Early YouTube Musician Explains How Signing Major Label Deal 'Nearly Destroyed My Career'

from the have-heard-this-before dept

Digital Music News has an unfortunate story that we’ve heard too many times before: that of an independent musician successfully building a following… only to do a deal with a major label and see it all come crashing down. What’s interesting is that the artist, Terra Naomi, was willing to lay out all of the details. It’s worth a read, as it’s a story that is pretty common. That is not to say that signing a major label deal is necessarily a bad thing. For some artists it may be the right decision. But the way that major labels work is that you’ll only get enough attention for the label to determine if you’re “the next big thing” where all its revenue will come from for the next few years… and if things don’t seem to be going that way, you’ll be pushed aside quickly. The standard stat given is that 90% of major label deals “fail.” That does not mean they are not profitable for the label. The way RIAA accounting works, the labels can make out like a bandit on many of those record deals, while the artist gets hung out to dry. That appears to be the case with Naomi as well.

She points out that she was one of the first artists to build up a large fanbase solely based on her YouTube and MySpace accounts. Here was her most popular song, Say It’s Possible:

In the article, she talks about how she was connecting with fans and giving them a reason to buy. She talks about using YouTube to directly communicate with her fans, answering their questions, sending them messages and the like. And then, Universal Music came calling. And she made the very reasonable decision to sign with them, noting that while she had just pressed her own EP and quickly sold 5,000 of them in the first month they were available, she was still in debt, and a $250,000 advance was hard to pass up. It’s easy to mock this decision, but you’re probably not the one sitting there in debt with $250,000 on the table. That’s why it’s so tempting and why so many artists jump at the opportunity. It’s not a crazy decision to make — but it may present long term challenges, which is exactly what Naomi discovered.

Despite attracting attention for her success on YouTube, the label basically (1) had no understanding of YouTube and (2) recommended that she stop connecting with her fans. In other words, the exact opposite of what artists need to be doing in this internet connected era:

Contributing further to their feelings of betrayal was the mandate that came from my team at the label. They needed me to be ?less accessible? and more untouchable. All these kids on YouTube saw me as an equal, as ?one of them? ? did I want to be a YouTube star, or did I want to be a rock star? They threw down the gauntlet, and there was no question in my mind. I wanted to be a rock star.

I handed over my mailing list and social media logins to the record label. I trusted this team of professionals to grow it into something much bigger than I could ever hope to create on my own. I backed off, disappeared, focused on writing songs and hanging out with the ?right? people rather than connecting with my fans and the community I?d grown to love and depend on, prior to signing my deals. I figured I?d play by their rules for a little while, build my career into something even bigger, and reunite with my community once the label was satisfied with my rock star status.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t work out that way. The label also pushed her to make a more commercial album, which she hated:

The producer I worked with told me we only had one shot, and I needed to make the album he wanted to make ? with its ?radio-ready? production ? and once I had a few hits, I could make any album I wanted. So I made the album he wanted to make, and things didn?t happen the way he said they would. Instead of the big commercial radio success that would give me the freedom to seamlessly transition into the music I truly wanted to make, I had a big commercial flop (I think we sold something like 25,000 albums), an album I didn?t like, and I?d wasted what could have been the biggest opportunity of my life. The exposure I built independently on YouTube was more than the record label ever did for me, and I couldn?t believe I?d been so willing to hand it over for a longshot gamble on mainstream stardom.

And, of course, once she finally got out of the major label system, the audience that she had originally connected with, but forsaken, had moved on. As she notes:

My biggest takeaway from this time was a lesson in authenticity. It?s tempting to listen to people who want to change us, even just a little bit, and steer us in a direction that isn?t authentic. It?s easy to doubt ourselves, especially when we?re just starting out. We think people with more experience know better than we do about what?s best for us, and it?s simply not the case. We fall for the hard sell, the glitz and glamour, but for every massive major label success, there are dozens of disappointments and disastrous failures.

This isn’t a huge surprise. For well over a decade we’ve been pointing out stories of successful artists who have built up huge fan bases online — and the one factor that shows up again and again and again is authenticity. That’s a huge part of the whole idea of connecting with fans. Actually being authentic is a great way to connect with like-minded fans, but it has traditionally gone against the cookie-cutter model of the major labels (though, to be fair, some are finally starting to figure this out, if only way too late).

Either way, Naomi’s story is a good read, and should be worth thinking about for others who are tempted by the deals presented to them when they’re first building a following. Put it in the group with the stories about RIAA accounting that further explain how a big advance may not actually be so big once you understand all the details.

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Companies: google, universal music, youtube

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Comments on “Early YouTube Musician Explains How Signing Major Label Deal 'Nearly Destroyed My Career'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Stories like this reinforce the notion that not every song needs to be a Top 40 hit and not every novel needs to be a New York Times bestseller and not every movie need to be a box office hit. Why would anyone who is honest and authentic actually want to appeal to the widest possible audience? The idea that the best art is that which appeals to the lowest common denominator and thus the largest possible audience is absurd. I would rather my art be loved by a small but sincere and passionate group of fans than for it to be loved by an anonymous crowd of strange faces.

Whoever says:

They are like VCs

VCs don’t care about failures. They invest with the idea that one out of 10 companies will make enough money to cover the losses on the other 9.

Hence they will always go for a moonshot and the shareholders in the other 9 companies get screwed (because, without the reckless approach to the business, they might have been able to build up a sustainable, profitable business, just not become billionaires).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: They are like VCs

They’re slightly different than VCs, in that I’m fairly sure that the record labels try and make a point of not taking a substantial loss themselves. For example from this article, I’m pretty sure that most of the profits from that 25,000 album sales went towards defraying the cost of that advance. In general, the labels come up with ways to keep any profits to themselves, and push costs off onto the artist. VCs on the other hand are more content to do some educated gambling, accepting they’ll take a bunch of modest losses to find the huge successes.

Other than that, yeah, they’re like VCs. They aren’t looking to build modest successes that are profitable in the long run, they’re looking for huges successes they can cash in on, before moving onto the next. Leaving the old successes to struggle to survive on their own.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Not just the music industry

I experienced something very similar in the software industry a couple of lifetimes ago. I had built up a good reputation and was selling at a rate that allowed to me live very comfortably (although it wasn’t making me wealthy — but wealth has never been my goal). A large corporation took notice and made me a very seductive offer that I couldn’t refuse.

The end result was the destruction of everything I had worked so hard to build and a loss of control over my career. It’s a very difficult thing to recover from. If I could give advice to my earlier self, it would be “don’t give up what’s working for seductive promises”.

David says:

Re: Not just the music industry

At some point of time one has to realize that money is not more than ink on paper, a promise by some government to exchange it for some other money. And most contracts are a promise to deliver some company-backed promises of such government promises, if everything goes as expected.

In the UK, the Finn brothers created the music typesetting software Sibelius. They were pretty well established in the market when they let themselves be acquired by Avid (something like 10 or 20 mill pounds I think). A few years later, Avid finds itself needing to save money, so they fire the whole UK-based Sibelius development team and move some basic maintenance to a team in the Ukraine. The Finns try buying back the software, but Avid is not interested. The Finns no longer have the right to work on or with the software they built together with their team. They just have a wad of cash instead of a life’s work, and their team not even has that.

In the end, money is only money.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Not just the music industry

This is so, but most people don’t want money. They want to be able to meet their life needs. Money is just a tool to do that.

That this is an important point is demonstrated by the fact that having too much money makes you just as unhappy as having too little. The sweet spot is to have just a bit more than is necessary to pay for your necessities.

Anonymous Coward says:

Subject / Object confusion: Early YouTube Musician Explains How Signing Major Label Deal Nearly Destroyed My Career -- How did that harm the writer's career?

I’d be intrigued if not sure was simply the usual lousy re-writing.

The exaggemerated “nearly destroyed” means nothing. My house was “nearly destroyed” by a hurricane. The Earth was “nearly destroyed” by a comet. Both true, though not least damage. In the given sitch, it’s biased personal view at best.

The lurbled headline still serves purpose as I don’t need to bother reading: can only be assertions assigning blame to someone else for failed expectations.

Back in 2009, when at last bad luck led me to click a link to this obscure little self-referential site I’d missed in five years roaming the net on broadband, Techdirt at least had enough sense left to caution: don’t expect to get rich from music. But all sense is discarded when convenient to attack the entire music industry from one person’s unfounded expectations of getting stinking rich for doing nothing useful and living high off the actual productive labors of others.

Nothing happened to this person that hasn’t to millions of other arty nitwits hoping to get rich by making entertainments. In fact, had better luck than most! Just because you’re “artistic” doesn’t guarantee income. If now getting enough money from music to live on, that’s incredible luck. Quit complaining.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Subject / Object confusion: Early YouTube Musician Explains How Signing Major Label Deal Nearly Destroyed My Career -- How did that harm the writer's career?

After reading ALL: Yot. Don’t have to change a word. Sucked in by false expecttations of big score, thinks record label didn’t do enough for her, she was too arty and good to go “commercial”, and has no real explanation of how got noticed on Youtube in the first place. Typical of millions since the 1950’s: even says “it’s a story that is pretty common”!

Look. There’s NO formula for success in the music biz. Not even now with Youtube.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Subject / Object confusion: Early YouTube Musician Explains How Signing Major Label Deal Nearly Destroyed My Career -- How did that harm the writer's career?

…expectations of getting stinking rich for doing nothing useful and living high off the actual productive labors of others. Nothing happened to this person that hasn’t to millions of other arty nitwits…

What’s truly “””artistic””” (triple scary!) is your magnificent subtextual fusion of free-market capitalism and Stalinism. It’s awesome. Like a hotdog.

Anonymous Coward says:

When you are asking a record company to handle your social media ,you are doing it wrong.
An arty indie singer trying to be a pop star does not
work .
She got bad advice ,and abandoned her fans on youtube .
Every singer is on youtube now .
from beyonce to an unknown indie band .
She could maybe have signed up with a small indie label.
for every singer making money,selling cds,
there 99 singers artists who never made a cent .
Even the record companys know how valuable youtube is ,now .
Record companys work on the basic of 90 per cent of cds,
released make no profit,
they are looking for the next beiber ,taylor swift ,
one direction million seller .

That One Guy (profile) says:

Slight risk aversion

The problem, and this applies both to musicians that they con into signing with them and adapting to new trends and technologies is that the recording and movie industries are very risk averse, and are only really willing to do what’s worked before.

A particular type of music is successful? Clearly being successful requires a musician to conform to that ‘type’, even if it’s nothing like what they currently are.

CDs/DVDs sell well? Clearly digital is ‘just a fad’, and should be fought with everything they have.

The previous format worked great, the ‘new’ format might not, therefore the only reasonable response is to stick with the old, and try and cripple the new to keep it from cannibalizing sales.

When you’re dealing with people unwilling to take chances or change, and who are greedy control freaks who only know how to do one thing and refuse to try new things, stories like this, while unfortunate for the creator, are hardly surprising.

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