Going Independent: 3 Basic Steps to Starting Your Own Record Label

Woman Listening to Records

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In the "glory days" of the recording industry, getting signed was the holy grail of musicianship. Bands sent in demo tapes (remember analog tapes?) with hopes of being heard by the right person and being invited to sign a contract. These days, with record labels hemorrhaging money at an alarming rate and fewer and fewer people buying recorded music, "going indie" has never been a better idea! Let's look at some ways you can give yourself the same resources that many larger labels have.

The first thing to understand is embarrassingly plain: simply creating and slapping a label name on your independent release won't do you much good. You first need to understand the basic elements of what a record label supplies its artists with, and then learn how to replicate that for yourself.

There are two things we won't bring up: financing and booking. Major and indie record labels pour money into their acts—sometimes copious sums, sometimes barely enough—and they also arrange for tour booking, either through in-house or contracted booking agents.

Usually, when a band signs to a large label, they're either signed to a developmental deal or a full-on recording contract. A developmental deal sounds just like it is—a deal to develop the artist, which sometimes results in a release, many times not. A standard recording contract gives the artist an advance to record and promote and then varying financial terms from there. 

Step One: Duplicating and Distributing

Once you've got your masterpiece completed, it's time to find a good deal on duplicating.

Keep in mind that most major labels turn a huge profit by duplicating their own CDs in mass quantity, usually in an overseas facility, for a few cents per unit. Add in the cost of shipping and distribution, and you're still seeing large profit from a few cents' work. Unless you're planning to buy a few thousand copies, you'll be needing to plan how you profit from your CD very carefully.

Finding a high-quality CD duplication (burning) service isn't too hard; if you're looking for a smaller run, companies like Disk Faktory offer decent deals (around $2 a unit). For larger runs, replication is the best deal.


Getting distribution is something that's not easy for the independent label. Getting your CD into physical stores is the hardest part.

Fortunately for indie artists, digital distribution is now the most popular way to buy music. Devoting resources to getting your CD in stores may not be the best use of time and money; digital distribution is dirt cheap and has a wider reach than in stores.

However, if you're still determined to sell the old fashioned way, pick up a copy of the Musician's Atlas, an invaluable tool that's published once yearly. You'll find information on many regional distribution companies that you can consign your records with. They can help get your music into regional small record stores for a small fee. Generally, you'll be losing about $1-$2 per unit as a distribution fee. Many distribution companies will also request a certain number of copies without compensating you for them; these copies are used internally for cataloging as well as to compensate for CDs that break in transit.

Digital distribution is your best bet overall. Among the digital retailers, CDBaby is one of the best-known; they'll set you up for a small fee, and sell your album with a healthy profit in your pocket. You can also contract with Amazon.com or Barnes and Nobles to sell online as your own independent reseller which requires more work on your part (and a fee to them).

Distributing digitally has many advantages for you. First, it's got very low overhead and very high profit—you don't have manufacturing overhead or shipping overhead—and it's a great way to be environmentally friendly, due to the fact there's no packaging to worry about.

Companies like CDBaby will offer to set up digital distribution for an added fee, as well as companies like TuneCore that specialize in all digital distribution. It's up to you who to use, but generally look for a company with low start-up cost, wide distribution, and a high percentage of profit going to you.

Step Two: Promotion

With the Internet being such a big part of everyday life, promoting on it should be your first plan of attack!

Never underestimate social networking as a promotional tool. You can reach out to millions of potential fans in a single click. However, watch out for being too annoying or blatantly spamming as you don't want to turn people off before they've heard a note.

Aside from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, spamming on Craigslist and Backpage is generally considered poor form, unless it's in the appropriate forum for music promotion.

Another great idea is to submit copies of your album to as many promotional sites, fringe newspapers, and/or music publications as possible. When you send in your CD, keep in mind you won't always get reviewed favorably (if at all), but keeping the option out there is a great idea. Along with the CD itself, you'll need to produce a "one-sheet", which is essentially one page of basic information on your band, the background on the album, and any information that'll help a reviewer. Submit all of this along with a note individualized for the reviewing outlet, and you'll be good to go. 

Step Three: Getting a Team

I can't state this firmly enough: the best thing any independent label can do is retain a good entertainment lawyer. Ask for recommendations from other artists and producers. Chances are, there's someone in your town that'll work out great. Also, you'll need to find street-teamers and others who can promote your album for you by distributing promo copies and posters around town. Craigslist and Backpage are great places to recruit!

With these tips, you'll be on your way to indie label stardom—or, at very least, a successful career in local music.