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Label or DIY release? The pros and cons

It’s never been easier to release your music by yourself but artists on major labels still rule the roost. ‘How should I release my music?’, I hear you ask. Let’s dive into the pros and cons of both the DIY and label route.

Published on
February 1, 2024
Author
Conor Fitzpatrick
Marketing & User Research Manager

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Attention: getting your music heard

It’s hard to get people to notice you and listen to your music, full stop. No matter if you’re independent or on a record label of any size really, getting people’s attention and keeping it is always a challenge. This is especially true now that music distribution has become accessible to anyone. Strong relationships with curators and tastemakers are therefore still of immense value. In this day and age, those are mostly to be found on streaming platforms, but influencers on social media platforms like TikTok, brand collaborations and sync placements also hold significant weight.

Generally speaking, the major labels and prominent indies have the best pre-existing relationships, plus the budget to put into paid promotion. For instance, well-known record labels like Universal Music Group, Warner Music and Sony Music have long established connections that can significantly impact an artist's visibility.

Labels

Advantages or pros of releasing on a label: they have skin in the game

Universal, Warner and Sony Music, being among the well-known record labels, can provide an artist with unmatched exposure. Spotify and other streaming services, which are the number 1 places for people to discover new music, often prioritise releases from major labels. Getting featured on official themed and fresh music playlists means exposure to very large audiences. Those large audiences, in turn, may add your music to their own personal playlists, share it with friends and/or follow you, getting even more ears on your current and future music. The major labels have big budgets to be able to advertise you and your release too - think billboards or ads on the subway.

Depending on the size of the label and the potential they see in you and your music, you may also receive an advance payment on the smaller or larger side from your record deal. That means money immediately in your account, allowing you to pursue your music career full time (at least for some time).

Disadvantages or cons of labels: you’re not in control

However, let’s say you have some music ready to go - an EP of 4 songs mixed and mastered. Finding a label to release it can be a bit like finding a new job, but one which has not yet been published by a company on a job board. Cold outreach to record labels **can be disheartening - endless emails written, personalised to the receiver, introducing yourself, your project and sharing your music, only to get no answer at all from the majority of them. If a label shows interest in you or your release, bear in mind that striking a deal will not happen overnight - these things take time and require buy-in from many people. On top of that, they might have opinions on your mix or master, lyrics, look… the list goes on. You cannot release whenever you want to either - labels typically have many artists on their books and have to schedule the releases from all of them. This may mean waiting around, ‘sitting on’ music that you think people will love, only to be told that there is not possible slot for it in the entire year and you’ll have to wait until the next (of course, you never really know how anyone will feel about your release either).

There is one major difference to a record label release when it comes to rights and royalties: when you sign a contract with a label, you usually have to transfer or assign all or the majority of your copyright related to the sound recording to the label. Once that transfer takes place, the rights to the recording then no longer belong to you. As part of a contract between a label and an artist, the label (record company) normally retains the rights to the master recordings for a significant period of time - often in perpetuity or until the rights to these recordings expire. In return, you as an artist receive royalties from the exploitation of these rights (usually a percentage share) and, as already mentioned, a smaller or larger advance.

Find more details on who exactly can own which rights to a recording and how royalties emerge from this in our article 'music rights and royalties'.

DIY (do it yourself)

Advantages or pros of releasing independently: you hold the reigns

The digital era has made it possible and easier than ever to get your music on Spotify & Co. DIY musicians can use online platforms and distribution services to share their music with the world, bypassing the traditional label structure. You can subscribe to a distribution service like MusicHub, much like you subscribe to a streaming platform, and release as much music as you wish.

One of the primary advantages of going the DIY route is the unparalleled creative control it offers. As a music producer and independent artist, you have the freedom to shape your artistic vision without external pressures. This autonomy can be empowering for artists who are passionate about maintaining artistic integrity, especially if you're considering releasing music without a label. No need to wait / full freedom - release whatever you want whenever you want. It can be very frustrating for artists if your label tells you that the song you love or even album you love doesn’t fit or won’t perform well commercially and so you need to go back to the drawing board.

You don’t have to give away your rights and the majority of your earnings either, which can make a big difference. This means that you can invest that money back into your art - think a music video where you rent a location that you chose, with dancers who are friends of yours (who you’re able to pay for their work). Sounds great, right? The point is you can do what you want with your earnings - no one can tell you what to do.

Disadvantages or cons of releasing independently: it’s an uphill climb

With all that said, coming back to the topic of attention and getting noticed, as an independent, it’s a real challenge to get ears on your music. Most artists don’t have the budget to pay a promotion or PR agency to handle their campaigns for them, get them on billboards etc.

Coming back to the example of the music video that you have full control over - that also means you producing the thing (unless you have enough earnings to outsource that and other tasks), which could mean having to source helpers, equipment etc. Doing everything yourself, independently really is a full-time job and it can be a real challenge to hold your head up and keep going when times get tough financially and workload-wise.

There is no perfect route - do what you can now

Remember that there is no set way of being a musician who releases music. There isn’t a bible with steps to follow. It’s all about finding your way in a non-linear career path, getting lost along the way, then ending up in a place that moves again. Make sense? It’s not really supposed to. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you are independent (because the majority of artists are). Only a tiny amount of artists have record deals.

It really is a good idea to get your music out there independently because then it has the potential to lead to other things, like a record deal. To take an example from 2023, Kenya Grace was making videos in her bedroom in England of her making DnB-inspired, emotional pop songs, plus releasing them to streaming platforms by herself, then ended up with a viral hit in Strangers and getting signed by Warner Music.

However, being signed to a record label is not the holy grail anymore. More and more artists, including ones formerly on major record labels, are seeing the benefits of being independent and are making the leap. Take Raye for example, who had a hard time with the constrictions of not being able to put out the music she wanted to and who ended up having a mammoth independent hit in Escapism in 2022/2023.

The point is, you just don’t know what is going to happen. It’s definitely a good idea to get your music off your computer though and out into the world, because after all, if you don’t, it’s very likely that nothing will happen at all.

Dive deeper into MusicHub’s resources for DIY musicians

Get more useful knowledge and insights on distribution, promotion, rights & royalties, music production and more on our MusicHub blog. We regularly post artist and expert interviews as well as inspiring articles with lots of tips and advice, also in short on Instagram or TikTok.

Sign up for our MusicHub newsletter via the form below to get new articles on challenges and chances for independent musicians straight to your inbox.

Photo credit blog cover: ©iStock/SrdjanPav

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