The hardest thing about writing these articles on the word “unsigned” is deciding on which pun to use for the title. A close second was “Unsigned, Sealed, Delivered” (but I thought that might be a little too much). Anyway…
In my last article I talked about how a big percentage of independent artists do not view themselves as unsigned (or un-anything), that the term is contemptibly anachronistic and wildly presumptuous. Still, I suspect the argument might smack more of stung ego than righteous indignation. So in this post I will briefly touch on an actual problem that the nasty little word can create.
That problem is pressure. Unnecessary pressure.
Now don’t get me wrong, pressure can be a very good thing, I work with plenty of people who would really benefit from cultivating a sense of urgency. But too much pressure can lead to bad decision-making as well as a warped sense of what to aim for. The word “unsigned” – dripping with all that perverted arrogance – represents the kind of pressure a band can do without.
The word supposes that signing to a major label is the goal when, in reality, it is merely a manoeuvre. An optional manoevre. One of many in a long long game.
The most powerful weapon the established labels have over emerging independents is The Past. They may have a lot of money and connections but those things are tiny next to the might of a mythology. The big labels own all that old stuff, the authentic stuff (and if they didn’t make it then they bought it). No matter how rubbish Island Records became when it was sold to Universal, no matter how far it strayed from its independent roots it will always be the label that was once home to Bob Marley, Roxy Music, Nick Drake, Cat Stevens, Jimmy Cliff etc. That will always be the key to their influence. But I know people who have signed to Island in recent years and it has done nothing but damage their careers. Still artists will keep signing to the big labels because of that legacy. That sexy legacy. That Psiren on the rocks.
Why? Because they want to heave themselves out of that perceived cesspit of “unsigned artists” – they want to distance themselves from open mics, battle of the bands, showcase events,good-exposure events, ones to watch lists, pay-to-play, gigging-for-a-few-beers, facebook-invites, vote-for-my-band, “click Like”, follow-me-on-twitter… (ie the amateur circuit where everyone is equal but not everyone is necessarily good – it can be a deafening place).
Here is my confession – one which doesn’t fit well with my onstage persona: As well as stuff like artistic integrity and general enjoyment, the big important thing for me in all this “independent musician” stuff is a desire for my family not to worry about me any more than is biologically necessary.
Because the depressing thing is that once you are no longer in your early twenties, the word “unsigned” might as well say “failure” – I am older than Jimi Hendrix or Curt Cobain or Ian Curtis or Buddy Holly ever managed to be. And it makes me think: What have I achieved?
Loads actually. I have achieved LOADS. The only difference is that none of it ever lined the pockets of Sony and so comparatively few people know about it. The sad thing is that practically everyone I know (outside musician circles) would respect me far more if I was on the books of a major label. Even if my records flopped and I was playing to empty rooms, even if my management was taking every penny I earned, even if I was in thousands or even millions of pounds of debt to the company, my family and friends would probably think that my being signed to a major label was far more impressive than being unsigned and making a sustainable career out of it.
I could go on and on about this. In fact I have (I just axed about five hundred words on the phenomenon of success by association and the stigma of the under-endorsed – but it all got a bit ranty so now it’s in the trash).
I am not against the major labels. I would be very happy to work with one on a case by case basis (they have lots of different departments employing lots of talented people from various fields of expertise). What I object to is the creaking conceit that artists are not worth anything on their own terms, that they have to be part of (and owned by) a greater power.
Look at the movie business: the studio system of contracted players went out of the window decades ago but it still functions as an industry. In fact it works better as a consequence of being more flexible. There will always be taste-makers and marketing people and producers etc but why does the music world still play at labels? Why can’t it just be about projects?
Carving out a niche for oneself in the creative industries is an ongoing process, there is rarely a moment where one can truly say “I’ve made it” (though the term “making it” gets thrown about an unhelpful amount). In the independent sector people have to create their own measurement systems and judge their success levels accordingly. Judging oneself by another person’s rules is absolutely pointless (financially speaking Britney is doing a lot better than I am – creatively, however, I’m not so sure).
Bands who spend all their time trying to lose the “un” from the word “unsigned” will miss out on a huge amount of living and probably foster a lot of regrets along the way.
If you’ll permit me one lazy analogy by way of conclusion:
The recording contract is like the carrot dangled in front of a mule pulling a cart along a dirt track. If the mule only ever looks at the carrot then it is in danger of walking straight off a cliff.
First published in December 2011