This is a guest editorial by Mark Tavern, an artist manager, consultant, educator, administrator, and arts advocate with more than 20 years of music business experience.
“Don’t sign a record deal. Don’t sign a distribution deal. Don’t sign a publishing deal. Don’t sign a management deal. Hire the people that you need to work with you. Pick out your goals and go get them done.”
Chance’s rise in the music industry made him a poster child for indie success. When DJBooth tackled the subject of what it means to be indie in both 2016 and 2017, the common thread passing through the pieces was him. But while Chance’s advice may work for Chance, it ignores the wide range of opportunities currently available to indie musicians.
I’ve worked in the music business since the mid-’90s. In that time I’ve witnessed lots of changes, but none more important for indie artists than the emergence of those opportunities and the choices they offer. Chance doesn’t acknowledge this, or rather, he makes the argument that there’s only one choice: that of major versus indie, between corporate and DIY.
Binary arguments make for great interviews. They make great pull-quotes and great clickbait. It’s easy to argue one side or the other in dramatic, black and white terms. The reality, however, is often much more grey, and likely much more difficult. There are opportunities available to indie artists in today’s music business that didn’t exist previously and there are choices available to those artists they could never consider before.
Record deals are the best example to use in describing these changes. It used to be that the only way to achieve success was through the help of a label. While their big advances once represented an important way for an artist to fund both the creation and marketing of their recordings, those artists had to give up their rights in exchange. But now, record companies are much more willing to do non-standard deals than they were before. This means that artists can now own their sound recordings, negotiate better terms, and collect a greater share of the revenue generated.
Distribution was the other major benefit of yesterday’s record deal, but just as digital disruption changed how consumers purchase music, it also changed how companies bring that music to the market. To get distribution, an artist’s options were once limited to signing with a label (either major or indie) or signing a production deal (and hoping the production company would, in turn, get distribution). Now there are distribution solutions for virtually every artist and their situation. With so many companies in the game (either full-service distributors like Empire and Symphonic, or aggregators like Tunecore, CDBaby, and Distrokid), it’s easy for artists to do some research and choose a distribution deal that meets their needs. There’s even Bandcamp for artists who desire a truly DIY solution.
As for music publishing, royalty collection is only getting more complex. But the question as to whether signing a publishing deal and giving up one’s rights makes sense is easier to answer in the current marketplace. Companies like Songtrust and Audiam have emerged, willing to handle royalty collection without demanding a songwriter turn over their copyrights. Some distributors now offer publishing administration as part of their services. And starting in 2021, the Music Licensing Collective will work to ensure indie songwriters get a bigger share of what is paid out in publishing royalties.
Management may be the weakest example here, but that’s only because the best managers are historically more flexible with their deal terms. But with so many skilled consultants, tools, and resources available, and with label services companies popping up (like United Masters—which is also a distributor—and AWAL, which is part of Kobalt, a music publisher and administrator), it’s increasingly easy to assemble a team of professionals that can take the place of a traditional management company. If an artist chooses to self-manage there are countless tools, services, professionals, and companies that they can hire to help execute their vision.
So Chance’s advice? Ignore it.
If it means signing with a major because they can offer financing you can’t raise on your own, do it. If it means not signing that record deal because you want to own your masters, do it. If it means using a third-party company or paying your distributor to collect your publishing, do it. If it means hiring a consultant to handle your digital marketing or other parts of your business, do it.
Indie artists are no longer defined by a single choice. No artist is a sellout if they make smart moves that increase their business. As long as you educate yourself, understand the tradeoffs, and accept the risks, do what makes sense for your art and your business. DIY shouldn’t mean “do it yourself” but rather, “do what works for you.”
Mark Tavern is an artist manager, consultant, educator, administrator, and arts advocate with more than twenty years of music business experience. In addition to running his own management company, he currently teaches music business at LaGuardia Community College and before that at the Institute of Audio Research. Prior to 2012, Tavern worked at major record companies including Universal Music Group, SONY Music Entertainment, and BMG Entertainment. As an A&R Administrator with such labels as Island, Def Jam, RCA, and RCA Victor, he took part in more than 200 recordings, a dozen Broadway cast albums, and numerous reissue projects, including the GRAMMY®-winning 24-CD box set The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition. Visit his website for insider tips about the music business, and subscribe to his newsletter to get a free ebook: Listen Up! A Simple Guide To Getting Heard On Spotify.