Until now, all of my studio albums have been released with the help of a major record label. For my current release, Turns To Gold, I chose a different path.
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Funding, recording, and releasing this album independently has offered me more freedom than I had when I was on a major label. While being on the roster of one of these goliaths can provide some advantages, such as up-front money, the “prestige” of being a label artist, and sometimes more media leverage, the number of creative “cooks in the kitchen” is often too high, at least for my taste. Also, the major-label artist is always at risk of being orphaned or forgotten if and when a new head-honcho descends and fires all of the people who loved their music. I am one of a multitude of major label performers who have been in that unfortunate situation. It can be extremely frustrating and demoralizing, especially for a young artist.
When you’re hot, you’re hot, but it’s fleeting. Major labels have A.D.D. when it comes to the vast majority of their artists. Since they tend to have more money to work with than independent labels do, they sign more artists in order to hedge their bets. This means that you may have a whole bunch of people at a major label working hard for you right when your album comes out, but if it hasn’t gained much traction within the first few months after its release, it’s in the label’s interest to shift their attention to one of their many other artists, rather than give your record that extra push it needs to make it to the top of the hill.
However, even small independent labels can do their artists the disservice of signing on a larger roster than they can handle, which leads to some musicians getting lost in the shuffle. I would say that, aside from making the best music they can make, the most important thing an artist can do is to assemble a team of dedicated people around them: a great manager and a great booking agent will be there for the artist before and after most record labels will.
The main difference I have seen in my career since going independent is freedom. I feel more in-control of my career and more responsible for it too. Before going independent, I never owned more than 10% of a recording. But of “Turns To Gold,” I own 100%. This means that I don’t have to sell an unrealistically large number of records just to break even, and while my budget to make this album was smaller, my ownership percentage of the recording is much larger. This combination means I can sell many fewer albums and still sustain my career. This seems like a much more realistic world to live in from a business standpoint, especially given the overall decline in record sales seen over the past decade.
Without the backing of a major label, I do miss out on a few things, such as more money in the short-term, and I miss out on having more people on hand to promote the release. Also, being on a major label lends a cachet that makes certain risk-averse media outlets, desperate to stay “relevant” in a chaotic media environment, pay more attention to what I am doing. But there is always a trade-off. A major label deal could be the perfect “foot in the door” for some artists. Right now, as other people recording my songs becomes a bigger part of my career, I see my own albums as being less subject to some A&R person’s idea of where I fit into “the marketplace” and more subject to what I think is good, and what uncompromisingly represents me as an artist.
I’m better off being independent. Throughout my career I have mostly tried to break into other people’s worlds, looking outside of myself for a ticket to success. I think it’s time to build my own world now. Hopefully music fans will like what they see and want to come into it. I believe that if you keep making the best music you can, if it’s genuine and authentic to who you are, eventually, people will sit up and take notice.
Gabe Dixon is a judge for the 2016 American Songwriter Lyric Contest.