Navigate the often confusing world of Record Labels
Major labels versus indies
Indies are more likely to sign undeveloped or unusual artists than major labels are. Their releases are usually distributed by smaller regional distributors, but sometimes an indie will arrange a “pressing and distribution” deal with a major label that will help to get your record into more stores. As an artist, you can expect your royalties to range from 9% to 50%, depending on the other clauses contained in your contract. As they are smaller organisations, Indies will often be satisfied with smaller profits from any given act. While they lack the big marketing and distribution power of a major label, they may allow you to build on your niche appeal, rather than looking to convert you into a mainstream act.
The 'majors' are the three biggest record labels in the world: Warner Music Group, Sony Music and Universal Music Group. Major labels generally work with acts who've developed a fanbase but will back new acts they have faith in. The extra publicity and promotional push you could receive at a major could be hugely beneficial, depending on the type of artist you are.
It's all about finding the people and environment you feel most comfortable in, regardless of the size of the company. It's also not always a case of one vs. the other. Many successful bands have started on an indie before moving onto a major. For example, Coldplay started out on Fierce Panda and Florence and the Machine released tracks via Moshi Moshi before signing to a bigger label.
Each major also has a number of subsidiary labels and imprints. These release records under a different name - often specialising in a certain genre - but are owned by one of the major labels. 679 Recordings, for example, are owned by Warner Music. Some indie labels will also act as 'feeder' labels for the majors, with their most successful acts moving on to the major's roster for further releases. If you want an idea of the range of labels out there the CMU Directory has a definitive list of the majors and indies.
Alternatives to labels
There's plenty of money to be made if you can get your music used on ads or in TV shows and films. Brand partnerships have the potential to give artists more freedom and control over their releases in return for the benefits of a brand being linked to a cool artist that will help to sell their products. These deals can give artists a chance to take advantage of promotional budgets without signing away the rights to their music. There are also a number of artist-friendly companies who give synching opportunities via online upload. Sites like thinksyncmusic and Sentric do this and will collect your royalties. It’s free and they only get paid if you do so it’s worth signing up. Usually agencies and companies will come to you once you're established but if you want to explore this avenue early sites like YouLicense are a great place to showcase your music for this purpose.
There are plenty of other ways for you to generate funds. Selling merchandise is a great way to raise cash for studio time or equipment and helps to advertise your band. If you or anyone in the band is artistically creative you could sell limited edition artwork. Make a test run and see how you get on. Things like badges and canvas bags are also fairly cheap to produce and go down well.
SUPPORT FROM YOUR FANS
There are sites which have the sole purpose of letting fans invest in an artist or band. Pledge Music and Sellaband among others allow fans to help artists raise money for recordings, video’s or gigs. Once again your success on such sites will be down to your fanbase and especially your online popularity. In return for their support you can offer special merchandise and invitations to special events.
Your own label
You might want to have a go at releasing your records independently. Online distribution companies like Tunecore and Ditto Music make it really simple to release your work online worldwide for a small cost. If you are successful you could then think about starting your own record label.
If you do decide to start your own label it can help to plug into a larger network like PIAS for a lot of the practical aspects. Don't be afraid to turn to experts in different fields, be it marketing, legal or design to help you along the way. If you decide to start your own label you're going to need to distribute and market your music. For more info go to Selling Your Music.
Running a label is just like running any business. You’ll need to record all of your income and expenditure accounts by law and have frequent dealings with the dreaded Inland Revenue. Tax returns and National Insurance contributions will likely become the bane of your life unless you have strong organisational and planning skills. There are some great detailed guides online at Sound On Sound and you can get free advice from a site like Venture Navigator.