As budgets have shrunk, record labels have become less willing to take risks on unproven acts and the early investment that might help a band gain their core fanbase is now less likely to come from a record company. This makes it appear more difficult for musicians to get their big break - and in many ways it is - but there were also downsides to the old system.
If you were a relatively new act signing to a major label particularly, you'd likely find that you were among a number of similar sounding acts signing at the same time. The general rule of thumb was to sign ten acts at a time, often fairly early in their development, on the assumption that one or two would probably be a success. The other eight, well, they'd be quietly dropped at a later date, having released very little (if anything) and with no foundation to continue to build their careers further.
More risk averse record labels mean that while artists are less likely to get that record label investment, they also have more opportunity to develop and establish themselves in their own right before launching themselves on the wider public.
However, of course, there are many other acts attempting to do the same thing, all jostling to pick up gigs and media coverage in order to build a strong early fanbase. Which is why a deal with a PR company, rather than a label, is now the first deal a band should look for.
The most important thing for any act to concentrate on is writing great songs they can perform well. This is the basis for everything that comes afterwards, but it still offers no guarantee of success. People need to know about these songs and this great band performing them. A band on their own can do a certain amount to bring this attention - simply playing gigs that are good will get you a certain amount of the way, but only to the stage where once you might have hoped to have attracted a label keen to take a gamble on a few acts to see what stuck.
To really build that fanbase of people who will hang on an artist’s every word, ahead of all the other artists vying for those same people's attention, a PR company can ensure that theirs is the music the public want to hear more of.
It's cheap and easy to record music and put it online now, but getting it out to people is a different matter. PR companies have established relationships with journalists, who will invariably ignore contact from individuals they don't know. And a good PR company will be able to put an artist’s music in front of key journalists they believe will be receptive, and most importantly, get them to write about it.
This is important for two reasons: first, it puts that music instantly in front of a much wider audience than an artist could hope for by simply sticking it online. Second, it means they are now a band being talked about. And not just talked about, but liked on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and played on SoundCloud - all of which are simple measures of success that A&Rs will monitor as the profile of a new artist grows.
Just because they aren't looking to sign a particular artist right now, doesn't mean that they aren't interested; A&Rs constantly monitor bands online who they think show promise, and social media stats are one of the key things they look for to gauge early success.
And it's not just about those A&Rs. Early coverage will help an artist get better and bigger gigs which will further build status and hopefully gain yet more media coverage, likes, follows and plays. This will also attract other industry figures, such as managers and booking agents, who will further help an artist to develop and establish their career.
A strong start such as this not only helps artists to get their foot in the door, but will give a much better opportunity for longevity once that career is more established. Come albums numbers two, three or maybe even more, the profile built in those early days can become a platform for the future.
Manchester-born David played in several bands before he was awarded a £5,000 Awards For All Lottery Grant in 1999 to set up a community-based record label and regular music night. He relocated to London a year later to build a career in music PR, working with The Big Chill Festival and Ninja Tune label, before launching the career of chart-topper Example.
Outpost Outsight Report is a series of articles David produces periodically, examining the music and media landscapes.