I see SO many music marketing “gurus” tell people that you can be successful without a label. While that can be true for a select few people, the reality is that you’re unlikely to reach the level of success they claim without major label support.
Today we’re going to cover why a label is still necessary, but then we’ll discuss what to do if you can’t get a label or don’t want one. You *can* have success as an artist without a label, but you’ll need to put in a ton of work to make it happen. If you’re ready and willing, scroll forth!
Why You Need a Major Label
I’m assuming you want to be successful in music because you want, on some level, to be famous. This is fine and too many people lie and say, “I don’t do it for the fame, I do it for the art!” Yeah well, if no one knows about your art, what’s the point? If a tree makes an awesome album in a forest and no one hears it, does the album exist?
If you want to be Lady Gaga famous, you’ll need Lady Gaga backing and marketing. It’s that simple.
If you prefer watching to reading, my video is at the bottom of this post!
Let’s cover a few things labels do for artists, so you’ll know why you need one:
1). They Grant Access to Gatekeepers
You’re going to have a really hard time getting your single on the radio. It is possible, and artists have done it before, but labels can pretty much put your single right on the radio with little difficulty. They also set up interviews, TV appearances, shows, and all the things you’ll need to start growing a fanbase.
2). They Provide Marketing
Magazine ads, billboards, even just being on the radio all serve as marketing tools. By opening these doors for you, the label puts you out there in ways that would be very difficult to achieve on your own. Labels spend a ton of money marketing their artists, as they treat them like an investment.
Yes, CDBaby and Tunecore exist, and they are great tools for putting your music out there. However, without the first two aspects, we’re back to the tree in the woods analogy. A label will get your album featured on iTunes, put you on countless Spotify playlists, even put CDs in Walmart and no one even buys CDs anymore.
You can do any and all of these things yourself, but you are just one person and a label is an entire company with interns and full-time employees, all of whom are concerned with your success. Note: I said concerned with your success, not with you as an artist. You’ll be one of few people in your career who ever cares about yourself, so make sure you keep your best interests in mind!
“But what about X artist who made it without a label?”
Yes, some people can get pretty far without a label. Justin Bieber is a great example because he already had a ton of fans. However, he didn’t blow up until he got signed. He wasn’t a major artist until he was on a major label. If anything, Bieber should be an example of what you’ll need to bring to the table to get label attention, not as an example of why you don’t need a label.
“I don’t want (or can’t get) a label, can I still make it?”
I can’t answer that without knowing what “make it” means to you. In my post last week about age, we covered that you can technically “make it” in the industry under any circumstance, but you need to really define what that means. If you want to make a living creating music, or go on a national tour, or sell x amount of albums, yes, you certainly can do all of that without a label. You’ll just have to put all of the work in yourself.
“What work do I need to do if I don’t have a label?”
You’ll essentially have to do all of the above for yourself, but there are specific ways of getting there. Let’s cover a few:
1). Market Yourself
Gone are the days where you can play a few open mics and ‘get discovered,’ and pssst…those days never really existed. Those stories are fake, and you have to work a LOT harder than that. I frequently see “older” artists avoid social media, believing that “good music will market itself.” It doesn’t, I’m sorry to say. We are at a point in society where literally everyone and their grandmother is on social media, so whatever your age range, it’s likely you’ll find fans online. You just have to go out and meet them.
If you have expendable income, put some toward marketing. Find your target audience’s preferred social media platform and market there. PR companies are not cheap (hundreds or thousands a month) but if you can afford it, do it.
2). Build Relationships
You’re going to have a really hard time getting major radio airplay without a major label. However, do you know anyone who works in college radio? Do you know anyone who has a popular Spotify playlist? If not, how can you make those connections?
Building actual relationships with people is so important in this industry. I’m not talking about sending impersonal email blasts or Instagram comments. I mean actually becoming close to people on a first-name basis. It’s a lot of work, but you’ll have to do it.
3). Treat it Like a Business
I mentioned previously that labels treat artists like investments. You’ll want to view yourself in a similar way. You aren’t just a person anymore; you’re a brand, you’re a company, you have a product. You’re an entrepreneur and you’ll want to do a lot of work to grow your business. Start thinking of yourself like an entity. This also means you’ll need to do some accounting, have a lawyer, and get your business running smoothly.
4). Create Your Brand
Since you’re an entity, you’ll want an image to go along with it. This can be a challenge since you’ll have to get out of your own head and view yourself objectively, so you may want to hire a consultant or get a makeover. Everything needs to look professional. No dimly-lit selfies as profile photos, no cheaply cobbled-together websites. Take yourself seriously and other people will as well! This will also help you establish connections. If you reach out to people from a branded email (email@example.com), they’ll take you way more seriously than firstname.lastname@example.org. If you send a link to your website and it looks clean and efficient, people will take you seriously.
Lastly, and most importantly:
5). Create Constant Content
I don’t believe “quality over quantity” works when you’re trying to establish yourself. Of course you should have standards, but for social media purposes, you need to post consistently. This is one area where a dimly-lit selfie is better than nothing at all. Don’t use it as your profile picture, but feel free to post on Instagram, Twitter, etc and let people know what you’re up to. Our feeds fill up so fast that it’s easy to forget about people if they don’t post often.
Case in point: Selena Gomez used to be the most followed artist on Instagram. She took a break and now Ariana Grande has dethroned her (as of writing this). Now, people didn’t necessarily “forget” that Selena Gomez exists. They just haven’t had a reminder of what she’s up to, so they either stopped following or found something else to think about.
Hopefully this gives you some insight into what labels do and why you may or may not need one! If you decide to do it yourself, hopefully these tips helped also!
Here is my video recapping this post: