You Don’t Need Nashville #1

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(ABOVE: Louisiana based Indie artist Jake Smith, pic from

“You MIGHT Not Need Nashville” is too long but much more accurate.  By “Nashville” I mean the record labels based here of course.  Nashville, the city, while a beautiful temperate place to plant yourself, is definitely not a NEED for you – mainly because there’s no good Tex-Mex here, but that’s another post.

You MIGHT need Nashville and I want to leave that door open upfront, before we get into why you might not.  I hope, in however many posts this series takes, to answer questions I get often on the road about record labels and whether it’s better not to sign with one.  I hope my little answers to these big questions help you appreciate where you are, gain a better understanding of what it is labels and signed artists do and inspires you to copy the things you end up liking about us and avoid those you don’t.  Basically, I hope this little series gives you some wisdom and encouragement and helps you do whatever you do, wherever you end up doing it, a little better – armed with good information.

I get asked all the time on the road, by indie artists, if they NEED a label.  Of course the answer is “I don’t know if YOU do”.  But I know labels can be tremendous help to certain artists.  Here’s what they might do for you:

A&R: Helping shape the artist and the repertoire (thus A and R).  Christian Music labels (from now on called CCM labels here) aren’t, in my opinion, doing as much A as R these days.  They don’t do much to determine and cultivate the artist’s performance, vocal style, musical direction and general skills.  An extreme example of A done well would be a put together group – one that was created by a label or manager.  They get vocal coaching, performance coaching, dance lessons, media training, styling, and have their musical direction largely determined by the label – they are the labels’ the creation. Another example would be what we witnessed on Ashley Simpson’s MTV reality series.  The label controlled everything about her artistry until she wound up being more pop and less rock than she started out as – and sold more records than she would have. 

What CCM labels do better is R.  They shape the song writing and selection for a record.  An artist who doesn’t write their own songs would have an A&R guy out meeting with publishers (companies that write songs and try to get them recorded) to explain what kind of songs the artist is looking for.  When a publisher has something fitting the artist’s/label’s need they’ll pitch it to the A&R guy who may or may not include the manager and artist in it all.  Ideally the A&R person, manager and artist would then choose the songs for the record.  For a guy like me who writes his own songs an A&R guy determines when a song is in need of rewriting (something my publisher also does) or when a song is too this or that or just plain bad or good.  In the end he decides, along with me and my producer and manager, what songs will make the record.  As they listen A&R guys are thinking about art, marketing, radio, retailers, fans, clarity of message and lyric etc.  The artist is usually just able to think about music.  An artist is also possibly the least objective person in the room.  They. after all, birthed these songs.  Saying one of them isn’t good is like saying one of their kids isn’t as loved as the others.  A mom always thinks her kids are beautiful right?  So we need our A&R friend to tell us when our kid is actually the ugliest one in the class.  (Wow, that analogy got weird fast didn’t it?)

And two more, but not the least, jobs of A&R are helping choose the producer and musical direction, and acting as the liaison between artist and label – they are the face of the large label, where the artist may not be able to work daily with every individual in the building.

MARKETING: This department at a label gets its hands in all departments.  They lend wisdom to the A&R process but also to the selection of the radio singles, timing of everything, touring, retail strategy, internet presence, grassroots strategy etc.  These people figure out what to tell the world about you and your music, how to do it, who to do it to and through, and when.  They are the all powerful communicators of all things you.  Marketing figures out who they want people to think you are (it’s not always who you really are) and decides how to get that image across.  They also spend an equal amount of time building relationships you can’t build alone with retailers and other gatekeepers – convincing them you’re a great person or just a person making great music or just making music that will sell.  They are your voice to the people you’ll never get to speak to.  They paint the only pictures of you and your message most will ever see.

RADIO PROMOTION:  Without going down a rabbit trail about radio I’ll just say CCM radio rules the CCM universe.  They are the most powerful ingredient to sales and booking at the moment.  They are also, at the moment, the hardest people to get help from.  There so many artists and so few slots on a station’s playlist (half as many on average as four years ago when I started out) that the odds of getting played are slim.  The odds of getting played a lot are dismal.  The odds of an indie getting the time of day from CCM radio are zilch.  To increase those odds an artist can write certain kinds of songs and sign with a label that has a great radio department.  Radio promoters are important because they get your music on the airwaves in cities you may never get to visit.  Better, they get the message in your music to thousands who might need to hear it but can’t make it to your shows.

FINANCIAL:  Here’s the truth.  Call me greedy or whatever you like but part of why I do this job is because I need to feed my family and keep the lights turned on.  Those needs are met because my label. among others, pays me and because they pay FOR marketing, publicity, radio promotion etc.  I don’t have thousands lying around to make a record and sell it.  They do.  Someone once said a label is a bank making loans with tremendous interest.  That’s pretty accurate sometimes but I prefer to think of them as partners who split the work load – helps me sleep better anyway.  I make the music and do the ministry, travel etc.  They fund and sell it.  If they stop funding and selling I won’t need them.  If that happens I’m you, in my basement, wondering why my local station won’t play me and Mercy Me won’t return my phone calls begging to tour with them.  (Actually, Mercy Me doesn’t return my phone calls NOW.) We’ll get to how exactly I make money – and how much – in a later post.

PUBLICITY: If marketing is your voice to the world, publicity might be their megaphone.  My publicist works her tail off spreading propaganda, most of the time true, about me to her contacts in the media.  Ever wonder how this week’s CCM magazine cover girl was chosen?  The publicist scurries around behind the scenes, far far behind the scenes, handing out pre-releases, pitching stories to publications about their artist, and writing press releases every time I do something remotely interesting:  “SHAUN GROVES LEARNS NEW CHORD.” And then their minions, the media, put that hearty tidbit of life-changing information in rotation on radio stations, magazines, webzines and the like.

Those are the main things a label does.  There are labels that do even more – no label is the same – but these are jobs that every label SHOULD do or they’re just friends who take a lot of your money.

I hope this has you thinking already about whether you really NEED a label or not – whether you need what they have to offer.  Today I’ve given us all reason to stand in awe and appreciation of the label machine.  I’ve shared the good news about labels: they do stuff for artists that most artists can’t do alone.  But as we continue to talk about being a label artist versus an indie artist I think you might find the label deal less and less attractive.  That’s because, while I like and respect labels and what they do in general, I also think their services are getting easier for you to duplicate.  These services will have to grow and evolve soon or labels will become less and less necessary and awe-inspiring to indies like you.  Already, I’m meeting indies on the road with more passion and direction than many marketers, more work ethic and contacts than a publicist might have, more musical insight and knowledge of what the audience wants than some A&R guys, and the cash to make and sell music on their own.  That should scare labels a little and inspire indies a lot.

More inspiration and fear served up soon.

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