As the former Senior Vice President of Promotion at Columbia Records and now founder/helmsman of the artist management company-Jim Del Balzo Entertainment, Jim has managed, consulted, and developed/executed the promotion and marketing plans for some of the planet’s most beloved musicians. He has guided the careers of artists/acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Alice In Chains, James Taylor, George Michael, Soul Asylum, and System of a Down; to name just a few. Jim also does consulting for labels and publishing companies including Columbia Records, Warner Brothers/Reprise Records, Hear Music/Starbucks, EMI Music Publishing and several other entertainment entities. Jim Del Balzo Entertainment clients include,  John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, James Taylor, LL Cool J, Burt Bacharach, City Sleeps, Buddahead and Since October.     Jim’s highly successful career and great service to the music industry has earned him a number of accolades and awards over the years. Namely, he was voted one of the Top 25 Most Important People in Rock Music (2000) and Promotion Executive of the Year (5 times) by Album Network—from which he also received a Lifetime Achievement Award. And Clear Channel twice honored Jim with the Executive of the Year Award while Friday Morning Quarterback and Radio & Records named him Top Industry Executive 7 times combined.   Today, Jim Del Balzo takes his talent to the microphone, adding voice work to his remarkable repertoire. His promotional expertise and attuned top executive instincts-combined with his richly unique sound- delivers VO that is truly somethin’ else.   Jim Del Blazo VO.  Like nothin’ you’ve heard. Like nobody’s business.   Jim lives in Saddle River, New Jersey with his wife Mary Beth, daughters Jessica and Julia, and their two golden retrievers.


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