Becoming A Priority At A Record Label

In an effort to educate artists and bands that still think signing a record label contract is the be-all and end-all of their existence, this month's column is about the challenges of staying in the label's good graces once they have signed you. In past columns I have written about the huge risk so many aspiring artists are willing to take to get the almighty recording contract. This month I take you on a journey inside the mysterious world of becoming a priority release at a label, once the label has decided to release your recording.

Just because an artist or band gets signed to a record label doesn't automatically mean that they will be treated well by their label. Once a record has been scheduled for release, a number of factors will determine if it becomes a "priority" at the label in terms of the amount of attention it receives. The term 'priority' is used to designate which of the hundreds of records a year a label releases will get the most promotion and marketing attention.

The reasons why one artist's new release may be more important to a label than another are varied and often hard to understand. The major labels--and many independent record labels-juggle a lot of apples and oranges when they go about the business of trying to sell records. There are a number of circumstances that contribute to the sometimes irrational decisions being made regarding what records will become a 'priority' and what records will not. Some of these reasons have to do with cold, hard business realities. Others are quite emotional and complex.

When it comes down to deciding when a record will be released, and deciding whether or not to spend very much time and money to help sell it, there are some complex issues that come into play, but the biggest one is this: music, after it has been created, becomes a product.

To sell music you must put it in a physical container of some kind. (Even in a digital world, a compressed audio file will still have to deal with this reality. That is why the recording industry has been so concerned about how these files will be used by consumers.) That container today is usually still a CD.

It is at this point that art enters the world of commerce. When a product containing an artistic creation becomes something people can buy, art encounters commerce and the two worlds collide. In today's music business environment the party that pays for the creation of the artistic product usually wins any arguments about how the art contained within the product will be marketed.

Music is an emotional product, and because of that there will always be issues that come up during the recording of the songs, the marketing of the record, or in the personal relationships that are developed that can deeply affect the success or failure of the project.

Music is not the same kind of product that a shoe is. You don't sell a shoe the same way you sell a CD. If you want to sell a shoe, the shoe itself will not object too much about how you sell it. Not so with music. The artists and bands that make music have an emotional investment in their creation. As 'artists' they concentrate more on the creative side of music, and rarely are they well versed in the intricacies of the business world. So, as creative creatures they can easily develop conflicting opinions on how their 'art' should be marketed.

Songwriters may write songs as a creative expression. Musicians and singers may record a version of that song, but a record label pays the bills for the recording, and then has to find a way to convince listeners of the song that owning it will bring some kind of pleasure to their lives. (Devising a plan to do that is called marketing.) Business people usually know more about commerce than art, so the tensions that exist because of this dynamic can lead to misunderstandings, and misunderstandings can lead to disappointments for all parties involved.

Many solo artists and bands that get signed to record labels get themselves into trouble with record label executives because they think the only thing that is important is the music itself, while the record label executives and their team of promotional representatives have very little emotional investment in the songs they promote.

From their point of view, it is the responsibility of a record label to find a business way to sell the recording they invested in. They may try to preserve the emotional investment their act's have in their songs as best they can, but they will stop at nothing when, for example, a promotional opportunity comes up that may be at odds with the image or ethics that the artist may hold. If the label executives see a potential profit coming from some controversial promotion campaign, they will usually do what they have to do to take advantage of that marketing opportunity. However, at the same time, if the artist is creating such a nuisance to them, they may sense a threat to their investment or even their egos, and decide to cancel a promotion campaign at a moment's notice.

It would take another book to fully explain the strange dynamic between the fragile emotions of aspiring musicians and the egos of materialistic record company executives, but let's take a look at some fairly common situations that come up in the complex world of record labels, marketplace realities, and artist relations.

Factors That Determine Priority Releases

Major labels often find that they have over-extended themselves by signing too many acts within a short period of time and scheduling too many releases to come out at the same time. So, when they discuss which scheduled records have the best chance of success in the marketplace, they may simply push back a release 6 months to a year. (Regretfully, depending on an act's actual contract, there may be no guarantees that a label has to ever release their record.)

Another situation surrounding priority records is this. If a label signs an act because they play a genre of music that is currently hot on the charts, but the negotiations for signing the deal, or the recording process took too much time, they may have missed their opportunity to cash in on a current popular music trend, and realizing that fact, simply decide not to make the record a priority release, but to 'sit on it' and wait to see if another time of year for releasing the record would be more opportunistic.

To complicate matters even more when it comes to what records will be given the most attention by a label, a label executive may sign an act only to stop a competing record label executive from signing them to his label, and when the record is released any interest in promoting the record takes second place to the personal satisfaction of having 'one-upped' a competitor... and the act is left out in the cold.

But the ego issue can also work positively for a recording artist. A label executive may sign an artist in order to impress and influence the manager of another similar hot act, with hopes of getting the band on their label someday. So, when the record of such an artist comes out, the label executive may pull out all the stops promotionally, to show the manager what a great job the label can do. If the label shows it can do a good job with a newer artist on that manager's roster, perhaps the manager will send one of his established stars over to the label, when the existing record contract with the established artist runs out.

Here's another reason why a record might become a priority at a label. We're constantly hearing about corporations downsizing, and companies reducing their staff with every new merger or corporate buyout. At the same time, many major labels are merging with other large labels--and increasing the workload for the remaining staff. It can be important for a label executive to demonstrate to the shareholders of the corporation and to staff at the label that the downsizing issue is not a concern, so a particular act's new release is given a stronger push to impress all concerned parties.

Be forewarned, however. When downsizing occurs, an artist's record may be shifted to a different priority level. Key personnel who were excited about and instrumental in "breaking" a new label act may be fired, or asked to take early retirement. When it comes time to release the new record, a different person may be assigned to work the act; someone who may not care much about, or even like the music on the artist. Will that record remain a priority? There are no guarantees that the new employee will be excited about that act's music. They may have their own pet projects to put ahead of any previous arrangements.

"Bidding wars" also affect priority status. Bidding wars occur when a new band is the hot topic of the industry grapevine. One label makes an offer to sign the band, another label hears about it and ups the bid, a third label offers even more money. The winner of this bidding war will probably be forced to make that act's initial release a priority. The label will need a sizeable return in sales dollars from the new band's recording to recoup their large investment. Interestingly, no band or act signed from any bidding war has ever gone on to major stardom.

Music trends come and go. In the early and mid 90's Grunge came and went. What followed in the late 90's, and into this new millennium, was young boy bands, and young, blond girl ingÈnues. When a hot new music style comes on the scene, any act that is signed to take advantage of a new popular music trend will usually become a priority at the record label that signed them.

By the way, usually, all new releases by superstar acts are automatic priority records because of their star status and the simple fact that they sell a lot of product consistently.

So, take heed. Many people think signing a recording contract with a record label means automatic stardom. That is not the case, and musician approached by a label for a deal would do well to research that label's track record and reputation for making their releases priorities. Take my word for it though, if you are perceived as a troublemaker by the label executives, or if they decide that your record shows no signs of being accepted at radio, other media, and music retailers, that piece of paper you have in your possession called a recording contract may be about as valuable as a sheet of Kleenex.

The issues I have discussed here have come up often enough to contribute to a change in the attitude of many musicians toward working with record labels. Over the last two decades more and more musicians have taken charge of their own business careers, and the list of artists and bands releasing their own records, and marketing them themselves grows longer every day. Perhaps the level of success these entrepreneurial musicians reach may not equal the success of major superstars, but at least when they wrestle with the dynamics created by art meeting commerce, they are wrestling with themselves, and are dealing with the business realities of the music industry on their own terms.

Throughout his fprty year career in the music business, FourFront Media & Music's Christopher Knab has shared his experience at many industry conventions and conferences, including the New Music Seminar and the Northwest Area Music Business Conference.

Knab was owner of a San Francisco music store, co-owner of the 415 Records label, and station manager at KCMU Radio in Seattle.

He currently provides a unique consultation and education service for independent musicians and record labels. His new book is entitled "Music Is Your Business".

Christopher Knab