Ask Fan Landers: I Signed to a Tiny Label Before My Album Blew Up. Should I Stick With Them?
Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
I'm an artist who put out a debut pop record last year that did relatively well. It sold enough to put me in the black and ended up with a good deal of great press. However, when I signed my initial deal, I was relatively unknown and signed to a small subsidiary of a UK label with options for more records.
Since then, the smaller subsidiary is dissolving and the larger label would like to take me on. Lots of this is good, I enjoy working with the label people for the most part and I know they will go to bat for me. However, I don't feel like I especially fit in with the roster on this larger label and there is a part of me that would like to use this opportunity to find an even larger worldwide label with more reach and artists I feel akin to. Do I stick with the people I have a decent working relationship with or do I take the risk of jumping ship?
Congratulations on the success of your record! Fan is a fan; I am psyched for you. It's not surprising that you are scanning the horizon for other opportunities -- where you started and where you are now are leagues of stardom apart. Given that you are, in some regards, still in the launch phase of your career, there are some things to weigh in this situation. The people you are working with "get" you and you have a good rapport; they've helped facilitate you getting this far -- these things count for a lot. The rub is they are about to be subsumed into a larger corpo-entity, so their power to push through projects on the reasonable, indie, we-respect-your-work terms you've had with them before is likely to be greatly diminished.
They are also going to be learning how to navigate and work within a larger bureaucracy for at least another six months. Where you are right now you don't want to be aligned with people that low on the totem pole because, best case scenario, it'll mean a whole lot of hustling and maybe a little ass-kissing to get in with the people who do have the power to help make things happen for you. I don't think that is going to be a good use of your time.
Given those odds, I would just as soon get a good lawyer who understands you and has (at minimum) a decent knowledge of this particular corner of the music industry that you are trying to navigate and see if you can't trade up to a larger, name brand indie label. As long as you act like a professional, be courteous and gently honest with everyone, leaving a deal should not be too torrid. Also, given how you've blown up in the last year, the little-label people are probably already anticipating you getting scooped up and will be understanding and supportive. You had some sales and visibility; old-fashioned unit-moving success gives you some real leverage, so use it.
Look for a label that has good ideas about how to keep moving your forward and capitalize on all that you have already accomplished; if you find some that you like, arrange to speak candidly with people who are on the label, big and little. Ask a journalist or two, pals in radio and retail how they like dealing with certain labels. As long as you do your homework there is not that much risk involved. You are in the right place to be thinking about these things and the things you are considering show that you are reasonable, so have confidence in whatever decision you do make. As laudable as loyalty is, it would be a shame to see you riding out a contract that no longer fits you at a label that isn't even the one you signed to in the first place. The music industry is too much of a hassle to just go with whatever you are willing to settle for. So, be ambitious, quash any lingering punk shame about your fame and build your dream to suit you.