Asking for a Friend: Is this Record Deal Shady?

Welcome to “Asking for a Friend,” a new music advice column where arts administrators Rachel Sokolow and Carol Ann Cheung address questions about working as a composer or with composers.

Want to submit a question for the next installment of Asking for a Friend? Send in your question by September 1st.

Dear Asking for a Friend:

I’m hitting a wall, y’all. I make music that is intensely process-focused and cerebral, but the product is intentionally listenable and accessible in order to be able to reach as wide an audience as possible. But this puts me firmly between two worlds: my process is too focused on craft and intentionality to be prolific in output as is demanded by the commercial music ecosystem, and yet the music is continually passed over for institutional support.

So I’m living in a space where both existing pathways to some sort of success are blocked off to me. It scarcely seems to matter how many people I share the work with love it, or how many film festivals my dance film/music video suite accompanying my still-unreleased album wins (everything from Best Short and Narrative Drama to Experimental and, yes, Screendance / Music Video). I can’t find meaningful traction, and without traction or institutional support, I find myself on a frightening precipice — considering abandoning the work altogether. Help!

Composer Contemplating Quitting

Carol Ann: Hey there, we’re going to do our best to tackle this question without, of course, having heard your music. First things first, it would help to define what success means to you personally — does it mean being able to live off your income as a composer, landing a teaching job, being commissioned by an orchestra, writing music for video games, getting film synchronization opportunities? Clarifying your career goals will help you figure out how to drive in that direction. In your case, it might make sense to flow in the direction you’re getting the most momentum, which, based on what you’ve shared with us, sounds like it would be film synchronization. So let’s start there.

Rachel: Let’s say your work has been selected to be featured at a film festival. Make sure you’re leveraging your opportunities and inviting key people (e.g., nearby performers and presenters, music supervisors, managers, potential collaborators, etc.) to attend these events. Also think about building the right team for your goals: Find a film agent, a mentor in the industry, and possibly a publicist with ties in the film industry to help promote a specific project. There are also organizations you can join for film composers — for example Sundance Institute has all sorts of resources and programs for connecting filmmakers and composers.

Photo by Fabio Bracht on Unsplash

Photo by Fabio Bracht on Unsplash

Carol Ann: And this (almost) goes without saying: Be sure to share about the upcoming event on social media, your website, your newsletter — tease it out with excerpts of the music/film you’ll be showing. (This is also assuming you have a website where your works, events, and audio are accessible — if not, make that a priority.) When you’re at a festival, network with attendees like other composers, filmmakers, maybe event panelists. It’s about making a meal out of your opportunities.

You could also consider releasing your music to get more visibility for synch opportunities — if your tracks are already winning awards, that could be attractive for labels to get behind. But there are many options out there, including self-releasing (see our next question about recordings!).

Rachel: Lastly, grit and persistence are an important part of an artistic practice and career. It is not an easy path, but the one thing that you can control is just continuing to show up and do the work. There is no guarantee that your music will be successful, whether you write in a more commercial sound or not, so you might as well write the music you want to write, and then find your audience. There is a lid for every pot, as my Nana used to say!

Dear Rachel & Carol Ann,

I have recently discovered your column and I think it’s a wonderful idea and an opportunity to be frank about concerning issues, to try to find solutions and ways out of the dark labyrinths of the music industry.

My question is about making money as a composer who wants to have their music recorded. I know from experience that record labels that would like to have you on board need you to “provide the master” so they can rent it. This means that as a composer, you’ve got to pay for the entire recording yourself, and then the label picks it up there, does minimum expenses, and keeps 75–80% of the revenue. And because record labels force us to produce the master recording, we end up paying performers to do their job while us composers have to pay to do our job (very sad and frustrating to be honest).

I guess you get the picture, something is very wrong here.

Concerned Composer

This is a big and important topic to unpack, so we brought in our colleague Chris Campbell — the Director of Recordings at innova Recordings, who is himself a composer and producer — to share some insider perspective about working with labels. innova Recordings, the in-house label of American Composers Forum, is reimagining the way artists and record labels work together in line with ACF’s mission to activate equitable opportunities for artists.

Carol Ann: Chris, our writer here is pointing out some major difficulties with producing albums and navigating deals with labels. Can you give us the lay of the land and tell us how accurate this assessment is?

Chris: It’s funny, because I don’t necessarily disagree with them. Record company people are shady, as the rap song goes, so this person isn’t wrong on some of these points. Project by project, labels are doing the math, and if you’re an artist who’s pulling fewer numbers, they’ll usually want to make sure they’re going to earn a profit on this deal. Artists have always maintained rights ownership and revenue at innova, but one of the major reasons we restructured our business model was to specifically address the issues this person is bringing up about the costs of making a recording.

As we all know, having a recorded document of your music is important for music makers — getting more commissions and performances, securing licensing opportunities. There’s an outreach component to it, too: If you’re on the front page of Apple Music or Spotify, your name is getting out there. There’s an optics to recorded music that you might not get from a concert.

However, when you’re working with a label these days, there is no “norm” for contracts — everything is negotiable, everything is situational. A contract is just an agreement between two parties, and artists should feel empowered to push back and ask if there are other ways for the contract to take shape. You can specify licensing splits in the contract, or percentages of merchandise sales. Here’s a lay-up example from innova: If a licensing agreement comes in above a certain dollar amount, that triggers a certain percentage to be paid out to the label, but if it’s under a certain dollar amount, that goes straight to the artist.

There’s a big range of deals out there, every record label has their own contract structure and revenue splits. On one side of the spectrum, I’ve heard of projects where the composer funds everything, including studio time, orchestra performers, etc. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s innova, where the artists don’t pay an admin fee and also receive 100% of the sales profit. We can also connect you with our affiliate network to studio engineers, sometimes at gratis or reduced rates.

Also, providing the master is not a requisite. In fact, 95% of the time I would advocate for the person to hang on tight to every asset they can, both copyright and publishing. You have ownership in perpetuity. You will get back-end residuals like licensing. There’s a really long tail on these recording projects, especially if you know how to pivot into different markets. We just finished a licensing deal with Disney and Google, and at our label, artists retained all of their ownership. So guess who gets their licensing money? That’s an actual paycheck for the artist.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Carol Ann: What would you say if a label won’t accept a deal unless they own the masters?

Chris: There are other labels that an artist can go to. You shouldn’t feel pressure to be with a specific label — it should be a purely functional decision. What is the artist getting from this deal? Distribution mechanisms are pretty similar to one other. A label can offer positioning for front-page placement, which can be difficult to get yourself. But frankly, there should be a comfort in shopping around. You might have to mix and match — ‘This label will let me keep my master, but won’t provide PR services. However, I can bring on an ancillary publicist to help with promotion.’ Think about how to creatively approach this.

Self-distribution is also a viable option. You retain ownership. That’s a good starting point, and then you build off that. That does require you to be a bit educated or have people that you can trust advise you on how to be an educated consumer.

Engaging in conversation and pushing back can be hard for people because they think, ‘What if I get rejected?’ But you should advocate for yourself.

Rachel: That part is honestly really hard — and likely the reason the entire world of artist management exists — when an artist gets to a point where not enough percentage of their life is dedicated to creative space. It’s about, as you said, creatively thinking about your team. The work that I’m doing as a manager is amplified by effectively plugging into an artist’s structure and promoting projects through my network. There are so many options available to creators right now in terms of how they build their support team. Signing with a big publisher definitely addresses some of these needs, but it then has an impact on rights ownership. So there’s the value proposition of being educated enough to really decide for yourself what works for you.

Chris: I love the term “support team.” There’s this old-school idea of the team being all under one roof, but now the support team can be taken on more of a constituent basis where you can assemble a team that suits your project needs and retain control.

Having a baseline education about your rights as an artist makes you feel comfortable enough to know what questions to ask or what direction to point yourself in. My degree was in composition, but they didn’t teach anything about copyright or working with labels. It’s important to understand where the gaps in your skill set are and then say, get laser-focused on copyright law for two months. And I think that’s just sort of what’s required of artists these days, for better or worse.

I think if you see this part of producing an album as an administrative thing that you have to do, it’s going to feel like a damper on you creatively. But if you view it as an extension of your art practice, it can feel generative and life giving.

Here’s a list of several grant opportunities for producing albums:

Want to submit a question for the next installment of Asking for a Friend? Send in your question by September 1st.

Have questions that you’d prefer to speak directly with someone about? Submit your inquiries to American Composers Forum’s Help Desk to get in touch with an ACF staff member and connect to resources and support.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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Rachel Sokolow is an Artist Manager at MKI Artists and maintains a freelance consulting practice. She is passionate about collaborating with and developing special projects for composers and performing artists.
Carol Ann Cheung is the Director of Publicity & Marketing at Boosey & Hawkes, where she promotes composers through strategic communications.