Thursday, May 28, 2009

Start a Music Label (or Not)?

Dear Rich: Our band is putting out its first CD and we are considering creating a record label to release it. What do you think? What's involved in creating a record label? Do we need a lawyer? I'm so glad you asked. You don't need a lawyer to form a record label and there's not that much involved in creating one, as I'll explain below. The bigger question is why are you doing it. One reason artists create labels is that they feel it gives some legitimacy to their release -- as if to say to the world, "see, somebody has signed us." If that's your prime motivator, don't bother. Your fans won't care and anyone in the music industry will be able to discern that you've just created a fictitious label for your release. However, if you're serious about building a small business around a series of releases (including other artists), then it might make sense to create a label. 
Most importantly, and of greatest concern is money. Who will pay for the pressings and artwork? How will you finance promotion? Are you borrowing money to start up? Or are you seeking investments? Will you pay for recording costs? Can you afford to keep going when distributors are late paying you (or worse, go belly up)? All of these things are worth considering before you launch your music mini-empire. (Here's a quick lesson (PDF) on the flow of money in the music business!) If you're still eager to move forward, you'll need a name for your label and you'll want to make sure no other music or entertainment services are using a similar name. (In a future blog entry, we're going to explain how to perform basic trademark searches at the USPTO.) Next, if you're not familiar with basic business startup information, you might want to get a primer. That's because you may need to figure out your business form -- partnership, LLC, corporation -- and file a fictitious business name with your county clerk. You'll need to open a bank account and use an accounting system -- either an Excel Spreadsheet or Quickbooks should do. You may want to affiliate with an independent music distributor (here's a list by state) which may prove challenging, unless you have an artist that is already selling well. And you will need agreements for the distributor, for consignments, and for your artists (including your band). Digital copies of all these agreements are included in my book Music Law, and the Dear Rich staff reports that there other helpful resources for starting a label on the web. One of the more popular books on the subject is Start and Run Your Own Record Label.