My first year as a signed artist: Here are 5 things I learned

This January I will have been a ‘signed’ artist for about a year.

Have you seen my new helicopter?

No, that’s right, I don’t have one. Signing with Bad Elephant music is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It means my music is getting heard by more people at better quality than it did before.

I’ve had a great 12 months, and here’s some of what I’ve learned:

1. You won’t be giving up the day job

There’s a myth that if we could return the music industry to how things were a few decades ago, all problems would be solved for artists. Back then record companies had money to invest and they’d support new artists to develop an audience.

That was true, but only for a minority of artists in some genres. It was like winning the lottery.

Now there’s another myth: the money has dried up, labels don’t support artists, you might as well go it alone.

That’s not necessarily true either, though going it alone is more possible now than previously.

Getting signed to a good label is as difficult as it ever was, and no the big boys with loads of money aren’t going anywhere near new acts. They want a guaranteed income. But the little guys, the companies that do it for love not money are still there.

Getting signed doesn’t mean huge advances and everyone doing the work for you. It does mean small, but meaningful financial and logistical support and, if both parties are sensible, realistic expectations of returns. Cos you’re not getting rich making original music. That’s not a thing any more, and for most it never was.

2. It’s not glamorous

There was no champagne when we signed, no illegal substances being snorted off other people’s anatomy, no media scrum, or dodgy offices. There was curry with a bloke called Dave.

Bad Elephant Music has got some good press and you could be forgiven for thinking that they’re a big fish in the relatively small pond of progressive rock music (though much of their output isn’t what you’d call ‘classic’ progressive rock). But it’s still at the stage where no-one involves takes a wage and things are done for love not money. Hopefully in a few year’s time things can be done for love AND money, but those days are a while away yet.

Then again, being a signed artist did lead to my first appearance in a print magazine, so I guess it isn’t completely lacking in glamour. My mum was impressed with that.

3. This is where the hard work starts

I’m sure this was always the case, but getting signed is where the hard work starts. Now there’s someone else’s money at stake, so while I might have less financial risk attached to my musical endeavours, I have more of a moral risk. There’s someone else’s cash and someone else’s time being spent on my music. So it has to be good and it has to do well.

That means I put as much effort as I could into my last album and all the promotional activities surrounding it. When I was totally independent I could cut corners, leave promotional activities for a few months, not worry if an album didn’t do as well as it could. That did mean that some releases, particularly Three Rows of Teeth, didn’t quite get the attention I would have liked, either from me or from listeners, but it didn’t matter.

And while there are people at the label doing some things, notably PR, planning and lots of the technical stuff, that doesn’t mean I have less to do. It means that when I do find time for music, I can focus on what matters.

More is getting done, but I’m still doing as much as I was.

4. Signed or not, your success is down to you

There are musicians (hopefully they’re a minority) who complain. There’s no support from labels, people don’t buy music, people don’t come to gigs, piracy and/or streaming are stealing from me.

Some of these grievances have merit, but more people are listening to more music than ever before and making it is easier than it’s ever been. All the tools are there and if you want to make it work you can. Providing your aims are making music. If your aims are something tangential to making music like getting rich, please go away. You’re not helping real musicians and there are better ways of getting rich.

(Which is not to say that musicians shouldn’t expect fair compensation for their work. I said getting rich, not getting paid)

5. It’s still worth doing

Being totally independent is more of an option now that it ever was. But if you can find a good label to work with, then you should. It can give you a legitimacy and purpose that is hard to find on your own, and it shares some of the work and some of the risk.

Just don’t expect helicopters and huge advances. You won’t get them, and you don’t really want them.