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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Filed Under: major labels, music, music industry, terra naomi, youtube
Companies: google, universal music, youtube


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  1. icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 12 Sep 2015 @ 3:53pm

    Re: Re:

    "The devil may have gone down to Georgia, Mr. Ford, but he lives in Memphis."

    -- Leverage, "The Studio Job"

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