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I wrote an article for New Music Box about cover art last month. You can read it here. Or just skip the text and look at the silly illustrations.

I also wrote an opinion piece for Classical Music about giving away your masters. It’s not available on their website, so I’m including the text below. I’m sorry there aren’t any pictures…

Are you giving your music to the wrong people?

I keep getting emails from journalists writing about the “value” of music: Some pop star’s song has been streamed a trillion times on the Internet, and they only got paid tuppence. Are new technologies undermining the value of an entire art form?

I’m usually happy to pontificate on the question of whether steaming services are more analogous to music retail, video rental, or possibly to radio, and I’m always game for a conversation about how inconsistently we treat the copyright of composers and performers. On a good day, I’ll even point out neither the artists nor the labels signed these deals at gunpoint.

For the majority of classical musicians, though, this is all moot anyway. You might get paid a union rate for a session on somebody else’s album, but when it comes to a solo disc or a recording of your own music, the expectation is often that not only will you not get paid for making it, but you’ll also have to cover the production costs.

When we’re talking about the value of music, this is the transaction that really interests me: musicians pay real money to make something, and then they give it to a profit-making entity to exploit for financial gain.

Why on Earth would anybody do this?

You want people to hear your music. It would be good to have some CDs to sell at concerts. You’d like to see your hard work recognised, so some reviews would be good. You’d like to add a prestigious label affiliation to your bio, and you hope that their other marketing would raise your profile.

I absolutely support your right to give your music away, but why not just put it on your website? I bet you can give away 10,000 copies of your album on the web faster than your label can sell 1,000 copies of the same record. You’re still giving it away, you’re just giving it to the people you actually want to have it. If you ask for their email addresses, you can even build a huge list of people to invite to your gigs in future. A label couldn’t (and wouldn’t) give you that information even if they had it.

It’s good to have CDs to sell at concerts, but you can make twice as much profit (or halve the price) if you press your own. You could sell them on Amazon and iTunes too, if you wanted.

Reviews are, indeed, good to have, but getting them is not rocket science. You put the CD in an envelope and post it to the magazine. It’s nice to have some help with this, but is it worth giving up all rights, in perpetuity, for a few jiffy bags and a book of stamps?

It’s nice to the think the label’s marketing would raise your profile in other ways, but let’s be honest. What actual marketing are they going to do? How serious are they about investing in a recording they wouldn’t pay to make?

If this nebulous boost to your personal brand is the real upside of donating your intellectual property to a multimillionaire’s private media empire, then you might want to see some commitments up front or, better still, some skin in the game. Will they work with you on the marketing plan? Do you get a say in the way it is packaged and presented? Is there really anything to stop them simply putting your master on a shelf and waiting to see if you get more famous? Don’t think it doesn’t happen.

There’s no prestige in a relationship where you do all the work and take all the risk but get none of the rewards. Nobody is ranking artists according the size of the company they managed to get exploited by. So next time somebody tells you “these are our standard terms”, perhaps it’s time to be ready with a standard response?

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  1. Kieran Cooper #
    September 20, 2013

    Do you think there is any merit at all in having CDs in shops? I know it’s a dwindling market, but I’m sure it’s one of the reasons that artists are attracted to a label – for the distribution network. Whenever I’ve looked into self-publishing for groups, the lack of an easy way to market for physical product often comes up as a problem. Are there distributors (that aren’t labels) out there?

    • September 20, 2013

      This is a very sensible question.

      It depends who you are and what you want to achieve. There’s a point at which it certainly makes sense, especially if you have an established audience. People might find your record on the shelf and decide to give you a chance. Some customers are very loyal to a specific shop or won’t order online, and you lose their custom if your records aren’t available that way. If you’re big enough for this to make sense, you’re big enough to get a distribution deal with Naxos, Harmonia Mundi, Proper (in the UK) or E1 (in the US). They’ll take 25%-40% of the wholesale price, in return for storing, selling and shipping your CDs.

      As a rule of thumb, the first 1,500 CDs you’ll sell are to people you know, or have access to. If you sell those records yourself, you’ll make £5-£10 per copy. If you sell them through a distributor, you’ll make maybe £2 a unit. If you give your album to a label, you’ll make nothing either way.

      A distributor or label is helpful selling the next 1,500 copies, but you have to sell about 5,000 through a distributor before you make as much money as you would have done selling 1,500 yourself. You can try to do both, but you end up giving the distributor a cut on a lot of the venue sales that would otherwise make the project viable.

      Bottom line: if you are not famous, a very well-recieved record might make you more famous, but a small label or distributor is unlikely to be the thing that makes that happen for you.

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