How NOT to run a label : A Guide to Making it up as You Go Along

How NOT to run a label : A Guide to Making it up as You Go Along

One question that comes up a lot is “How do you start a label?” Well, it’s really not just one question. That question is really the opener for a series of questions on the subject of labels. Here are some of my musings on the subject of running a label, or simply making it up as you go along……

Why start your own label?

Llama Farm came about because I’d made a few tunes that were of a level that I was told was good enough to release. At that point, I had no idea what I was doing and had no contacts with any other artists really. It came as a way for getting my music out there, and making a few quid in the process. It started out on just one shop, then expanded to 3, and is now (4 years later) on around 30-40 outlets. In hindsight, starting a label is not something to do lightly. I had no idea how much time it would take up, no idea about contracts, branding, marketing, or anything else that I was doing. Common sense gets you a fair way, but having some degree of business acumen will really help you.

It’s now much easier to get in touch with bigger artists, send them tracks, and generally make a nuisance of yourself. This also means it’s easier to get in touch with labels and find out if they like your stuff. I would say, if you’re just starting out and are currently not professionally released, it would be better to get an EP or two on other people’s labels before starting your own, simply so you get a better idea of the processes involved.

How do you find new tracks for your label?

The majority of releases on Llama Farm have come from a few outlets. Firstly, the early releases were mainly my own productions. These were great because I ploughed all my early royalties into the label, and it meant I could then sign some established artists and remixers. These are great because it maintains the link between your label and you.

The second group are established artists, who bring a reputation and marketing gravitas to what you are doing. They can cost you a bit more money but are worth it because you are more likely to make that money back. They can also have certain requirements (such as professionally mastered releases, but I’ll come back to that later.) which also helps you find out what the guys higher up expect from a label. I generally email/contact them directly and ask for EPs/remixes or whatever.

The third and final group are the hardest to find but also the most rewarding. These are the debut producers, the guys who are ready for that first release. I’ve had quite a few debut EPs, and those artists have since gone from strength to strength. (For example, Jackin Box are a production duo who I gave a debut release to and who have since featured on some of the biggest labels in the genre and have toured pretty much everywhere!) I see handing guys their break as a bit of a privilege. It’s kind of paying back the guys who gave me a leg up. They generally contact me through Facebook or SoundCloud. The majority who contact me are absolute crap, but occasionally you can find a diamond.

What do I call my label, and will anything do?

Naming a label is quite a personal thing to do. Because you need to think this as a long haul venture, picking something that’s catchy and memorable is a bit of a must. It also is going to be associated with you, so it needs to reflect your personality.

Llama Farm as a name came about due to a random conversation that a good friend of mine overheard whilst in a train queue. The name stuck, and it appealed to our sense of humour (yes, its a bit surreal, but it was very “us”).

Doing some research before you go about naming your new baby is a very good idea. You want to make sure that no one can confuse your label with anything else in the genre and that people can see a clear “brand” in the name. This ties in with coming up with a logo that is memorable and has some scope to play around with for artwork for your releases.

Is there anything else I need to set up before I try and get my tracks in the shops?

Once you’ve got the name, the logo, and a few tracks ready for release, now is a good time to start a web presence in the name of the label. Setting up SoundCloud accounts, Facebook pages ,and maybe a blog are all good ways of getting yourself known about. The best way to get get yourself known quickly though is to get yourself a radio show. I do a weekly 1-hour slot (Tuesdays @ 8:00pm GMT/BST, shameless plug!), and it’s that that will give you a bigger profile. Your own website is equally important. The best advice is to start small and build slowly and at a sensible pace….

What’s a distributor, and do I need one?

Llama Farm started selling on just one shop. This was easy to manage. One set of metadata, one set of artwork to upload, one set of masters. When you expand to 4 or 5 shops, things start getting tricky. Most of the shops have different interfaces, different data file requirements and even different specs for artwork.

A distributor works as an intermediary between you and the shops. They do the hard work of putting the data that you send them into the right formats, uploading everything and even arranging exclusives and extra promo on some of the sites. For this they can take a royalty before handing over the rest to you. This is why its a tricky business decision.

When to get a distributor is a tricky question. When it starts getting to much to spend your evenings organising the same information to 10 stores, its probably time to get a distro. Plus they can get you on to sites that you normally wouldn’t have access to. Itunes and Beatport cant be accessed directly, so for the the expanding label, looking at a distro is a good option.

How often should I release songs on the label?

The short answer: often enough so people remember your label and what it stands for. But not so often that you annoy people. The issue with lots of releases is the quality can drop, and people don’t check your label as often. Also, if you are sending out promo emails, it can really take a lot of time to get everything promoted properly.

My unwritten rule is not within 3 weeks of each other…..means you’ve got time to promote each one properly. The biggest time difference between Llama Farm releases was about 4 months…..possibly too long, but at least when I get one together it looks like an event!

How many tracks should I have on each release?

This is a bit of an issue for me. In the old vinyl days, you couldn’t have more than 4 tracks on a record. Digital has changed this completely. I have seen someone release an ep with 8 remixes of the same track, plus one original. ITS RIDICULOUS. DON’T DO IT.

If you’ve got 8 remixes, break them up into 2 separate remix eps. AN EP WITH 9 TRACKS ON IT IS AN ALBUM………

With Llama Farm, I run to the simple idea of a maximum of a 5 track ep. 2 originals, plus 3 remixes. 4 track ep, 1 original plus 3 remixes……Rant over.

What’s the process involved in signing someone else’s track to my label?

This is more straight forward than you might think. First step is easy – tell them you like it and would be interested in signing and releasing it.

Then comes the deal. Most labels split the royalties down the middle, 50/50.

This is a good start. If its an established artist with a good track record, they may ask for an advance. If its too much, and you can’t afford it, you could offer them a higher royalty. Use your common sense here – at the end of the day, this is a business!

They may ask for a contract -I’ve got a standard one for Llama Farm which is for a 3 year period, and can be tweaked to cover either either a straight royalty deal or for an advance.

You send it to them, the sign it and send you a master wav/aiff file of their track.

I usually ask if they have a name for the ep in mind. Though I always have some silly ideas knocking around.

And then you release it………

What happens if I pick up a track, then decide not to release it?

Stay in discussion with the artist and keep them posted. Not always the easiest thing to do. Some may ask to be released if things take too long. The main question would be why did you sign it in the first place?!

How do I build a promo list?

Get DJs who you think might like your stuff, contact them through various social media, and ask their honest opinion. Some DJs are pretty good with their feedback, others not so much. If you’re lucky enough to know some of the big guys in your genre, you can ask if you can send them some promos.

Thankfully, most djs love freebies, so chances are they will reply in the positive.

The secret to a good promo list is to have enough contacts to get a good amount of support, but not so much that you’re giving it to everybody.

REMEMBER, djs are your market; if too many people get it for free it eats into your royalties!

Should I use a promo service?

I don’t. Some people do. Its up to you. You do need to take into consideration any costs involved, and its affect on who actually has you releases. Promo services send out to LOTS of DJs. For example, some of these can send out as many as 1500 promos to various people.

Something to remember is that these people are also your main customer base – if you are giving it away, you aren’t selling it. I keep control by having a list of about 60. Though im in the process of cutting the list down further by getting rid of anyone who hasn’t replied…….

Why should I pay for mastering?

Not mastering releases was one of the biggest mistakes I made early on with Llama Farm. I didn’t know I needed to. But, to be fair, all the eps were my own, and I didn’t know any better.

These guys can take a track that you think sounds good, rub some magic mastering dust on it and make it sound AWESOME. Your mastering house will usually specify the levels they need on each track, and this will give the best result.

I currently use CMS Mastering in Belgium for Llama Farm, and its costs about £60 for an ep. ITS WORTH EVERY PENNY. Dimitri of CMS, (one half of Belgiums top notch house duo Swirl People) has some settings on his plug-ins that have honestly taken my breath away.

A poorly mastered release can put people off buying it, and a lot of distributors won’t touch a label that doesn’t use an outside mastering house. Think of it as an investment.

I would say though, that if I’m going to be spending money on mastering, your track must be pretty good to start off with!

What’s an advance?

An advance is chunk of money a label offers against future sales. So, once you have an advance, you won’t receive any more cash until you’ve made the money of the value of the advance plus costs. For example, if you get paid $100 advance, and all costs are $30, you won’t start receiving any royalties until the total label cut goes over $130.

Advances are only dished out when you are basically the equivalent of Jason Statham in an action film – you need to be bankable to a point where someone is going to get their money back that is invested.

Should I pay fees for remixers?

If they are good, and you think you can make the money back , then, yeah.

Not that it always makes the money back…….so if they ask for $650 for a remix, its probably too much. Or you’ve never heard of them………..

What kind of deal can I expect from a label, and will I get an advance?

Being brutally honest, a 50/50 split is what you can expect. This means that the label takes half, and you get the rest, after any expenses are taken out (mastering, promo services, artwork etc.). Most independents work in this way. Anything extra is a bonus 🙂

With Llama Farm, for a second ep or a more established artist, I will offer a slightly bigger cut, but if I’ve not heard of you, I’m not going to part with cash lightly. In some cases, I will offer an advance, which basically means I reckon its going to make AT LEAST the value of the advance, plus costs.

Once its made the advance back, the deal then reverts to a 50/50 split.

For remixes, a 50/50 split is the usual. You get 50%, the original artist will get half of the labels royalty, and the label will make 25%. Or, ask for a straight fee – keeps things a lot easier.

So to wrap it all up…..

In conclusion, running a label is fun. But also hard work. If you’re game, and put the hours in when you need to (!) it can be very rewarding……..

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