Hi, I’m Sean McGrath, and I’m in the death metal band Impaled. We’ve been asked to do a “blog” by Decibel, and though I usually shy away from such things, or more accurately back away from them while forming the sign of the cross with my fingers, I thought it might be a good chance to lay bare a few well kept secrets about the music industry to those young and impressionable musicians who might have been fooled into thinking that signing a contract with a major label is a great honor and privilege.
In this day and age, record labels can do very little for you that you cannot do yourself with some hard work, talent, and ingenuity. Let’s assume that you already have talent. That cuts out seventy five percent of you. You can leave. The rest of you, please read on. This is the standard operating procedure for most labels:
Let’s pretend there’s a young death metal band. Let’s call this band… I don’t know…Injected Feces. That’s pretty good. (It’s copyrighted, so don’t get any ideas.) So Injected Feces has been around for a year or so, played some good shows, garnered some good reviews, done a decent demo, and gets a little interest from some labels. “Awesome!” thinks Injected Feces, “We’re going to MAKE IT!”. They pick the biggest and best label and sign the contract without having a pro look at it. Who needs lawyers? That’s not metal! And hey, the label is offering them $1,500! That’s four times what the demo cost! Sounds pretty good so far. Injected Feces goes into the studio and they just squeak by on the 1,500 bucks, but the finished product comes out great (as great as it can coming from Injected Feces). The promotion department tells the band this is the best thing they’ve heard since Colostomy Catheter (also copyrighted), and they’re sure to sell 40,000 copies. Wow!
Cut to a year later. Injected Feces has taken three months out of their lives to tour the country to promote the album. They had to buy the cds from the label at 6 bucks a pop, but it was worth it. Man, did they sell! At the same time, jobs have been lost. Relationships have been strained or ruined. But the band is doing great! They sold thousands of cds! They must be in the chips, right? I mean, they were mentioned in Decibel and Metal Maniacs! All the same, they wonder why they haven’t gotten a financial statement from the label. Ever.
They ask the label to provide a statement and after and few months of cajoling they finally get one. Holy moly, they sold 6,000 CDs! There is much rejoicing. But wait, what’s this? The label keeps 9 dollars of every cd sold and gives the band 65 cents per cd sold? Well, ok. I mean, they DID put all those ads in those glossy magazines… and that’s still almost 6,000 bucks! Hold on… They also charged for the cost of the ads out of the band’s royalties? And they pro rated the phone bill and internet bill and rent and took that from the band’s royalties? And they own the rights to the t-shirt designs?! And on top of that, they’ve been trading Injected Feces CDs for other CDs made by bands from other labels, and not reporting those traded CDs as sales?
What a disappointment. Injected Feces only sold 6,000 copies. Sounds like a lot to the band, but it’s well below the 40,000 estimated. I guess they should be dropped from the label. Not profitable enough. After an initial investment of 1,500 dollars, they only raked in 54,000 dollars for the label. The good thing is, the label owns Injected Feces’ entire catalog. They signed it away! The material will never see the light of day again if the label does not will it.
Now let’s look at the other option.
Injected Feces has a bit of a following. They put out a demo. They do as many interviews in fanzines as they can. They try to get on shows with every touring band they can and make connections with the members and the promoters. They hook up with some out of state bands, do some split releases, talk their way onto some compilation CDs and into some bigger magazines, do a few DIY tours, have a decent website that offers free downloads of their music and interesting artwork. Injected Feces now has a name. They scrape together three thousand dollars, record a CD, and press it themselves. They sell 1,000 CDs on a DIY tour at 10 dollars a pop. 10,000 dollars goes to paying for gas, strings, a new tire to replace the one that blew out, a new guitar to replace the one that broke when that dude moshed into it, your drummer’s rent when he’s short, flyers, beer, a new banner, and not one fucking cent goes to some weasely prick in an office telling them how awesome they are.
Option number two is the future of underground metal.