Your record label options (+ what to AVOID!!!)

We’re lucky in 2023 to have so many ways to record & release a new jazz album.

The time from recording studio to a fan’s headphones is shorter than ever and the costs involved in many of the steps in-between are getting lower. 

But with great choice comes confusion… and the opportunity for people to make a bit of extra money at your expense. Sometimes this can be intentional and in bad faith, others just a misguided offering. 

Either way, I’d like to share some of my own views on 3 options for releasing a jazz album, plus the one you should probably avoid

Of course, you want a great manager, booking agent and record label. But they have to add more value than they take.

  • You pay an agent their 15% commission on the understanding/hope that they will book you more than 15% in additional gigs
  • You pay a manager their 20% in the hope that the introductions, planning, deals and general career progression they help you achieve results in more than 20% for you.
  • If you’re ‘paying’ a label by giving them a % of your music, you need to be pretty confident that the value they’re creating is helping you build your career by that much more… 

And it’s with record labels where far too often musicians end up with a bad deal…

Album Release 1: The ‘classic’ record label deal

Back in the day, things were a lot simpler.

A record label signed a musician and paid for everything: recording, living costs (in the form of an advance), producing the final CDs or vinyl, planning, marketing, distributing and selling it. 

And, in return for that, they kept all the money until they’d recovered their costs

After that – assuming it sold well enough – you’d get a small percentage of each sale. If they didn’t sell enough copies to cover their expenses, well, that was their problem. No financial risk to you

Usually, these labels were not taking a cut on any other part of you career, so you could tour as much as you wanted with your newly-elevated status and reap the rewards from that. 

Not to mention the fact that once the deal was over, you were free to shop around for a new label and a better offer.

The trade off is quite clear here: the label invests an amount of money that you could never afford to spend and a team of people that you don’t have access to and, as a result, has to either be skilled enough to make it a success or accept that they’ve given you a bunch of exposure for nothing. 

Today, despite what you might think, there are still major labels out there signing jazz artists – but it’s becoming rarer and rarer and probably not something you can count on.

(And, on top of that, the deals are often structured differently, including 360 deals with a cut on touring income too…)

I don’t know about you, but if you feel that your path to bigger audiences and opportunities is out of your hands due to financial constraints, maybe signing away most of your music in return for having all that taken care of is not a bad deal

I’ve seen first hard the amount of attention and boost in profile that happens when one of these labels moves into action and teams people start working on it. 

I would, however, suggest that in order to have even a small chance of being signed by one of these labels, you’re going to have to release some music another way first…

Album Release 2: Creative independent jazz record labels 

These are the jazz record labels who are working selectively with a handful of artists and have enough expertise and budget to make a real difference to their career. 

They aren’t throwing a lot of money at it – certainly not big ‘advances’ or recording budgets – but they are adding something that the artist needs: 

  • They have a network of publicists they use to spread the news
  • They have a relationship with key industry figures who they can introduce your music to 
  • Their brand is ‘known’ which means promoters, fans & journalists are more ready to listen 
  • They have direct ‘ins’ with the key digital platforms like Spotify and Apple. 
  • They have the experience of running a release campaign which means you can avoid many of the common pitfalls in launching a new album, especially early on in your career. 
  • They’re small enough that you can form relationships with the key people so they are invested personally in your success. 

Whilst the downside of these labels might be that they’re stretched in terms of personnel or resources and not able to sign large numbers of artists, if you can find one where the key people inside the organisation are motivated to release your music and develop a long-term plan with you, it can be a great opportunity to get your career moving faster

Fake Option 3. 

There’s a third group of ‘labels’ which – in my opinion – you should avoid in 99% of cases. 

I use the word ‘labels’ in inverted commas as they’re not really doing many of the functions of a label.

Here’s a common example I see:

  • Artist must pay for the recording and deliver the masters
  • Artist provides the artwork and agrees to pay photo shoot & videos.
  • Label will produce CDs but artist must commit to buying XXX minimum at a cost of XXX (this figure is always massively higher than the production cost so they are making a profit from the very first piece of work you do together)
  • Label licenses the record for 10+ years (ie they are permitted to sell and manage the recording exclusively for that amount of time)
  • Label has the option to release the next album under same terms (if everything goes great, they have the right to release the next album whether you want to or not)
  • Label does worldwide in-house PR. This sounds great, doesn’t it, but does this actually mean they’re sending a mass mailout to a database of press contacts? That may well result in some reviews, but is it worth it for the price you’re ‘paying’ by giving over so much royalty and agreeing to buy stock at a massive mark up?
  • Label takes a royalty of c. 70% (hang on, wait. You paid the music, you’re paying a big markup on CDs, you’re producing the promo materials and they’re taking 70 % of all the income?!) 
  • Label only pays a royalty after first XXX sales. So let’s get this straight: you start off this deal with minus money (whatever you spent on the recording, mixing, mastering, artwork) and they start start with a minus of the manufacture cost of the CDs which is quickly recovered when you buy stock at a profit. After this, before you get to make any money back, they make more profit by selling CDs and keeping 100% of the royalty… just, no
  • Label arranges distribution:
    • well in terms of digital, this can be done for less than $20 a year with zero commission from the likes of Distrokid. So in return for that, a label wants to take 50-70% of the money that’s coming in, even before you’ve made back your recording costs???
    • Let’s be honest: unless you are already an established name or manage to create a big splash with this release, you won’t have physical CDs or vinyl stocked in hundreds of shops. And, even if you did, it won’t make up a large amount of money. The majority of physical stock you sell will be on tour and, hopefully, via an online store which you can host on Bandcamp or similar.
  • Label deal with music administration: obviously there is paperwork to be done and money to be collected, which is all admin that you’d rather not do. But whilst this is a useful ‘service’ – is it really something you need to giveaway such a large percentage of your creative work for? Surely you could pay someone a fee to do it for you for less..?
  • Artist can announce they’re releasing on [XYZ label name]: please don’t get too caught up on this! If you release on a label that has a working relationship with promoters, clubs, festivals, journalists, etc, it will help you. I’m thinking (to mention just a small handful of ‘well known’ labels) – Sony, Edition, ECM, Motema, ACT, Mack Avenue… But with so many other labels out there – many set up by a musician to release their own music – being on a ‘label’ just for the sake of it is not going to help you much – and definitely not enough to justify giving away so much of your music.

I don’t know about you, but the balance in this relationship doesn’t seem very fair

Obviously there are subtleties in every offer. If this label manages to generate 11 great press quotes from their in-house PR which allow you to book 5 festivals that you wouldn’t have otherwise gotten, suddenly it doesn’t look too bad…

If your contact at the label is an industry veteran and offers some brilliant advice that allows you to speed up your career much faster, then suddenly it doesn’t look too bad either…

But I would suggest that – as long as you’re selling more than a handful of copies of your release – you could outsource or pay for tasks like this to be done for you, keep 100% of the rights, make more money & start building a trusted team around you. 

My best advice if you’re considering signing a deal like this? Speak to a music lawyer and ask them to breakdown the terms and advise on which parts you might want to negotiate.

Real Album Release Option 3.

The third option, after major labels and noted independent jazz labels, should be some kind of DIY self-release.

Of course, this means more work & responsibility for you, which can be pretty daunting. But on the plus side, you can control the plans and make sure they are followed through 100%. 

If you’re in this situation, it helps to focus in on what really needs taking care of, so you can prioritise.

  1. You need to record some great music
  2. You need to put together artwork & other promotional tools such as photos, videos and a press text.
  3. You need to find a way to get it into all digital stores (hint: services like Distrokid will do this for you for less than $20 a year and take zero commission)
  4. If you’re releasing physical copies (hint: yes, and offer them for limited edition pre-order!) you’ll need to contact a factory and order them.
  5. You’ll need to alert as many people as possible – both fans and industry – to the fact that you’re releasing new music and get them excited about it. 

Your reward for this work: 

  1. Knowing that it’s being done properly 
  2. Keeping 100% of the rights to your music.

Now obviously that little list as a simplified version and misses a lot of ‘details’ that you should consider working on. 

But as a starting point, it does show that getting your music out into the world – and actually making some progress with your profile and career as a result – is doable in 2019.

It’s also worth noting that self-release doesn’t mean ‘releasing alone’ with no support.

Many of those steps can be outsourced if you are time-short but have a small budget: 

  • A graphic designer can put all those visual elements together for you
  • A journalist or writer can write a press release for you
  • You could hire a publicist in one or two key territories
  • You could pay an industry contact – manager, agent, publicist, influencer – an hourly fee to help you put together the overview of your release plan.
  • You can even – if you’ll allow me a quick plug – check out Jazzfuel’s Album Launcher platform to get some 1-to-1 support on planning your next release.s

All that to say, you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) agree to pay an agent 70% of your income just to find you a gig, so why pay a label that much, unless they’re taking a massive risk and/or adding massive value? 

Wherever you’re at, it’s time to educate yourself about the options surrounding releasing music in 2019, put together some simple goals and plans for your project and then check out the best ways to put that into practice.

If you have comments, experiences of anything else label-related to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section here…

Need a little support or advice on your career plans? The Jazzfuel Manager platform gives you monthly access to the tools and tips to build you career, and a members-only forum where you can get feedback from both me and the other members.

We cover everything from Spotify & Facebook ads through to writing a press release, setting up a pre-order campaign and getting reviews. 

If you’d like to know more, or try it out, you can find all the info here. There’s a 7-day money back guarantee so you can try it risk-free.


4 thoughts on “Your record label options (+ what to AVOID!!!)”

  1. Great article, thanks! One thing – Distrokid’s cheapest option for around $20 doesnt’ allow you to add your own ISRC codes to the release. This is OK if you’re only doing a digital release, but if you want to do physical as well, it’s probably better to pay the next level up which is around $40 I think.

    • Thanks Matt and well-noted! The $35.99 plan also means you can customise your release date which is kind of essential for serious musicians (singles, co-ordinating promotion etc) so I think that’s the only ‘serious’ option. Will get the article updated!



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