Over the past several years, the music business has gone through seismic changes, leading to a variety of shifts in how revenue is generated, how music is valued and how artists can find success. That, in turn, has led to a change in power dynamics, which can affect how deals are structured and negotiated as well as what’s included within them — and opens up questions about whether artists even need to sign label deals at all.
That was the topic of the panel “The Future of the Artist Deal” at the Music Biz 2022 conference in Nashville on May 11, which was moderated by Karl Fowlkes, an attorney, professor and founder/managing partner of The Fowlkes Firm. Joining him was independent singer/songwriter Spencer Crandall; Crandall’s manager, Jeff Cherry; Samantha Juneman, senior vp/head of marketing and services at ADA; and Riveter Management founder Charlene Bryant.
Crandall has built a successful career with Cherry, with 1.6 million monthly listeners on Spotify as an independent artist. The two opened by explaining why they haven’t taken a deal so far, despite several offers. “Labels can obviously be super helpful, but you need to know what you need and how they can help you,” Cherry said, emphasizing that signing to a label isn’t akin to just waving a magic wand and having all of your needs taken care of; rather, they need to add value, while an artist needs to know what they need help with in the first place. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What is the end goal?’” said Cherry. “Is it to have money today or to build a long-term career?”
Crandall said he values flexibility and tailored deals in looking for partners, rather than the traditional industry model; standard record deals of the past don’t necessarily appeal, he says, given that he’s built a strong career so far on his own. “My big goal is to play a football stadium, and to scale to where we are to a football stadium is still a big jump,” he said, acknowledging that that will eventually mean traditional radio support and the bigger budgets that partnering with companies can provide. But “patience is an underrated part of the conversation,” he said. “How do you scale naturally?”
With ADA, Juneman said, an artist can often enjoy the freedom to operate independently while being able to take advantage of the resources offered by the broader Warner Music Group ecosystem. “The indie mentality of testing and trying something new is in our blood,” she said.
In a way, the access to data that artists and managers can get through streaming services has made the need for labels less immediate. Not that they aren’t important or don’t play a key and often essential role, but it can behoove artists to take their time to build up a fan base on their own before signing. That can allow for better terms, give them the ability to fight for ownership of their recordings, or even sign distribution or artist-services deals depending on their needs. That said, there is also the enticing allure of the big advance — and Bryant stressed that it’s often not how much money an artist can get, but how they spend it, that is truly the most important.
“Coming from the world of hip-hop I see a lot of artists take huge advances and spend it on a chain. That drives me crazy,” Bryant said. “The thing is being more creative with our money. I’m looking at this deal as the bank. But there are ways to be fiscally responsible with other people’s money.” She referenced a year-round focus on a merch operation as something that many artists overlook, but that can both pay off financially and be a strong investment in a career, making that big advance less of a need. “Artists think about merch when they go on tour,” she said. “But people wear clothes every day.”
Financial flexibility and access to data for artists are a big piece of what’s driving the change in deals. “There needs to be more of a middle ground for partnership,” Crandall said. “That’s starting to become more of the conversation, which is exciting.” Bryant agreed, saying that what she values most in a potential deal is equity and ownership. “I’m thinking long-term,” she said. “I’d rather get back end money in royalties for years to come…Getting a huge bag right now is not a forever thing.”
But there are plenty of reasons artists sign deals, from impatience to trying to capitalize on viral moments to the desire to put the business piece of their careers in the hands of someone else. And then there are those who aren’t truly thinking about the contents of an artist’s deal at all. “People get caught up in that clout: ‘I want to be on the same label that Dua Lipa is on, or Roddy Rich is on.’ People say that and they sign deals based on that,” Bryant said. “This business is sexy and appealing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you just have to be smart about it.”