Being independent is great. Everyone wants to be independent from little kids on tricycles to old people who shouldn’t be driving anymore. For an artist holding on to their independence can be as important as the art that they produce. Keeping your independence as an artist should be a priority; but at what cost?
When an artist wants to release her work, she usually needs help to do so. Most of the time that “help” is money. The trend in music right now is for artists to produce their own music and then license it exclusively to a distributor or a label rather than sell their masters outright. In theory (and hopefully in the long run) this enables the artist to release their work to the public while still maintaining some semblance of their independence. A means to an end and a slight hiccup to achieving true artistic independence.
Yet, a license agreement does not pay the same as a master recording agreement. The advances are not as big, the tour support is not as big, the mixing/mastering: not included. So the artist looks for help again. This time they may offer points (percentages) to music engineers, maybe borrow some money and promise a return based on their royalties; each time adding new hands deeper into their pockets.
In order for an artist to be truly independent, she MUST be patient. Try to get a license deal that only grants exclusivity for a short period of time. Even though it is only a license agreement, try to get up front advances to help you survive while you are finalizing the music that you are licensing. Use your friends and your resources to finish your work. Get that work pre-approved by the label/distributor before you enter into the agreement and make sure you document that fact in the agreement. Finally, be ready to wait.
If you have a good team behind you from management to PR to label to legal, the fact that you own your music will pay off. You will be able to earn money from your work while the label has exclusive control of the masters you licensed it, but the big pay day may be further down the road. The label that has the license to your masters should work its butt off to make sure that your music is out there and sells during the time that it has the license. This process takes time. If things go well, you will make money with the label during the license term and then capitalize from your work AND the label’s work when that exclusivity ends.
Independence is the goal but planning is the key.