The music industry has changed substantially since it began. Even in the past 5-10 years, the industry has changed even more than before. Being signed to a label doesn’t mean what it used to. There are new bands forming every day in every genre so it’s becoming increasingly harder for bands to stand out and be something different, something new, instead of just another dime a dozen band.
As of 2014, labels are starting to lose their foothold in the music industry as gatekeepers for success. They are becoming less and less relevant when it comes to bands becoming successful. They do have their place though. If they are a major label that can get you amazing contract deals and can put your music in front of millions more people, then hop on that! But as far as most smaller and independent labels go, for a band just starting to get their feet wet, I don’t think you should go out of your way to sign a record deal.
With places like Kickstarter and Indiegogo that help bands fund their albums and other projects directly from fans, and places like CD Baby where you can get hard copies of your CD pressed, it is becoming easier and easier to stay self sufficient. If you’re actually playing regular shows, making and selling great merchandise/CD’s and going on any short/long tour runs, then you’ve already got several avenues for the band to save up for the next time you hit the studio.
The original appeal of being under a label is that they have better staff that is dedicated to promoting your band, helping to front the cost of studio time and help open some doors you might not have known about. At the same time, a lot of that help can be accessed without a label. Do some research and talk to other similar bands to find a great manager to work with and a great booking agent or sign to a booking agency that works with bands you are familiar with in your same genre. Find a good distributor and screen-printing company to work closely with. Bring them returned business and they are more likely to cut you some deals. Just having a great manager and booking agent can take you places you couldn’t go by yourself.
If you act desperate to get signed by a label and have the mindset that you ‘haven’t really made it until you are signed’ then the label owners will see that. If one is actually interested in you, they will probably give you one of the worst contract deals they can get away with seeing how desperate you are to get signed.
The way you should go about it is just try and be professional and be the best band you can be; put on the best live performances you can, establish a great following in more than just your town and be able to sell a good amount of merch and CD’s. That will get the labels attention and then they will start coming after you. And when the label wants you more than you want them; the ball is in your court and will net you the better contract deal.
Another thing to remember about signing to a label is that depending on the terms of the contract, you will be obligated to write an X amount of albums for them before you have the option the renew the contract or move to another label. So if you sign a less than stellar contract, you will be stuck with them as a band until you meet all of the contract’s obligations.
With some contracts artists might lose some creative control as well. The label might step in and say they don’t like your new direction or think you need to focus on something else. At the end of the day, they might have final say in everything that you do. So staying independent will allow you to retain full creative freedom over everything you do.
Just remember that any money a label spends on you whether it be studio time, marketing/promotions, tour support or even a signing advance, you will have to pay back through record sales and maybe even merch sales. Labels are essentially a bank that you can borrow against to help you reach your goals. So if you have the ability to self fund everything through the band itself and its members, then you won’t be in debt to anyone but yourself and you get to keep 100% of the profits from album and merch sales.
So the simple answer to the question is, stay independent as long as you can and only sign to a label that benefits you and your band. Depending on what level your band is in the scene, staying indie will net you more money in the long run unless you can sign with a major label that can offer you options and help that you could never do on your own. Once you have exhausted every avenue on your own and progress has stalled even with your manager and booking agent, then, and only then, I think it might be time to sign a favorable contract.