musicnotesRecord Labels: Major vs. Indie

November 16, 2012 | By: David Michael

What’s the difference between the two? Which is better for you?
To better understand the difference, we’ll look at a brief definition and consider some pros and cons to each one.

-Major Label-

You might have the impression that there are many Major Labels to choose from, but the truth is that there are only 4 Major Labels: Sony-BMG, Universal Music Group, EMI, and Warner Music Group. All those other so-called “major labels” are actually sub-labels under one of the 4 Major labels. For example: Columbia, Arista, Epic, Provident, RCA, are all Subsidiary labels under Sony-BMG. It’s like one big money-making musical family-tree, all beginning with the 4 major labels and branching out from there.

So, now that we have that cleared, lets examine the ‘pros and cons’ of signing onto a Major label.

PROS: Major Label

Show Me Da-Money!:
At the end of the day, the biggest Pro of a Major label is their budget. It’s their large budget that supplies almost every pro that a Major Label can offer. Such as (but not limited to):

-High Quality Recordings (Quality studios with real knobs and buttons. Don’t touch that!)
-Production (Engineers that will cover your mistakes with professional auto-tune. Yay!)
-Major Distribution (Now friends can buy your CD at Wal-Mart AND Target.. Sha-weet!)
-Music Videos (Remember when MTV had music videos? … Anyone?… Hello?…)
-Pro-Photography (They can make that gap between your teeth go away… So Smile!)
-Pro-Advertising (TV Commercial: “Coming this December…Your Album!” Cool!)
-Tours (The days of touring your friends garages are over… for now)
-Merchandise (Sick Swag!…and TONS of it!)
And so on….

The list could go on and on but I think you get the idea. Simply put, Major labels have budgets that allow them access to every top-notch professional in every imaginable field needed for music-career success. They have the resources and influence to make big things happen…..for you.

CONS: Major Label

Sign here…. Wait! Know Your Rights!
What Rights? When you sign onto a major Label, they own you as an artist for the duration of the contract. They will have complete creative control over your music and your image. They will tell you where and when to be somewhere and if you want to make this work; you will be there.

Furthermore, they will own your music forever or until you or someone else buys the ownership ‘rights’ to your songs (Assuming the label is willing to sell it)

Make Money!
Wait a second… Did you think I meant making money for yourself?
A major label did not invest all that time and money into you because they’re simply big generous fans of your music. They did so because they believe they could get a bigger return on investment. What does that mean for you? It means that you are in debt to the label. They have invested a lot of money into you and therefore they expect results!… So, you better be ready to work very hard to pay them back.

Having said that, there is money to be made for yourself if you do well. The better you do; the higher percentages you can negotiate on sales and such. It’s hard to reach a level of real financial-success, but it can be done. Nevertheless, it will take some time, even if you are rock star to your friends.

Small Fish in a BIG pond
You are one out of many many many artists/bands on the label’s roster. If you’re not showing success almost immediately then the major label is more likely to lose interest in you rather fast. That means no one from the label is returning your calls, your album is not getting the promotional support it deserves, and your musical-ship starts sinking fast.

On the other hand, if you are doing well, then you will get good responses from the Major label. Simply put, the relationship is quite often very fickle.


-Indie Label-

The term ‘Indie Label’ can be a bit misleading these days, due to the fact that some large Indie labels are actually distributed by Major Labels. Nevertheless, a ‘true’ Indie Label means they are independent from any Major Label.

Now, there are numerous amounts of Indie labels; all varying in methods and genres and experience levels, etc. Therefore, my list of ‘pros and cons’ will touch on points that are common among almost all Indie labels, but again it may vary from label to label.

PROS: Indie Label

Can I have your autograph?
Ok, maybe they don’t want your autograph, but nevertheless, Indie labels are usually genuine-honest fans of the bands/artists that they sign. They truly enjoy the music on a personal level and therefore they have more personal passion and drive in promoting your music. Simply put, they usually believe in your music and your message and that’s always a huge plus for the artist.

Big Fish in a Small Pond
Indie labels usually have smaller rosters of bands/artists and that ideally means you will get a lot more attention. You are important to the label and so you’ll get more communication access with your label to talk about your album and planning. This is a great thing for an artist that wants to feel like their music is taken seriously by their label.

Furthermore, because they are smaller, there are benefits that come with a personal close-working business relationship. The artist will have a lot more input into the overall planning stages and so forth and the relationship can be less rigid and more personable.

Sign on the Dotted Line………
The types of Indie label contracts can vary greatly. Some contracts resemble Major label contracts (but on a smaller scale), Some are simply Distribution and Promotion deals and others are anything and everything in between. A lot depends on the label and the band/artist and the situation.

One advantage for bands/artists is that Indie label contracts usually give the artist most of the creative control concerning their music. There might be some quality-production requirements or some other minimum requirements but the song writing usually stays in the artist’s control. Also, another major plus is that the contracts usually give the artists back the ‘ownership rights’ to their music/album after a short period of time determined in the negations.

Simply put, Indie label contracts are typically more artist-friendly.

Stepping Stone:
Sometimes signing onto an Indie label can give an artist some ‘weight’ when trying to get signed onto a Major Label (if that’s your goal).

CONS: Indie Label

Small Pond = Small Wallet:
If the saying is true: “Money makes the world go around’, then Indie labels make the world ‘go around’ a little slower.

While the smaller size of an Indie label can be a ‘pro’, it can also be a ‘con’ too.
Smaller size usually means smaller budgets and no matter how much they love and believe in your music, there are limitations to what an Indie label can do for you.

In fact, having a small budget touches on almost every ‘con’ of an Indie label. In other words, it’s UNLIKELY that you will be:

-Getting spending money upfront (That’s right…No allowance for fancy guitar picks with your name on it)
-Recording in million dollar studios (But please don’t go back to your Uncle Ed’s basement studio)
-Working with a world-renowned producer (Your brother’s friend’s cousin from Bulgaria doesn’t count)
-Getting your CD on every chain-store shelf (iTunes anyone?)
And so on…..

Simply put, unless you pay for it yourself, chances are very unlikely that you’ll be going on any world tours at the expense of the Indie label.



The conclusion is your choice. However, I think it should be said that in this age of technology, the function and need for labels have changed significantly. Technology has given bands/artists outlets to record and promote their own music unlike any other time in history. Nevertheless, the question is, do you have the time, creativity, resources, knowledge and support to use those technologies effectively? If so, I say…go for it! If not, then a label might be your best option, but tread lightly and make sure you know what you’re getting into before you sign anything.

Simply put, signing onto a label is not like it was back in the day. It’s not the ‘Be-All and End-All’ for your music career but it can certainly help!

~David M.
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