Hi everyone, I’m new here & this is my first post. I’m thinking of starting a record label. Nothing unusual about that except that I think there needs to be more labels signing predominately Black artists. Full disclosure: I am white (and male). Notwithstanding the music, I’d be interested in hearing people’s thoughts on this. I want to do something good, help people that may not have had the same opportunities/resources I had, as well as get more more involved in the scene, but equally, I don’t want to appear as if I’m exploitng anyone.
Difficult to say re: financial exploitation. It’s hard to figure out what a fair distribution is these days - label-artist relations have often been exploitative but there’s no need that that should necessarily be the case. You’ll want some sort of fair profit split. You might not make any profit on the records as well so it’s worth thinking about what happens in that situation - are you potentially building some credit off of various artists’ work taken cumulatively, when they might not see any money or necessarily any benefit from doing so? Are you aiming to do physical releases or just digital? Will you be paying for mastering / artwork / promo and marketing? How much benefit will the artists get from your relationship?
I would also be wary about being accused of white saviour stuff (clout exploitation?), especially if you use the fact that you’re trying to sign black artists as a marketing / PR angle, or if you make a big deal out of that making you a progressive label in some way.
Here are some ideas for how you might deal with that latter element. Firstly you could not mention that you are attempting to sign majority black artists at all - have the positive work you do simply be about trying to provide a platform for artists and have them benefit from your opportunities / resources without letting anyone know that you are doing something “good”. Lead by example but leave it at that.
However you might want to publicise that you are trying to sign mostly black artists because you think it’s important that more people do this and your label is a public statement about that - in that case publicising that aspect would be essential. To avoid cashing in on it I would possibly try and make it a collaborative enterprise, and possibly even you take a back seat on some decision making. i.e. discuss with the artists you wanted to sign what they’d want out of this situation, what they’d want to achieve with the label, how they would communicate the purpose of the label etc. It may be that this would be better to be run on more collaborative lines - but then it may not be “your” label. It might be worth reading about co-ops or democratically run music companies or bands etc to get some ideas. American punk bands like Fugazi and Minutemen, or the riot grrl movement had lots of ideas about this stuff which might not be directly relevant but which could make you think and give you ideas. I’m sure there are some more relevant dance music world ones that I’m not very aware of.
I guess which approach would be better would depend on the purpose of the label. If it’s primarily for you to put out records that reflect a certain musical sensibility that you want to curate (i.e. it’s mostly about you and your tastes) but you also want to do some good, then I would do some form of the first approach and don’t overplay how significant the politics are. If it’s primarily a political statement and approach I think you would be best to do some form of the second approach, which may include doing it very collaboratively and giving up a lot of control of presentation, and even the kind of music that gets signed. Because the optics of trying to establish it as a black label when it would be owned / controlled by a white person are not very good.
There will be many other approaches as well that I haven’t thought of.
I am a white guy as well btw and not integrated in any scene so this is all quite abstract. It may be that if you start having these conversations with black artists you want to sign, black djs or writers around the scenes you’re interested in then they might have very different views - perhaps stricter, perhaps much more relaxed. Basically just think carefully about what you want to achieve, talk to people who you think might want to get involved with it and discuss it with them with an open mind and without being too defensive. And then just get started and be ready to course correct if you make mistakes.
It sounds interesting, good luck!
Some great points in there, much to ponder. In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to pen such a details response, it’s really appreciated!
never ran a record label but I know a lot of people online who do. Here’s some words of wisdom I can pass down:
- vinyl: pushing out records at the moment is a mess for a myriad of reasons. expect lots of delays for physical formats.
- at this point, you also want to consider if pushing out physical releases is the right thing to do. breaking even with 12"s, especially early on with not much influence, is not to be expected.
- communication / control: two of the most important things, but they’re basically the same concept.
- bandcamp is the most supportive platform for artists / labels. don’t know much about distribution outside of that tho
- if you want to go the extra mile, there’s a lot of marketing + physical identity you have to take care of. Things like social media posts, email lists, promotional designs. If you’re your own boss, you have to upload snippets to soundcloud, post on Insta / Twitter, take care of release dates, and send word out through various channels… and that’s just the bare minimum.
these are the most simplest concepts off the top of my head but I hope it helps!
@str_apx made some really excellent points there esp. re: making sure it’s a truly collaborative effort. Would recommend reading that reply real closely.
But yeah, aside from that, personally I don’t see this as being a good idea. I don’t want that to come off as harsh, either, because I’ve 100% been in your position trying to realize ideas like this before. But, ultimately, if you want to build something for a community you need to be involved with that community and understand what it needs/wants first. If the idea doesn’t grow out from the community - that is to say, if you’re going in and setting this up without being involved with a specific community first - then you probably wanna check yourself real quick! Obviously I don’t know you or your involvements in anything etc etc… But the crux of the question is a) Who is specifically asking for this to exist aside from you? and b) Why should you specifically be the person to address that need? There are tons of labels and collectives out there already that are run by Black artists for Black artists - what could you offer an artist that these organizations don’t already?
The above should be questions that anyone starting a label asks, but on top of that there’s a very complicated issue of race at the very center of your idea. Imagine being an artist working with the hypothetical label you’re talking about. How would you know for sure whether the label is working with you because they actually believe in your music or because of the color of your skin? At the core of this label idea is a power dynamic that could allow people to be easily exploited, which probably isn’t a sustainable foundation - especially once money gets involved. Look at it from the perspective of the people you’re trying to help. Why should they trust you? How are you going to be a responsible guardian of their work? There’s a long history of white-owned labels profiting from exploiting Black creativity and expression dating back to the days of “race records”. How would you avoid being another chapter in this?
If you wanna do something to help other people that don’t have the same opportunities etc, then de-center yourself and help with stuff that already exists in the community first - especially stuff that has already been set up by that community. Let others lead the way and help them build the things they decide they need. You’ll meet a lot of the people you want to help, and through that you’ll develop a more specific, nuanced and self-aware understanding of how you can actually help people.
Ethnomusicological papers confront these sorts of issues all the time, btw, so doing a bit of reading in that area could help too! A paper that made me confront a lot of this stuff is Eric Lassiter’s “From ‘Reading Over the Shoulders of Natives’ To ‘Reading Alongside Natives’, Literally: Towards a Collaborative and Reciprocal Ethnography.”. It’s not perfect but it’s a good entry point. Let me know if you can’t access that link and I can help you out and put you on to some other papers too
And just wanna repeat this to make sure it really comes across - I’m not trying to shoot you down or anything!! That impulse you have to help other people is a fucking cool thing! Helping people rocks! But the trickiest part of doing that is removing yourself from it - helping people only in the ways you want to help them usually ends up helping no one (or worse: only you). And I say this from experience, too Don’t be like I was haha
Have to agree with @sleepers and @str_apx here: you’ve gotta be super careful how you move forward with the central idea of the business. Being in, around and (most importantly) being an active part of the community you want to work with will be 100% essential! On more practical advice, money wise if your going to be the sole operator a 50/50 split (after re-couping your costs like artwork, mastering etc) on profits is always a good starting place. Defs avoid physical at this point in time, it’s just become a nightmare even for established labels. Oh and always have signed an written contracts with artists even if they’re your friends! Have a straight up discussion about what you want and what they want and put it in writing. Can’t stress that enough!
Following on from @sleepers contribution, I agree that it’s a good idea to see if any existing institutions want any help especially if they’re really small and unknown and you think they’re doing something cool, because it can be exhausting doing something on your own (I say this as someone who does mixes, makes a thumbnail for them, then the promo is doing a Twitter post, an Instagram post and a post here - that’s exhausting enough so doing something proper and legit and collaborative will be REALLY exhausting). It will also help you learn if you are keen to do a label in the longer term.
But I wouldn’t necessarily give up on the label idea. There will be lots of ppl who want to do music and the idea of doing promo / cheerleading / admin is just exhausting, and you could do something really cool and useful for them. So don’t be too discouraged. But it could be that the traditional record-label-as-a-normal-business-for-profit model is incompatible with what you’re trying to do politically or is inherently exploitative. So just be collaborative as possible, tread carefully, think hard about the control and ownership structures you’re creating, don’t try and run before you can walk and you could well help start a good thing.
Yeah I would generally agree with this!
I think maybe I should have prefaced my initial response with the fact that I’m v jaded nowadays from watching a few of these sorts of things go awry in different ways - I think we probably all agree that there’s a looooooot that can go wrong with an idea like this.
But you’re also right that discouragement isn’t really the end goal here. I’m definitely not trying to say don’t try to help people - because there’s certainly people out there that want the help! But more, if you’re going to help people, make sure you’re helping them in the ways they’re asking to be helped, and centering them and their needs. Where these things tend to go off the rails is when ego gets involved and people with power aren’t willing to acknowledge that or share it.
Have to agree with you there, doing all your own social promo is super time consuming! Fun, but a lot of work
Have you come across trinity black? Run by altered natives among others but they might be able to help with direction?
I haven’t but I’ll take a look, thanks for the tip!