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« The Myth of "Almost Zero" Recording Costs | Main | Looking Ahead Into The New Music Business (aka What I Learned From Terry McBride, Again) »

If I had a record label, would you be signed to it?

I never liked the idea of having a record label, because you’re too deeply invested into something you don’t control.

So if I were to have a label, my decision on who to sign wouldn’t be decided just by the quality of the music. There are plenty of people with great music but destructive work-habits or an unsustainable approach to their career.

To confidently invest in an artist (as a label), I’d want to see:

  • every song has been absolutely improved repeatedly - every note/syllable crafted to be the best it can be
  • vocal performance is not just perfect but head-turning, striking
  • arrangement is everything it can be to bring out song/vocal
  • arrangement offers a new idea to the world, and not just the usual paint-by-numbers
  • photos/image are striking and amazing, and capture the essense of the music
  • live show is so entertaining that even a deaf person would enjoy it
  • band has been around, recording and gigging, for at least 2 years
  • artist has done this for a few years and still believes that this is their real calling in life, regardless of external rewards (or total lack of)
  • band members don’t need unreasonable amounts of money to perform (can perform profitably)
  • band can entertain a crowd without props or big sound system (in-store appearances)
  • off-stage persona is sustainable (stamina, dealing with fans well, etc)
  • no addicts - to anything
  • an unflappably healthy attitude to the immense amount of work it really takes to be successful at anything

And so you see why I’ll never have a label. Who could possibly fit this list? Garth Brooks? Dave Grohl?

I haven’t talked to any labels about this yet, but I wonder what their perspective would be. I’m friends with Jac Holzman who discovered the Doors and obviously didn’t regret it, despite Jim Morrison being the opposite of everything on my list. I should ask him. (Jac, not Jim.)

Reader Comments (11)

Well even though Dave Grohl is about the most respectable artist in music these days (a personal hero for making good decisions & humbleness in my eyes)...he still espouses the benefits of getting toasted prior to performing so I think he missed your short list too.

April 26 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

I really hope I don't sound mean-spirited with this post, but I'm still trying to figure out the point of this article, Derek. It seems to me that every item on your list is pretty much exactly what major labels do today, right down to polishing every last bit of character out of the act, their songs, and their performance. The Doors were successful because the band themselves were enthusiastic about their own music, and they played live with that enthusiasm, and it infected their audience as well. Polishing their act down to the last syllable would have killed it.

Or maybe that was your point this entire time. :-)

April 26 | Unregistered CommenterDarren Landrum


I would site Mr. Dave Grohl again, as an example to rebut your perception of what major labels do today. The Foo Fighters have always and continue to do what they want the way they want to do it.

Don't get me wrong...there are a lot (vast majority) of acts that pander to their label just as much as the label panders to them...that is a hopeless fight and a lost cause. The "Sell-out" will always exist.

The non-pander acts are so very few and far between in the multi-million selling arena.

Luckily for me I do not aspire to reach that level of monetary results. I am just happy making music which is the most important part of the process...hell, it is the genesis of the process. There is no other reason that I make music except for self gratification. Everything else that comes of it is unintended.

BUT, I actually agree with you that this particular post by Derek does seem lacking in a direct "point".

April 26 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

Darren : yep, that was my point. I should not be starting a record label because I consider it too risky unless all of these criteria (+ amazing music of course) are met.

April 26 | Unregistered CommenterDerek Sivers

Hi Derek,

I read your list a few days ago, shared it with some friends and gave it some thought. I would perhaps divide the list into two lists: 1) battles I don't want to fight & 2) things that can be taught or that I don't mind dealing with. Here's my quick list:

Battles I don't want to fight:
- The ability to write and create great songs.
- Willingness to accept full responsibility for everything that happens in his/her life.

Things that can be taught or that I don't mind dealing with:
- Just about everything else

You can build a business around someone that fits the "battles I don't want to fight" criteria. All of the other things are plumbing. There are methods and strategies for overcoming most of the other deficiencies, if there are any.

When you find an artist that creates great songs (step 1), for me, the next step is to (step 2) determine if he/she has and has frequently demonstrated exceptional character traits.

Great post by the way..

April 27 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

Yeah, I don't like artists much either! :p

there's a lot of people around who want to get recognition and income with their music but not that many people around with the experience to help them do that and now that the majors are eating dirt . . . it may as well be a bloody lolly scramble!

mmmm lollies

I got this 50/50 thing im trying out strictly locally but it's really just an experiment.

I'm only signing the recordings. I'll be producing at least 5 cd's, so I'll make sure you're the first to get them. haha

This is the first time I ever commented on one of your posts Derek, you're the man!

@Bruce (or anyone else)
Do you feel that perhaps an artist such as the Crazy Frog or Tila Tequila would fit your criteria?

April 27 | Unregistered CommenterMatt @ Kurb

.. interesting ...
a > seems to define the exact opposite of CDbaby
b > would not sign Scott Walker

Lord Litter

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterLord Litter

Great post, and it does highlight why (I would imagine) most of your readers have more independent than major label artists in their collections.

The music industry is about risk, and when you try to factor that our with set criteria things get a little dull.

Most great bands started out oppositional to expectations, with arguable talent and questionable production values, loads of personality issues and probably impossible to manage..

Joy Division, The Clash, Janis Joplin, The Velevet Underground, The Doors, Nirvana..

I'm enjoying this list so excuse me while I continue..

Happy Mondays, Jimi Hendrix, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Pink Floyd, Oasis, Sigor Rus, Take That, Adam & The Ants, Public Enemy, Rape Man, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, Amy Winehouse, Iggy and The Stooges

None of them would pass the above test, but most of them currently support the record industry with their back catalogues! Go figure..

May 1 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Great post! Fortunately, I know quite a few musicians who fit the bill. The winds have changed and so must musicians. Being able to sound good is no longer a sole consideration in this new age.

Interesting post. Your list is the "perfect world" artist for in some respects but not worth striving for anyway.

I guess an artist that met the requirement in the beginning may also fall down later on and not meet them. What do labels do then?

In the interest of "revenue" I do understand labels want to be represented as well as they represent the artist, and thats fair enough......

It makes me wonder what qualities a Label actually does look for???

When We Run

May 16 | Unregistered CommenterShaun

Re. Foo Fighters - note they have a rather unusual agreement, so it's not the case that Sony BMG simply lets them do what they want. I believe they make music for Grohl's own label, Roswell Records, and in turn they licence it when it's finished to Sony BMG for a period of 7 years. So they've had complete control over the production before the major label has heard it.

Derek: don't be hard on yourself, Grohl wouldn't be a bad act to have aboard.

June 21 | Unregistered CommenterChris

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