I am a BIG believer in musicians taking the reigns and running their careers, but let me play devil's advocate for a minute. The idea of eschewing a label deal is very cool right now, and for some musicians, it is the right choice. BUT - the notion that all record labels are run by bumbling morons out to take your cash is wrong. The tools are out there for you to do the work that record labels do for yourself - but you have to be willing and able to do it. Do yourself a favor and consider things from all sides before you decide you don't belong at a label. Here are a few things labels can bring to the table:
Record Labels Know The Industry
Labels make mistakes all the time, especially big labels that have become unwieldy companies run by people very far away from the music. However, labels understand how album releases work. They know about pressing, manufacturing, distribution, promotion, royalties and everything else that goes into releasing a record. A surprising amount of work goes into giving a release a proper chance, and if it is your first rodeo, it is easy to squander a few opportunities along the way.
Now, sure, you can learn all of this stuff on the fly. You'll know better next time. But - a label can smooth out that learning curve for you in a big way.
Record Labels Have People Working for You
Releasing a record is a lot of work. Tons. Record labels have people dealing with the manufacturers and distributors for you, not to mention running your whole PR campaign. You CAN do this work yourself, of course, but you have to have the drive and the time to get it done. You simply will never have as much time to devote to, say, staying on top of the distribution channels as someone whose only job is to do just that. Even indie labels, where one person may do the job of five major label employees, are in the business of selling your record, period. Having all hands on deck is only a good thing when you're promoting your release.
Record Labels Have Connections
Labels have been doing this for longer than you (almost always). Their little black books are to be admired. They've got the direct numbers of a lot of people who can help make your album a success. Further, they get the best deals from PR companies, manufacturers and so on, because they order services and product in bulk. They can usually order things on credit as well - good luck with that when you are just getting started. You will build up your own network of contacts as you work on promoting your music, but some good music industry relationships from the start is a really helpful thing.
Record Labels Can Help You Pay The Bill
Chances are, record labels have more money than you, and that money is earmarked for manufacturing, distributing and promoting the music their artists make. This is different from you earmarking your Visa for record release costs. Even the brokest of indie labels - and there are some very broke indie labels - will share some of the financial burden of releasing a record with you. If you land a really swish record deal, why, you could even end up with flashy things like tour support. Record labels with deep pockets can spend more money on promoting your record than you could ever spend on it yourself. Throwing money at a record is not any guarantee of success, but having the option - and not taking on the entire burden yourself - is good.
Record Labels Let You Make Music
When you release your own music, you are essentially working as your own record label. Every day you spend trying to figure out why your meta tags aren't displaying on iTunes or updating your myriad social networking profiles is one day you are not working on your music. Having someone else handle the business side of things frees you up to work on the creative stuff.
Are record labels the answers for everyone? No way! The point here is that you owe it to yourself to understand that record labels DO provide a service in the music industry, and that for some musicians, a label deal makes sense. If your music career really takes off, you will need a team of people working with you to help you keep things ticking. Sometimes, that team is a label.
CAN you release your own music, on your own terms, and be wildly successful at it? YES. Absolutely. It's never been more possible. However, you will still need to be your own label. Just be willing to consider which option is right for you and your circumstances.