A guide inside Manchester's new music: Record deals

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Image caption,
In the past, record deals were "about distributing the physical product"

In the old days, a band used to take the easy path of 'write songs, gig, sign deal, release album, roll around on water bed covered in £50 notes'.

Then the bottom dropped out of the record market and the latter steps became a lot more complicated.

If you want groupies and toilet paper made out of tenners today, you'll need to become a Premiership footballer.

Yet, now that getting a record deal is a lot more of a remote possibility, you might actually be better off.

The device in front of you right now - the computer - has put so much power into a band's hands that releasing your own music is not just a viable option, but a wholly sensible one.

An expert opinion

Jeff Thompson helps run the celebrated Un-Convention from an old church in Salford and also runs a record label, Fat Northerner Records.

Having already discussed money, I spoke to him again, this time as a label boss, and mentioned that bands still often see getting a record deal as one of the steps to 'becoming a band'. But is it really necessary?

"Yes and no - there used to be an idea that you'd be in a band, make a demo, send the demo off to 'the industry', who would then arrive at your door, and throw you into the world of jets, money and film premieres - the Wayne's World scenario.

"And, you know, for one in every 2,000,000 bands, that would happen."

"But that era was very constrained; to get your music heard by a wider audience, you'd need a record deal for the distribution, the manufacturing.

"The whole industry was built around distributing the physical product."

"At Un-Convention, we try to make it clear that even in the idealised scenario, the idea that you made millions as an artist isn't true.

"One expert described signing a record deal as going to a bank to borrow money to buy a car - and when you'd paid the money and the interest back, the bank still owned the car."

'The DIY ethic'

It's a sobering, and slightly crushing, revelation. Surely there must have been some money in it for the bands?

"In the traditional model, out of about every 20 albums made, only one would make money.

"Remember that the huge advance a contract gives you is just a loan that you pay back.

"You have to make the record with it and pay the manager.

"Even then you'll only get 20 percent of the money you earn after you pay the loan back, which you have to split with the rest of the band.

"People would be surprised to find out how many big bands never made a penny out of records that sold hundreds of thousands.

"It was a closed shop - but now the punk ethos has really come through, the DIY ethic.

"Indie labels work on a much simpler idea - the Factory Handshake deal - where the label fronts the costs and then they split profits with the band equally once those costs are paid back.

"To my mind, it's a really blatant, transparent and fair deal."

'Be the best band you can be'

His point is a simple and blunt one, which underlines one point - the music industry is as much about business as any other, something Jeff said increasingly successful bands would do well to remember.

Image caption,
Jeff works with new bands through Fat Northerner and Un-Convention

"There's a good argument now for saying that if you get to the point where a record label is interested in you, the last thing you need is a record label.

"Because what they're waiting for is someone who's going to be successful.

"If you've done all that - got the fan-base, and the ability to get money out of them - what do you need a label who are going to take a share of that for?

"Record deals are only really useful for huge acts that sell all over the world."

The larger labels still have vast, unwieldy power, but now, you can feasibly consider a record deal with them as the last step, as opposed to the first.

Jeff spells it out simply: "Spend your time being the best band you can be - do that and everything else will follow."

In an industry where all is exactly not what it seems, this seems to be the best advice anyone could possibly hope for.

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