The Downside to Getting a Record Deal


A lot of artists and bands often feel that getting signed by or being offered a recording deal is the ultimate goal of their musical career. In some cases this can be true but frequently it can be the start of a whole new set of issues that no artist could ever foresee or desire.

These days a recording contract is nothing more than a big advance of money to be recouped by the recording company through sales of your product. If it doesn’t sell to expectation you still have to pay the money back somehow. Music companies are a business and they are there to make money not lose it. It is no different than going to a bank and getting a loan to market your music your self, except the recording companies have the methods to make the product sell, get airplay and distribute the product throughout the country or even the world. Recording companies loan you the money to make the music and get their money back by distributing it. Typically artists make a small fraction on CDs- most of the money comes through merchandise and tours.

If you can get a recording company to get behind your music, that’s good. But beware of recording companies who try to influence and change your sound, often to the point of rewriting your songs and even changing members of your band or, worse still forcing you to record songs made by other peoples.

Here are some difficulties that can happen to musicians who get signed and think they are on their way to fill stadiums around the world.

Getting shelved!
A band gets signed, gets some cash advanced for recording. The songs are recorded and completed but the record company ‘shelves’ your act and you never sees the light of day but you can’t take your product anywhere else because you are already signed. Often you can’t even play live gigs without giving a % of your performance fee to the record company. This happened to Billy Joel who waited his five year contract out playing in piano bars.

The song gets changed.
Often you will be all ready to record your songs and the record company will bring in a co-writer or producer who alters your compositions beyond all recognition to “fit in with label’s style.” You started to make a hard rock album and you end up with a rap album with all your instruments removed and samples replacing them. You thought you were Metallica only to end up like Jack Johnson. Then you have to go and promote something you really hate and your product is no longer recognizable.

Where did all the money go?
Beware the big advance of money, to make and promote your music. If it doesn’t sell you will have to pay the money back, with interest, just like the banks. How do you pay it back? Live gigs, touring, radio shows, shopping centers for the next ten years. How do all those artists who make millions of dollars end up bankrupt? All the bills they didn’t know they had to pay. They had so much fun, they never watched where the money was going. Read the fine print so you don’t end up like MC Hammer.

Where did my band go?
Quite often musical differences between band members and record companies are solved by the company getting rid of and replacing any member of the band who doesn’t agree with them. They are always trying to get work for their own players and artists who have already been signed. Quite often you will find all your guitar player’s work re-recorded by the studio guy or producer to fit in with the label’s sound or smooth over tensions within the band.

I thought I was a musician not a pop star.
Increasingly recording companies are trying to “cross media” any act in anyway they can. They will market you anyway they can, and they will get you to do things to increase your and their exposure any way they can. You may end up on dog food commercial, on big brother or, god forbid, on Australian Idol. Many recording companies are just offshoots of the big media groups who control TV, radio, music, and the print media, and they will market you anyway they see fit to re-coup their investment in you. Most musicians have a short shelf life so companies want to maximize their profit now before the public listens to the next big thing. (We’ve all heard of the sophomore slump!)

Remember that the music business is 95% business and 5% music. Try to go independent if you can, promote yourself on the web at sites like Axebay and build your own presence in the world. The more successful you are in the beginning the more bargaining power you have with the recording companies. If you do get an offer, get a good lawyer. You don’t want to waste five years in piano bars.



Matthew Kepnes

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