Lesson #13 Label? What Label?!……………………

I’ve gotten quite a few requests to write about Labels. Record Labels that is. Most of the requests come from readers that would like me to discuss how you start a label. This is a topic I know a great deal about since I started a few along the way. In many ways the reasons I had for starting up a label had more to do with advancing the interests of a particular act rather than owning a powerhouse label that helped decide what played out of your radio. The last label I founded was called Absolute A Go Go Records (’87). It was far and away the most serious and successful of the labels I either helped start (Incas records ’83) or started on my own (precedent records ’81) For a good portion of my life owning a label was like being in a band or going on tour, it was just what you did. Everyone did it, didn’t they?

Looking back I now realize that starting up a record label had a long and honorable history and the era that I was a part of, the rise of that evil movement ALT ROCK, has more in common with the way bands become successful now in the internet age than the 40’/50’s R & B single era. That means that the promotions and distribution problems I encountered are essentially the same ones you’ll run into now.

So here we come to the question, how do you start a label? I am going to approach the question from the angle that you, the reader, would like me to explain, in detail how actually set a label up and run it.
It’s quite simple. Make up a name, like MegaMonsterHit Records and go to your county government office. There you fill out a form saying that you are starting a business. Hmm, now you gotta check those little government generated boxes, Sole proprietorship? (this means you’re the boss and the only boss. You’re the label and the label is you) Partnership? (You and your buddy(ies) are gonna own it which means you will eventually want to kill each other ) Corporation Sub Chap S? (this is like a baby corporation. Until you have a relationship with an ACCOUNTANT this is not the way you will go) or finally Corporation. (Yes, that evil giant octopus business that is part of the conspiracy to destroy the world. Once again you don’t want this until your ACCOUNTANT gives you a good reason why). Now that you’ve got that over you give the county people $25 bucks (about) and they give you a business certificate. This is just a piece of paper that lets you walk into a bank and open a checking account. So go do that and come back. I’ll wait. Ok, now you’re in business…let’s move on.

Soon you will need a bar code. That the little box with lines in it that you scan at check out. Without this item you can’t get your CD’s in any real store. The real name for this little baby is UPC code.

Here’s a link that covers that topic:
http://guides.wsj.com/small-business/starting-a-business/how-to-get-upc-codes-for-your-products-2/
It can cost you about $750 bucks to get your own bar code. So you put that off until you absolutely have to do it. Remember though that it takes about 6 weeks to get one. That can feel like an eternity when you are waiting to launch a record. There are also some businesses out there that will give you a bar code using there master bar code number. This means you can get one for $50. That’s ok for your first release but if you are really gonna sell records you will need a bar code for your label. if you’re a hyper christian and you believe that the bar code systems is the mark of the devil and that is all controlled by the anti-christ then I suggest you write a few hit singles that say exactly how upset you are about it and that should balance some of your bad karma.

So now you’ve got the tools to actually do business and create a product. As I write this, physically manufacturing CDs is still essential. Sixty percent of music that is sold is still on CDs rather than downloads so for the foreseeable future you will be in the business of making CDs.

Now we got to stop and ask some basic questions.

Why are you starting this label? Is it just to promote your own band? Is it to help you make a mark on the local scene? Are you aiming to work your way into the big labels as a career? Are you starting your label with the ambition to become the next Richard Branson and build a mega monster multinational business. All of these are good reasons and there are quite a few more.

To add to these questions you’ve got to ask yourself are you going to sign other bands? Are you going to produce? All of the answers to these questions are going to help determine what you do to make your label successful. For this blog I’ll assume that you are starting the label to release your own band, release projects that you produce and with the ambition for the label to continue on after you’ve reached enlightenment and become a eerie ball of light that we all worship. I won’t follow this through all the way to the part where Mr. Spock does the mind meld with you and you bugger Simon Cowell.

So now you’ve got a label, and I’ll make another assumption and say you’ve got an album mixed waiting to be released. This is going to be the big step up as you launch your label and rise to fame. We’ll also assume that your band gigs regularly and that you can gig in a couple of cities within spitting distance of your home base.

So you’ve finished the record now you scratch together $750 and send the project to disc makers with a list of songs for them to put on the back and a picture of the band ROCKING THE WORLD for the cover. WRONG. You are far from ready to put the record out.

There are numerous things that you gotta do before you release a record. Skipping any of them is a good way to insure that your small chance of selling lots of records becomes much smaller. If you do follow these tips you will be set up for a decent shot at selling enough CD’s to get your money back, which is the key to running a label for longer than one month. If you just wish to blow $4000 on putting out a CD and you’re dying to have 2000 copies of the CD in your mom’s basement for the rest of eternity then you should just plow ahead.

Things to do to set up a release, either your own band or any band you sign to your label.

1. Have the finished, mixed down, album MASTERED. This means that a MASTERING STUDIO will take the recordings and change the EQ and Compression. They will make sure all the songs are at the same level and are as LOUD AS POSSIBLE. (this is a modern mastering thing and for rock it’s a must) They will make sure that all of the mixes blend together from the standpoint of playback EQ. This is essential. It will make the difference between an OK sounding demo and a POLISHED ALBUM THAT WILL ROCK THE WORLD. I will probably cover what you should do during MASTERING and how, on a basic level, it is done on another night. Great MASTERING STUDIOS are extremely expensive. You can’t afford them. Don’t worry about it. If you post a comment looking for a reasonable mastering studio I will email you a couple of names. You should be able to get a project MASTERED on the cheap for about $500. If you know a really good, pro studio with nice pro gear you can ask the engineer to Fix your record. Take it from me, they always need fixing. DO NOT USE THE SAME STUDIO WHERE YOU MIXED. If you do it is generally a waste of your money.

2. Plan and Design the CD cover art. This must involve someone that understands graphic arts and printing. Creating a great CD cover takes as much talent as writing a great song. Your package should stand out when it is in the CD rack. It should look professional and IT SHOULD SAY SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR BAND IT SHOULD HELP GIVE YOU AN IMAGE AND MAKE THE BAND LOOK SUCCESSFUL. Look at the covers of bands that are in your style of music. Which ones are great? Why? Imagine the CD cover as a T Shirt. Is it a smokin’ T Shirt that will make your girlfriend look like a million bucks? Some labels have built up the label image by having every release for the label have a certain “look” to the CD art. 4AD in England and Dischord in the US are two labels that used this trick to make the label famous and help the artists sell.

Part of the artwork process is working out credits and liner notes. I personally believe that a CD package that has something to read, something that fills out the band’s aura and image is a great help in turning a casual listener into a hardcore fan. Lots of bands have done this kinda thing well, look at Beatles (after Revolver), Rolling Stones (69 -79, with Sticky Fingers perhaps being one of the greatest LP packages ever), Pink Floyd, Genesis (Lamb Lies down on Broadway) The Clash (Sandinista)…….

3. Prepare a promo list. What’s a promo list? It is a list of names and addresses of writers, promoters and radio stations. You must compile this list before you send the record out to be manufactured. You also need to set aside some money to pay for postage. If you don’t do these two things before you order the record they will not get done later and the record will do nothing to help you get famous or help your label survive and flourish. It’s ok to only set aside $200 bucks it doesn’t have to be 3 grand. But you must spend some money promoting the record. It is better to order less copies at first, like 500 instead of a thousand in order to free up some money to promote the record. Not having enough records to sell is NEVER A PROBLEM. If you put out a record that goes wild and starts selling like cookies at a fat farm you will order more and they will arrive and that will be that. Never worry about how many copies you ordered. Only worry about how you are going to sell them. My record label Absolute A Go Go Records would always give away at least 750 copies of every release, usually more. You want to send copies to any writer that writes about bands like yours, any college station that plays any rock at all, any promoter that fits into the band’s current plans for expansion. Don’t send records to big commercial radio stations. Don’t send records to Rolling Stone. Don’t send records to promoters that are far outside the circuit that you have set up by following the instructions from my earlier blogs.

Ok so now you have done these things because you are crazy enough to believe me. (I did after all do this kinda thing for about fifteen years) There are a few things that you need to understand in order to run a record label. It doesn’t matter if the label is for your stuff or for band’s you find in the frozen food freezer at Wal Mart these are fundamental truths.

First, nine out of ten records will not sell. This applies to your band as well. Face up to it or you will never succeed at rock. Most of the records that you release will only serve as a very expensive but necessary calling card to help that particular band’s career. Get used to this idea before you spend your first nickel. If you don’t you are gonna end up depressed and walk away from something that you could have done successfully if you had the correct attitude.

Like I just said most records don’t sell. You should be trying hard to sell them but in the end if you sell enough to break even, lose a little cash or make a little cash then you are doing it right. That can’t be right!!! Well it’s true. Let me explain why. If you look at any label that survives and perhaps thrives they have operated in this manner. The secret here is that when you release ten records and nine of them flop you still have one that sells. The one that sells will make mountains of money and will pay for the other nine, plus a month in Rio, a new Mercedes and the legal fees from the lawsuit that the successful act’s drummer creates when he supplies Jack Daniels to his hometown middle school. Get used to this fact or don’t start a label. If the act that goes big is your band, great! Congratulations! But the odds are against it. If, on the other hand, your band releases 6 albums over five years and finally the last one sells well then the label served its purpose. The most likely way your band will make it big is to slowly, steadily become popular and grow to the point where a great song can become a hit record.

In a music market where downloads are rampant and will continue to be a fact of life it will be extremely hard to make money with a label. Instead you need to view the label and the CD’s it releases as a machine that helps the bands get ahead. The real cash will come from concerts.

Since this is the new reality it is only a matter of time before labels will demand, and get, a cut of the band’s live money. Perhaps your label will be the one that rewrites that part of the Rock Book.

This brings me to another point. The price of your new releases WILL BE $4.99 or $5.99!!!! This is not negotiable. Each release that is over a year old will be priced at $3.99!!!! The days when CD’s sold for $15.00 or $20.00 are over. The major labels will realize this fact when they are dead and buried. You need to realize it now.

Two years ago a Blue Grass band called Fetish Lane ended up hanging out at my house after a concert. They hung around drinking heavily and playing old country songs on guitar, fiddle and banjo. Nice guys living the dream of being Hillbillies. (I’m not sure what planet this dream comes from) This band played lots of hippy festivals during the summer. They had a couple of CD’s out and they were bragging about the fact that their CD’s sold about 2000 each per year. In Hillbilly land 2000 records is almost a gold record. With the cost of recording and manufacturing the CD and paying the girlfriend that hauled the merchandise table around they figured that they were making about $5000 a year on CD sales. Like everyone else they sold their CDs for $15. I was in a preachy mood so I ended up arguing with them until the sun came up about the price of their CD. Since they were living the Hillbilly Dream they did the idiotic thing and decided to listen to me. They lowered the price of their CD to $4.99. In the next year they sold TEN TIMES THE CDs! They made four times the money and, most importantly, they had TWENTY THOUSAND fans listening to the CD. Fans started buying extra copies for friends and relatives. If you are selling your CD for $3.99 you are doubling your money on each sale since even the most expensive CD pressing deal will cost a lot less than $2.00 per disc to manufacture and package. The idea that something you buy for a buck or two, must sell for $15 or $20 is insane. Most other businesses are happy if they can make 10 or 20 percent. The music business screams bloody murder if they don’t make 1500% or 2000% on their product. Smarten up. If you sell your CD for five bucks kids will buy it to support the band and now bother with the hassle of downloading it and ending up with a burnt disc with no art.

More on running a label in future blogs………………………………………………………………….

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

2 thoughts on “Lesson #13 Label? What Label?!……………………

  1. Hey Brad, my bands in a dilemma right now. We’re getting shows booked and some people are coming out to see us. But we want to get out there and tour for at least a small Indie label. We have singles out and we could be pretty marketable in my opinion, we’re a catchy Electro-Pop band. What would be the best strategy to get some A&R people to our shows? We’re from the Los Angeles area, thank you!

    p.s. if you know of any label people in the L.A. area that you could point in our direction, that’d be great! I’m adding friends on facebook like the owner of Dangerbird Records and Alphapup. Its just hard cause we have to compete with a ton of bands out here. We’re called Sequent Gem.

    • Hi Antony,
      You are on the correct path. Getting A & R people to see your band is not, necessarily the best thing for you. That kind of idea is old school and in many ways the game is changing. One thing has always been true and still remains the core of strategy for getting to the top. You need to GET MORE POPULAR. That may seem like a simple statement but it contains many, many implications. The more you get talked about the more you will draw fans. Once you start to pack the clubs the A & R guys will find you. Could one of you have a very visible fist fight with Lindsey Lohan? If you lose said fistfight it would even be better. You need to startle, outrage and entertain the public. It is the basic technique of being a star. Popstars are whores for attention. They are whores because it works. Last Sunday the northeast was hit by hurricane Irene. One of my farms is underwater and my home was without power for 5 days. Soon after this disaster hit I saw and article pop up on Google. Sebastian Bach, the old singer for Skid Row was sadly announcing his mansion was ruined due to flooding. The article showed up all over the web. I haven’t checked but I bet Skidrow downloads went up. That’s the game. Making great music is what you do to calm the savage beast inside you. Making big waves is how you become a star. Act like a star and have your band upset the natural order and the labels will come courting. Then you’ll realize that you don’t need them…………….

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