Can You Succeed Without a Record Deal?

I’ll help you out here: it’s not a trick question, but the answer isn’t simple.

It’s a question every musician ponders at some point.  “Do I really need to try to land a record deal? Is that selling out? Maybe I can just sell CDs on my own, keep more money, and handle my own promotion. After all, my friends love my CD!” 

Bryden Haynes is studying law in London, UK, and came up with a rather complex formula to determine if success without a record deal was possible. He begins his article by defining a few terms: “success” means a level of financial freedom, and “record deal” refers to a major or independent label that has a decent budget to promote your work. “Band” or “musician” means a solo artist or group performing original music. I need to point out here that Haynes made his calculations with UK artists and prices in mind, but after converting pounds to dollars (the dollar is trading at $1.56 against the British Pound as of this writing), I’m confident that his conclusion will stand equally well on this side of the pond.

Haynes assumes that the average 25-year-old UK resident earns around $28,392 per year. Arguably some earn more, and some earn less, but let’s accept that as average for now. He further assumes that there are around 600,000 bands in the UK (each with about 4 members) that want to succeed with their music, i.e., get a record deal and make over $28K a year playing gigs and selling CDs.

After doing a bit of research, Haynes discovered that the average band brings in about 15 paying fans per show to venues featuring original acts. Again, that number could be more or less, but if the cover is $10, and the band plays 2 shows a week, then each band member can look forward to bringing home a whopping $3,650 per year just from playing gigs, before expenses. That figure may sound low, but remember we’re working with averages here. And even if the band doubles the fans at each show, it’s still only $7,500 per musician per year. Not to worry, though. Haynes figures that each band member can still pocket a cool $187 per year from music downloads.

Depressed yet? By this point, many of those 600,000 bands are, too, and they fall away. In fact, over a five-year period, only about 20 bands will make it to the Top 40 charts, and only about 15 of them are actually earning over $28,000 per member per year.

So all of the number crunching comes down to this: if you’re a band, your chance of making a decent living from your original music without a record deal is 0.00025%. However, if you submit demos on a regular basis and follow up on the submissions, your odds of getting a record deal increase to 1 in 3428. And if you use what Haynes calls a pitching website (Bandcamp, Soundcloud, or Taxi), your odds improve to 1 in 200.

I can live with those odds.

I need to point out once more that these figures are based on conditions in the UK; I converted pounds to dollars only for the sake of convenience and clarity. But I’m convinced that Haynes’ conclusion is equally valid in the US, even taking into account the larger numbers of bands and music venues here. It’s still going to be worth pursuing the record deal. While your mileage may vary, the odds are overwhelmingly against you if you try to establish a successful (decent wage earning) music career without outside help from an established label. They can shell out the million dollars it takes to launch an act. As Haynes puts it:

Yes, you might have gone on to sell millions of copies of your album on your own (and therefore lose 50% of potential profits), but the odds are against this happening – and even if it did happen, the record label would simply capitalise on your new found success and increase your success further, possibly making up for the percentage they take.

Go for the record deal, and enjoy the journey!

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