Updated: Aug 26, 2020
As much as I'd like to tell you I'm just a girl from Nebraska that made it big, that's not the full truth. I want to acknowledge that being a white person gave me immense amounts of privilege on my journey. Though my family wasn't wealthy, I grew up safe and very loved. I was fortunate to get a Berklee scholarship and happily worked 3 jobs to sustain my new life in Boston. Going viral on YouTube, surviving a major label rollercoaster, and re-branding myself as Qveen Herby was fuckin wild. So here's how it shakes out for those of us without rich parents, industry connects, or sugar daddies ;)
Gone are the days of labels finding new talent and signing it, developing it, or even remotely thinking about your long-term success or legacy. Labels are signing the Tik Tok trend of the month or anything they can earn instant profits from. Maybe the most important thing I've learned is how quickly this business changes. Labels still hold the power to access gatekeepers on playlists, radio, and press. But more than ever, there are powerful tools for independent artists to build their empires. I want you to understand how money is made in the music industry so you can decipher the best path for your journey as an artist.
Negotiation power is how much of a profitable career you've built before signing. Someone with 1M followers who charts independently will get a better record deal than someone with 12k followers. That means a wide range of deals are possible, but on average, labels are taking 87% of the master royalty. The master royalty is the bulk of all profits earned off streaming, downloads, and sync licenses - when they use your song in movies and TV. You start earning master royalties about 3 months after a song drops. Publishing only makes up around 14% of the total gross revenue, and you only get publishing if you wrote the song. Usually the producer who made the beat gets half the publishing, right off the bat. They also get a couple master points and $10-50k per track as an advance or just a fee. Songwriters who create the lyrics and melodies then split the remaining 50% amongst each other. Often, major label artists who had no writing participation will take from the songwriter pool as well. Publishing doesn't pay out until about 18 months after a song drops.
If you sign a 360 deal, the label also gets money from your touring, merchandise, brand deals, and anything else you participate in. The hope is that the label will invest loads of money into you and give those delicious opportunities you need for exposure on a large scale! Keep in mind though, every dollar they spend will be recouped (or earned back) before you see any earnings from your music. Oh, and 98% of all signed artists never recoup. This is where we see artists being "shelved" because their contract requires another album, but the label won't give them any more money to record it.
Things are starting to change because artists are getting smarter and the people of the internet have stopped allowing labels to force-feed them music. I've always had an underdog mentality and love pioneering new ways of doing things. Indie life isn't for everyone, but if you're curious, read on.
I believe that today you have to build your brand and legacy. Get back in touch with why you are doing music. Do you have a unique message and vibe? Do the work to uncover that, then go deeper. Yes, you could blow up on IG and alley-oop that into a decent record deal, but if you want lasting and sustainable success in music, I say plan to rock indie as long as you can. Build it to a fever pitch and see how high you can get your valuation. Funny thing is, when you're earning 100% of the master royalties every month, it might not be worth signing at all! Keep investing it back into your project. "Old Town Road," the biggest song in history, was written by a talented indie artist on a $25 track. He happened to be a master self-marketer, running a successful Nicki Minaj fan page. Indie artists wear many hats, so decide what your skills are and link up with people who possess skills you don't have - like good marketing people and video directors. Create real relationships with your fans, who are truly your greatest marketing asset.
Trust and believe, when you get the world's attention, all the labels will be calling you. You then have to decide which one is most genuinely excited about your project. You need the high-ups to make you a priority and allocate budget to your movement. You need them to submit your name for all the Spotify playlists, award show performances, and brand partnerships. They are the gatekeepers, but since so many artists are salivating for a record deal, they can just sign people and "shelf" them until they build up their own goddamn buzz. So here's to building your own goddamn buzz! Because along the way, you might just build a goddamn empire.