6 hard lessons
From the first 6 months "in the business"
February will be my sixth month managing an indie jazz label. It hasn't been easy, but I've learned rapidly; here are 6 hard-knock lessons from my first 6 months on the job there:
Quick, unfinished reply is better than reply-when-ready. There is no shame in replying quickly to someone with, "I'll work on that, thanks!" even without the thing they've asked for. In fact, this is way better than letting their email sit too long in your inbox/Starred/etc. and eventually realizing later that you're behind.
The nimble content advantage. The vast majority of record label professionals feel like they don't understand content creation, that they're out-of-touch with what works on socials/promotion; they just come up with what to do based on what they think will satisfy their colleagues.
The self-managed artist can get a serious advantage from being open-minded about content-making. If you lean into short videos and post little clips often of you playing, you are nimble and are doing what most of us are too disorganized / geographically distributed to do.
Tour dates are what labels want to see. I recently spoke with a friend who was considering 'shopping' his newly-mastered album to jazz labels. He asked if I thought it was "worth" going through a label, in my opinion. We had a long-ranging chat and settled on this: the number-one thing that would get a label relationship off on the right foot is well-thought-out plans for tour dates (with your same band!) around the eventual release, no matter how far in advance, regardless of how firm / not firm.
He didn't have those plans, so he decided that for him, it wouldn't be worth it this time.
The fear of artist-label divorce. The scariest thing for artists and labels isn't rejection, it's divorce. It's signing an artist – and getting mutually excited! – but the promo/roll-out/touring doesn't go well, then you've committed to the budget and contract, and they'll be unhappy when they see the sales numbers – even if it's nobody's 'fault' in particular. You just got into an ineffective relationship. The luxury of self-releasing is that you are 0% likely to end the campaign wishing for a divorce.
No artist should be afraid that a label will say 'no' to working together. Many labels will, and it's nothing personal: "no gig is career-changing".
The real fear is if the label says 'yes', what if you don't reach an outcome that makes you both happy? The artist should hope that the label will say 'no' if they don't think so. The label needs to hone that discipline.