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Originally, I planned on calling this article “Things No DIY Label Should Ask of Its Artists.” What I realized in doing research is that, contrary to what I had previously thought and as is common in life, there is two sides to every thing and almost always an exception to rules that I had thought were clearly black and white. So I want to give this article space to start and encourage a discussion about how labels treat their artists and vice versa. Let me give a little bit of background first though.

A friend recently approached me and asked about a deal his band was being offered with an independent record label. The label was not going to press physical copies for them and in exchange for only promotion and digital distribution was going to take the masters of their record. To me, this seemed like a bad deal. If you’re a small label that no one has ever heard of — which this label was — why would you ask a band to give everything they have to you, with little no physical return? I suppose if each party makes a lot of money because this label is somehow magic at promotion, but I still don’t think it’s worth your masters.

This got me thinking and I reached out to some people — label owners primarily — to see what made them cringe when they heard about dealings of fellow labels and artists. Here’s what they came up with.

“When Labels Don’t Pay Their Artists. I Don’t Get It.”

Mike Park has run Asian Man Records for over twenty years now. His label is transparently and independently run out of his mother’s garage, and has been for years. Bands like Alkaline Trio, Big D & The Kids Table, and AJJ all got their start from him. I asked him what makes him cringe about other artist/label dealings, and he answered when labels don’t pay their artists.

Asian Man’s longevity and relativity has been undoubtedly contributed to by Mike’s music ethics, as bad ethics have undoubtedly hurt his peers. For instance, No Idea Records, a DIY label staple of the last twenty five years, has recently found itself in hot water due to not paying several of their bands agreed upon percentages from profits, as well as manufacturing and selling band merch without the band’s consent. Most vocal of these bands has been Minneapolis’ Off With Their Heads, whose members recently ranted about it on their personal Facebooks, with other bands sharing and confirming via Facebook groups and other public forums.

Similarly, in the book “How To Ru(i)n a Record Label” by former Lookout! Records owner Larry Livermore, it’s revealed that after he left the label, they were ran into the ground by not paying their artists, of whom included Operation Ivy, The Mr. T Experience, Samiam, The Donnas, and most notably Green Day.
Not paying artists what you owe them is not only ethically wrong, but it can ruin you as a label.

“To Rename an Album, Song, Or Product”

It’s one thing to get caught in a cease and desist and have to change your name. It’s another when a label requires it of you because they don’t think it will sell. This is clearly a question of artistic integrity/representation VS label profit, and it’s one I can easily see both sides of.

That said, I don’t like censoring people’s art. I have personally put out records and disagreed with ways it was mixed, how the artwork turned out, and more. I think it’s fair to offer an opinion on a name, song, mix, etc. but I do think if you’re trying to help someone’s music grow and gain exposure (AKA why you run a label), they should get the final say on every decision being made about their music, even when you think it’s the wrong one.

Running a record label isn’t a practical career choice, and if you’re lucky enough to profit off of it then chances are you weren’t expecting to. Therefore, keep in mind why you do this — which is probably for the love of the music — and stick to it.

“To Sign Over Ownership Rights to Their Creative Works”

When another label owner submitted this statement for this article, I immediately agreed. From my standpoint, I would never want a band I’m working with to be unable to move on should they find a better opportunity. I know my label is small and I know other labels have more exposure and more money. If someone finds one of my releases and wants to re-release them, why shouldn’t I let them, right?

Well, Jake from Counter Intuitive Records, who has put out vinyl releases by Mom Jeans, Prince Daddy & The Hyena, .sports and more, had a different opinion and brought up a great point that I feel put my former black and white judgment to shame. “If i'm spending $3k+ on a band i don't think it's wrong to have exclusive rights to the project so they can't jump ship if it takes off in part due to my work. This still feels DIY since i'm saving paychecks to pay for it.”

I reached out to Jake more and we talked about this, and he said, “It just comes down to knowing how valuable the deal is. I try to make mine good enough so that the band thinks it’s [definitely] worth it.” I asked him what he thinks about re-releases and he was more than happy with the prospect. “I don’t want to stand in their way on a re-release but I also need to cover my own ass once I’m investing a lot more.”

Is there a safe example of how to do this properly though? I personally think there is, and it may be found in Asian Man Records, as listed before. Granted, I don’t know the inner details of each agreement the label has done, but I know that Mike Park has admitted to calling up bigger labels than his own and pitching them bands he's worked with. I reached out to Mike one more time and asked him about other labels re-releasing his records, and he said he’s received two buyout requests and turned both of them down. Bigger labels will pick up bands from Asian Man and release their next album, but he keeps the record rights to the first one I suppose.

This seems to be the dream - pushing the release hard enough for the band to find bigger opportunities, but also retaining enough respect and responsibility for what you’ve done so you don’t go broke or lose on your investment.

However, I still feel a significant amount of work and investment should be put in and guaranteed before a band completely signs their masters away. In fact I would say that a band should be able to use the songs for whatever they want as long as they aren’t putting the release out as is and therefore hurting the label helping them. That’s just my opinion from somewhat of a distance, however.

My Own Take: When Labels Disappear on Artists

A musician who influenced me a lot growing up started a label when I was in high school, and that was one of the first times I felt like I wanted to do this myself. Through the years, I would connect with bands who were on this label, and you know what I found? Almost nobody had a positive thing to say about their experience. They all stated they loved the guy who ran the label, but simply he was just too busy to actually help them.

Often, the artists I’d talk to would say that the owner and the people at the label wouldn’t respond to their calls and e-mails or that they would drop the ball on pre-orders and repressings. In short, the label was flaky and undependable.

I don’t get this. There are highly respected, great bands this label has worked with, that without a doubt tour, sell records, and who many labels would have loved to work with. In going with their friend from the music scene, they trusted someone who had already been on their side of the business — the band’s side. And instead they were let down.

It’s a bummer to think that a label would promise something to a band and disappear on them. May that never be my own label, and may that never be yours if you ever start one.

What’s an Artist to Do?

There are a lot of DIY and independent labels that claim to be “for the artists”, but a lot of them don’t care about how good of a job they do or how far they are able to push your band. Maybe even worse, some labels will make you big promises and give you really bad deals in return for their services, or require you to pay them back every penny they spend on you without giving you a way out. There’s nothing wrong with a label wanting a return on their investment, of course, but the deal has to be good enough for a band to be indebted. Here’s some tips on how to avoid that:

1. If they have you sign a contract, read it carefully and understand what’s being asked of you

Okay, this should be obvious but plenty of bands have signed record contracts and been unhappy with what’s required of them. There may be some clarifications that need to be had as well. Converge vocalist said in a recent interview that his band and Equal Vision Records had a disagreement over what something meant in their contract that brought them into unfortunate conflict.

It’s smart to know about the law as well, down to the little details. What defines a “release”? How valid is an electronic signature as opposed to a paper one? What defines a party? When will the contract end and on what terms? Think about these things and read about them when you can.

2. If they want your masters, make sure the deal is good enough to sign them over and that there’s a reasonable buy out

Again, this isn’t extremely common in the independent/DIY label world, and it shouldn’t be. In cases like Counter Intuitive Records, the deals are good and Jake certainly delivers, plus it’s reasonable and there’s a way out. But be smart — signing your masters away is not typically recommended. Still, after hearing about Jake’s experience and method, and seeing how good it’s been for his bands, I’m less opposed to the idea.

3. They want you to succeed and want to do what they can to help you.

Passion is the driving force behind success when it comes to indie labels and indie artists. If a label isn’t passionate about your work, they probably won’t do a good job promoting it. This is why multiple record contracts can be so disheartening. If a label likes one record and not the next one by an artist, then they may not put as much effort into promoting the second record as much as the first and it can flop.

Find a label that cares about your band, and don’t sign a deal in which the label can easily flake on their end of the bargain.

What bad experiences have you had with a record label? I want to hear about it, so let me know on Twitter @Robolitious or @hiddenhomerecs.

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