People keep asking me to help them start a label.
The first question I ask is “why do you want to start a label?”
It’s astonishing how few people have a clear answer.
Source: It’s pretty obvious I just made this up
That’s not to say that there’s no good reason to start a label, or that nobody should do it, but if you don’t know what you’re hoping to achieve, it won’t be easy to achieve it.
“We heard about it at a conference”
This is a silly reason to do anything. A better reason would be “we heard somebody achieved specific measurable goals and we think we can do the same”.
“Somebody offered to pay for it”
Did they offer to pay for it in perpetuity? If not, you’ve got three options:
1) Treat the funding as start-up capital for a self-sustaining venture
2) Come up with a plan for long-term funding
3) Approach it as a short-term project, in which case “starting a label” might not be the best way to go about getting recordings to the public.
“It looks easy”
I frequently encounter a belief among orchestras that making records is the hard bit, and the rest is easy. While this might* be true for anybody who doesn’t have an orchestra at their disposal, those tend not to be the folks who fall for this mistake. Think about it like this: if getting a few dozen people you already employ to do something they already do is the hard bit, the easy bit had better be very easy.
The “easy” bit here is getting thousands of people you don’t even know, let alone employ, to give you money for something they don’t know they want. I’m quite good at this bit, but it’s not my idea of easy.
*I say “might” because in my experience, making the record isn’t the hard bit when you’re doing everything yourself, and it isn’t the expensive bit when you’re paying other people to do it all. I wish I could find an online source to back this up.
“It looks fun”
Making records is quite satisfying, because you get to say “Here: I finished it”. Getting people to buy records is quite hard work, and it is never done.
“Everybody else is doing it”
The way I see it, this is a good reason to seriously consider not doing something.
“A big boy did it”
Something that works for a large organisation might not necessarily work for a small one. We have to play to our strengths, and a smaller organisation enjoys freedoms a bigger one can only dream of.
“Because we can”
This isn’t a reason at all. A media project might be an experiment, but unless you know everything, what do you do that isn’t an experiment? There’s still a point to it. What are you hoping to find out? If you’re not going to give it a chance by doing it properly, you won’t learn anything at all. “Because we can” is often a weak excuse to go ahead without a real plan.
“It’s the best way to achieve a specific goal”
Ok. There are some upsides. Goals might include:
– Making the recordings you want to make (remembering these aren’t always the recordings people will buy)
– Taking ownership of your recorded media (remembering that this also generally means assuming some of the risk)
– Keeping all the profit (or eating all the losses)
– Controlling the way your brand is used (but having to do all the work)
– Reaching new marketing outlets (remembering you have to actually market to them)
– Reaching a global audience (and taking on the work of marketing to the whole world)
– Creating a durable record of what you played (and finding a way to pay for it)
Once you’ve defined the goals, it’s worth asking if investing in conventional music distribution is the only way of achieving them. Do you need to sell your recordings at all? If you want them to be available to the broadest possible audience and you weren’t approaching this as a for-profit enterprise, might it actually be less expensive to give them away? Could you ask for something other than money in return?
Taking charge of your media activity has to be an integral part of controlling your own future, and there are organisations who are ideally placed to start a successful label, but there’s more to an innovative media strategy than simply doing what everybody else does.