To Sign Or Not To Sign: Artists Big And Small Face The Label Question Land a deal with a label or put out records on your own: Both options carry big risks. For musicians today there's a middle ground, but getting your songs in front of people will still cost you.

To Sign Or Not To Sign: Artists Big And Small Face The Label Question

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Music industry analyst Nielsen SoundScan just released its midyear report, and digital music sales are down again, nearly 15 percent from the last - same time last year. Online streaming services, like Spotify, saw sizable growth, but musicians complain they are seeing little of that revenue. Everyone's looking for a way forward at a time when even established artists have been dropped by their labels. And unknown bands find it almost impossible to get labels' or listeners' attention. But Allyson McCabe reports, there may be a solution for some artists. It's called label services.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hey, Macklemore, can we go thrift shopping?

MACKLEMORE: (Singing) What, what, what, what, what...

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: You might be surprised to learn that the chart topping duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are not signed to a major label, neither are veterans like Peter Gabriel and Wilco. They're all self-releasing album.


WANZ: (Singing) I'm going to pop some tags. Only got $20 in my pocket.

MCCABE: But if you self-release, you still need someone to get your name out there, get your product into the marketplace and get it sold.


MACKLEMORE: (Singing) I'm like, yo, that's $50 for a T-shirt.

MCCABE: In other words, you need someone to do all the stuff the record label used to do. You could do it yourself, or you could hire someone like Kevin Wortis of Girlie Action, a leading music marketing agency based in New York.

KEVIN WORTIS: Here, we offer either the complete package or services a la cart. But the hub of label services is project management, which includes all the production services, sourcing distribution, sales. We also handle marketing - digital marketing, social media, press.

MCCABE: Girlie Action's clients include Pretty Lights, Amanda Palmer and the Crystal Method. The French recording label Naive hired the agency to provide label services for Marianne Faithful's last record. And Girlie Action is now working on its third album for Meshell Ndegeocello.


MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) You came to change directions, seeking protection. You're back now, right where you started. Back in the lie.

MCCABE: Ndegeocello says that in today's environment, musicians don't have the luxury of just sticking to music.

NDEGEOCELLO: Now I have to be really involved in a way that sometimes - there's no other way to say it. I just wish I didn't know. I do have to think of it as a product. I do have to think of ways to get people interested. I find it very important to hire public relations people, where that's their art. If it was totally up to me, I would fail horribly.

MCCABE: Ndegeocello's manager, Alison Riley, sees clear advantages to label services model.

ALISON RILEY: The charm, I think, of a major label is that they have all of the resources in-house. But you lose a lot of creative control, and you lose a lot of control of one's career. It's a much more collaborative, cooperative experience to work with label services, in that we have a much greater say in the creative - in the channels things are pushed out through.

MCCABE: Under the old system, the label called the shots and often on the rights to the artist's recordings. But the labels also fronted the money for recording, promotion and distribution. Musicians had to pay it back, of course, which sometimes meant not making any money from record sales. Today, if you contract for label services, you pay up front. Only the biggest stars can attract advances from label services providers. The top PR firms charge four to $6,000 per month to promote artist's record, with album pre-release campaigns running from six weeks to four months. Each deal is a little different, but none are cheap, and only a select few artist can afford them.


SUZANNE VEGA: (Singing) My name is Luka. I live on the second floor. I live upstairs from you. Yes, I think you've seen me before.

MCCABE: If this version of Suzanne Vega's 1987 top-ten hit "Luka" sounds a little different than what you remember, you're right. Unlike many recording artists, Vega, who was dropped twice by the majors, maintains publishing rights to her songs. Four years ago, she founded her own label and started re-recording her back catalog. To get it out there, Vega signed deals in the U.S. with Red, Sony's label services division, and internationally with U.K.-based Cooking Vinyl.

VEGA: Rather than being the one waiting to see are they going to renew my contract, it's me renewing their's. And that makes a difference.

MCCABE: In the last two years, all three of the majors have hopped on the label services bandwagon. Vega recently self-released her first album of new material in seven years, and she's back on the charts for the first time in nearly two decades.

VEGA: I think that this new album has done so well so far that, suddenly, I see that my first two albums are being re-released without my consent or permission or participation. So I'm competing now with my own back catalog, which I guess is a good thing. I'm not sure. It's like the wild west out here.


VEGA: I never wear white. White is for virgins, children in summer, brides in the park. My color is black, black, black.

MCCABE: With label services deals, artists can keep the rights to their music and up to three quarters of their sales revenue. Label services providers get paid whether or not the album sells. These deals may work well for established artists, but they're out of reach for up-and-coming musicians, like the Philadelphia punk trio Cayetana.


CAYETANA: (Singing) There's a difference between things that we say and we mean, so take a deep breath. breathe in through your chest. And you're lying face first on your mother's floor, saying, oh, dear God, what'd you do that for?

MCCABE: The musicians have been playing together for about six months when they recorded this song and put it up on the online music site Bandcamp. Bassist Allegra Anka and singer and guitarist Augusta Koch were floored by the response.

AUGUSTA KOCH: A few days after that, Tiny Engines contacted us about really enjoying our demo and just kind of asking us if we'd be interested in working with them moving forward. So as soon as we saw it in the - in our e-mail, I was like, oh, my God.

MCCABE: A small indie label like Tiny Engines can provide the kind of marketing push available to artists like Meshell Ndegeocello or Suzanne Vega. The label is releasing Cayetana's debut album this summer as a digital download with a limited vinyl pressing. It's also helping the band cover the cost of renting a van for its first-ever national tour - five weeks, 31 cities, on a shared bill with three other bands. But with tickets going for less than 20 bucks a pop, Allegra Anka isn't dreaming of the limousine life.

ALLEGRA ANKA: In five years and after that, I just hope we're still making music.

MCCABE: For now, she's just hoping their day jobs are waiting for them when they get back. For NPR news, I'm Allyson McCabe.

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