Now is THE best time to start your own record label

Cornerhouse Digital Reporter Suzy Brown explores forming your own record label…

So, I met this DJ the other week who, oh-so-casually dropped that he started his own record label. I was thoroughly impressed. My ideas of a record label were limited to the likes of gigantic companies, rulers of the entertainment industry – Sony, Capitol, EMI etc.… My friend, the DJ, gently explained to me that his independent record label serves as a vehicle to drive his own musical creations. It sounded a bit rebellious to me. If there’s no sound, sight or smell of a major contract in the pipeline anytime soon, you go and do it yourself? Very punky indeed. My interest was piqued so of course I said yes, when a few weeks later; I was invited to attend a music industry panel – The Independent Label Lo Down! hosted by Cornerhouse. The panel, as the name suggests, was a discussion on why and how to start an independent (indie) record label.

The panel guests included three veterans of the indie scene: Paul Jones from Stolen Recordings, Jeff Thompson from Manchester-based Fat Northerner Records and Aniff Akinola who is a Manchester based vocalist/writer/producer/ex-label owner. The panel was chaired by Simon Price, Rock and Pop Critic for the Independent on Sunday and who wrote for the music magazine, Melody Maker, for 9 years before it folded.

The workshop took place in the Annexe, which for those of you ignoramuses, is hidden in the back of Cornerhouse and has a balcony! The room was packed with musicians and curious entrepreneurs and those already familiar with the industry.

The differences between a major record label and an indie record label are structural. Majors cater to the mainstream. They focus on what’s hot according to a global perspective. Contracts with a major are sometimes called, or at least vocalized vociferously by Aniff Akinola, as ‘getting in bed with the devil.’ They pour money into the artist, expecting to get it all back with a quick turnaround.

An indie label is often more attractive to artists because there is a lot less micro management, hence more freedom for expression. Majors work on an 80/20 split in favour of the label and indie labels tend to work on a 50/50 even split. The working structure is very different. The indie label has a lot less staff and available cash, it can be more niche, and both the artist and the label have to like each other because of the close working relationship. An indie label survives on its relationships and experience within the music industry. It’s a game of who you know and what you know. There is a larger emphasis on talent and a tangible, beautifully breath-taking outpour of belief in the artist. This can work to an advantage. The artist has a supportive and solid base to work with and a force of encouragement that he/she probably couldn’t find with a major label. The artist can look at the relationship as a stepping stone to sharpen their image.

The role of a label has changed drastically over the years. For example, The Beatles, The Temptations, Elvis…all needed a label to expose them to an audience. These days, according to Jeff Thompson, all you need to market yourself to an audience is a mobile phone and a credit card. He also says that this is THE best time ever to start your own record label. A lumbering major record label that can smash its way through the industry has to reckon with huge overheads that currently, are no match for nimble, efficient and street smart indie labels who can reach a thirsty audience with today’s technology. The internet, social media sites, specialist software and smart marketing tactics are at their disposal.

I picked out 5 handy tips

  1. The number one responsibility of a record label is to make your songs accessible for purchase. This can be done using various Internet sites: and
  2. Find out what your band/music sounds like and target that audience. Jeff relayed a story which I found quite useful and a great guerrilla marketing tactic: flier a larger and similar band’s audience before and after a show, introducing your band as the after party. Situate your “after party” in an easy access location for the target audience…find a bar across the street. Then rally the audience into the bar across the street where your band is now playing a very similar sound (set this up with the bar manager prior to the day obviously!). Now just wait for heads to start moving and feet to start tapping and they will, because it’s a similar sound to something you know that the crowd already enjoys.
  3. Get out there and start networking! Nothing will happen if you don’t put yourself out there. Go to shows and gigs and listen to music. Meet people, make yourself available, and introduce yourself. Use social media sites to propel and create awareness around your label.
  4. Create some noise about yourself with the help of friends and family. Consider getting a fan or a plugger to help you do this.
  5. Paul Jones believes in the power of the physical. Create vinyl, but make it special with rare artwork or a limited edition. Make it difficult to purchase. For example, it can only be bought physically at a certain record shop or it can only be found through an online store… Supply and demand economics at work here!

This event was part one of the strand ‘As Easy As One, Two, Three? Music Industry Panels’. Stay tuned for the next event in the series – Breaking the Band on Thur 17 Nov.