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The Secret Rock Star On… Signing To A Record Label

The Secret Rock Star
The Secret Rock Star 26 October 2017 at 20.07

They’ve sold countless records, toured the world and appeared on the cover of just about every rock magazine you can think of. Meet Rock Sound’s top secret band insider…

What does it really mean to sign to a big label in 2017? Is it even something bands should aim for these days? The Secret Rock Star has some opinions on that!

The term ‘being signed’ used to be a major thing for bands. Now? You can put out music yourself and I don’t think being signed really matters unless somebody offers you ridiculous money and can hold up the promises that every record label makes.

The main promise? ‘This could be the record that makes you a superstar!’ I’ve never played a song for a record label and had somebody say, ‘This song is shit!’ They can’t do it, because they have to be nice. It’s horrible in a sense because a lot of young bands meet them, hear the bullshit that people say and think, ‘We’re going to be huge!’

I remember it happening to a young band who only had a few songs out at the time. They signed to a big, big label and all they did was brag that they were signed to this major label and that they were going to be stars... all kinds of shit. Fast forward a few months and they’d been dropped and they’re all broke because they spent all of their money on drugs and hugely expensive instruments. They thought there’d be an endless supply of money coming in, but it doesn’t work like that. They were told they were going to be the next big thing and it didn’t happen. I feel sorry for them, but they were stupid with it.

Until you actually find out what it’s like – that signing to a huge label may not do that much for you and you don’t really get that much money – people think, ‘Oh, you’re signed to a label and you’re instantly rich.’ Your life doesn’t change overnight.

One night, we supported at a huge, world-famous venue in New York. If you’d have been there that night watching us – and watching the thousands and thousands of people who liked our band – you’d have thought we were rich and huge. I slept in our van that night.

As with almost everything else in life, you have to work for it and hope you get a tiny bit of luck. If a label sees you play a show and decides they want you to sign with them, they’ll try to schmooze you. Some will take you out for dinner and put you up in a nice hotel. Some will promise big recording budgets and lots of cash to shoot fancy music videos. Some will drop thousands of dollars just taking you out to dinner and offer to take you to bars, strip clubs... all of the clichés. I can see how young, naïve bands have their heads turned. They must think, ‘This is how we’re going to live now’.

Except they don’t live like that.

The only money you’ll really get is to record an album, and after that a label might pay for a tourbus on a tour or two, but they’ll always need to recoup that cost. No matter how much money they give you, they want that back.

That’s how business works I guess, but a lot of bands also quickly realise that nobody is as invested in their band as them. Bigger labels have hundreds of other bands, and you only get priority when you start making them money.

The head of one of my band’s past labels decided he had something better to do the day we were supposed to meet for the first time. We never did meet, I don’t even know if he saw us play.

In a way, being signed to a big label is the greatest, most stressful thing in the world. A label turning around, planning an album and saying, ‘We want 12 songs in the next two months’ pushes you to see just how good a band you are. Some bands manage to push through, some don’t. It depends on what kind of people you are.

But there’s no guarantee it’ll work. I know bands whose labels have paid hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to work with huge producers, and at the end of all of it they’ve ended up with bad albums that don’t sell.

As soon as a label’s interest in you dies you’re going to have to do something miraculous to get back on their good side. You can even go past their expectations of what you’re going to sell, but if they’re not sure your band fits into the particular scene they’re targeting at that point, it could spell the end of your relationship.

Much like fans, labels’ heads can get turned. It can be disheartening, I’ve become quite desensitized to it all, but if you were a less strong band it could ruin you. It doesn’t even necessarily need to be a bad relationship, it’s just often a faceless one.

Then again, I know people who have signed to a label and had to pay to have 1,000 CDs printed just to use the name of the label, so it’s not all bad!

When albums don’t sell and songs don’t get played on the radio, bands get dropped or – more often than that – bands and labels agree to part ways amicably. People think, ‘Oh, you’re not signed to a big label any more, you must suck’. But most of the time it’s in their interest not to be on a big label any more.

People think being on a label is the be-all-and-end-all, but really it can mean almost nothing. I’m not saying it’s always like that, but now, you can put music out there on YouTube and Spotify. I think people are going to start bands and not even want to get signed. They’re just going to build themselves up from the ground. My band, for example, were much better off financially when we took a more DIY outlook for a while.

Every single one of us has got the power to put music out there to people. I couldn’t get a CD out to everyone I can think of, but if I put a song online I could link them to it and people can find it. It’s getting easier now. Not necessarily to earn money, but to build your band and connect with people. It feels like labels are becoming more irrelevant by the day.

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