4 More Tips For Running Your Own Record Label

Just over a year ago I wrote a post for this very blog about the lessons learned from releasing my first label’s first vinyl. It was an exciting time, and though it wasn’t the record-breaking success my heart had hoped for my team and I did sell enough to keep our little business afloat. You can find out more about that experience by reading the post I wrote in the fall of 2014.

Not long after I posted that article, my co-founder asked me to meet in order to discuss our plans for the future. We knew we needed to be more active in the year ahead if we wanted to grow, and in order to do that we would need to spend money we did not necessarily have at our disposal. We ended up agreeing to not one, but five additional vinyl titles, and as I write this we are currently celebrating the release of the third album in that series. Two more are expected before summer, and I imagine by the time May arrives we will have planned out the rest of 2015.

Through all of this we have been learning on a day-to-day basis. There are books on running a label, but history has taught us that very few actually touch on the realities of trying to start a company willing to ship anywhere in the world from the comfort of your own, overpriced one bedroom apartment. So, with that in mind, I’ve been making it a point to take notes as we make progress. I don’t know if anything that I have learned will change anyone’s world, but hopefully the advice included below allows others with labels of their own to better enjoy the work they do.

If you started your label in hopes of becoming rich, you might as well pack up and go home now.

I understand first hand how time consuming running your own label can be, and I am also well aware of the essentially non-existent paycheck waiting for label owners at the end of their work day. I also know that if you got into music for money you’re a fool and there is no saving you. There is money in this business, but those who have access to it in any great amount have earned that position over time. The best labels today were the ones only a few hundred new about five or ten years ago, and if you ask the people who run them they will likely tell you they still have much they hope to accomplish. No amount of money will ever be enough to satiate your hunger for success, and no one is going to want to give their money to someone who seems obsessed with the bottom line. Like anything in life, if you want to really succeed at running a label you have to be doing so out of nothing more than a passion for the industry. Work with people you believe in, promote others ahead of yourself, and in time people will begin to follow your efforts.

I won’t go as far as to say there is no such thing as an overnight success in the world of indie labels, but such tales are few and extremely far between. Most labels end up with a few great releases, a few forgettable ones, and many that fall somewhere in the middle. They’re not good or bad necessarily, just not known or cared about enough to provide the kind of revenue-generating buzz needed to raise a label to the next level of notoriety. That kind of accomplishment is one only earned over time, after consumers have forged a bond with your brand and established some level of trust. If you’re not willing to work at building your empire up until that point, not to mention long after it, you might as well stop while you’re ahead.

No one is an island. Likewise, no label can thrive with only one person doing all the work.

Blame it on being an only child or simply being letdown by groups and collaborators numerous times throughout life, but I am very much an independent person. If I had things my way, I would be the boss of my own label, making only records I believed in, and I wouldn’t give two shits what anyone else thought of the talent on my roster. The reality of the situation, however, is that attempting such an undertaking would most likely only result in ruin.

I spent the most of the last year trying to run my label on my own, and if we’re being completely honest by December I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep the business operating for another year. I was burnt out, and even though people said they loved our products I would dread receiving a large batch of orders at once for fear I wouldn’t be able to package and ship them in time to satisfy consumer demands. Instead of seeking help right away, I tried to prove my own fears wrong and push forward, but ultimately I stressed myself out to the point of essentially shutting down. My lust for life was depleted and so was my interest in music.

What I learned from all this is simple: People need one another. Not just for comfort and conversation, but also for success in business and the ability to keep hopes high when the outlook seems grim. You may believe you know what is best for your label, and there may be times when you are right, but if you believe you can handle every aspect of running a small business on your own then you’re either a liar or someone who is about to lose all sense of freedom in order to become one with their new business venture.

Things changed for me when a friend, Sam, offered to help one day. He didn’t want money, though I am sure he would have appreciated any payment we could offer, he just wanted to know if he could help a friend he thought was doing something cool. I turned him down the first five or six times, but eventually I gave in and invited him over. That afternoon renewed my energy for the label, as it was the first time in many months I felt like someone else cared whether or not we continued on. I’m sure consumers would care, of course, but you don’t always get to speak to them. With Sam, I had a connection to the world outside of my own head, and it made me feel excited about life once again.

International shipping will always be a hassle. Suck it up and do the work.

When I first launched my label, I never imagined we would attract the attention of consumers from all over the world. As I mentioned in my last column however, I quickly realized that achieving those dreams comes with a lot of extra work you might not expect. For example, the paperwork that must be filled out for each and every international order you receive. These forms are required by USPS, and when you drop them off at the post office the person behind the counter will have to input the data from your form for EVERY SINGLE PACKAGE YOU HAVE TO SHIP. This means if there are twenty international orders, you will fill out twenty shipping forms, and the postal worker will input each of them into the computer while you’re still standing at the post office counter. This is a time consumer, patience draining hell, but it’s one that must be experienced in order to keep your customers happy. It’s very easy to receive overseas orders and place very little priority on getting them out because doing so is such a hassle, but don’t give in to that temptation! Overseas consumers are just as important as those here in the states, and you should do everything in your power to ensure they’re happy they spent money on your product.

Additionally, you need to learn about the costs associated with international shipping before you ever post a product for sale. A one-disc vinyl LP shipping to anywhere other than the United States will cost at least $12, if not more. This is a big cost to consumers, especially if the product in question is priced below $15, but it’s important you make sure these charges are in place before new products go live. Otherwise you’re going to eat all your profits trying to cover shipping to Australia.

No matter what, kill ‘em with kindness

Starting a business is, like any undertaking worth attempting, a learning process. You will not be perfect from the start, nor will you be perfect three years in. Mistakes happen, even for those running labels full time. What they understand that so many young business owners do not however, is that it is the way you react to mistakes that ultimately defines who you are as a brand. You cannot please everyone, but you can be nice to everyone and listen to their grievances. If an order is lost, ship another. If someone needs tracking information, use your stamps.com account and find it for them. No matter what the situation, aside from things that would be harmful to you or the company, do whatever you can to ensure the consumer has the best experience with your company possible. They are going to tell their friends about you either way, so you might as well make an effort to come across as hardworking people who sometimes mess up rather than egotistical assholes who talk down to their consumers.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.