Everything You Need To Know About Running A Label

Everything You Need To Know About Running A Label

As far as vital roles in the game go, running a label is right up there with promoter: you are providing a platform for artists and promoting them to the world. It’s your role to discover, nurture and develop the most exciting talent possible and help maintain innovation, development and progress across the scene.

It’s also one of the hardest roles in the game, too. It’s estimated that around 30,000 new electronic releases hit the download stores every week, so to even get a chance of being heard above the rabble you need to plan way ahead, understand the challenges and common mistakes new labels make and run your ship as tightly as possible.

When done right a label can go down in drum & bass history as a brand that set an agenda, carved a sound, challenged the norm and turned hopeful talents into household names. And there’s no better time to be doing this than now: More new imprints are popping up by the month and broadening the sound’s horizons more than they have in the last 10 years, each one helping to create a creatively exciting scene that’s full of fresh ideas.

But as more labels emerge, it’s even more important to understand the wider picture, pay attention to every single detail, make sure every possible box is ticked to get maximum exposure and really have an impact on the dancefloor. One company who understands this wider picture and the small details more than others is Cygnus Music. They work with over 900 labels, distributing them to all the necessary stores and platforms, offering PR, label artwork, publishing… They even have the one and only Break as their in-house mastering engineer!

With roots as artists and labels owners themselves, Cygnus have steadily developed a strong stamp on the scene as a go-to resource for many respected labels in drum & bass including Function Records, AudioPorn, Trendkill, Charge Recordings, Cause4Concern, Low Down Deep, Horizons Music, & SUN&BASS Recordings. 

Diligently developing and pushing labels and artists of all levels and subgenres, they’ve become a driving force behind the scenes in drum & bass and, as such, are the perfect fit as sponsors of this year’s Drum&BassArena Awards. They have stacks of advice and insight to offer label owners of all levels so we tapped Cygnus co-director Dan Robertson (AKA Callide) up to share advice with you.

If you’ve ever dreamt of developing a label that can go down in drum & bass history, set an agenda, carve a sound, challenge the norm and turn hopeful talents into household names, this advice from Cygnus co-director Dan Robertson (AKA Callide) is a worthwhile read…

Establish your brand identity from the very beginning

Without a doubt, having strong brand identity is right up there with the quality of music. For example; Serum & Benny V’s recently launched Souped Up Records.  This is really on point. Consistent and recognisable artwork and a really cool theme which has many branding opportunities to explore. It’s something you need to think about right in the early stages of your label planning: visual identity is critical. A new label should create their own branding guidelines to work from, outlining the colour schemes, font types and format that their brand is going to be use. There’s heaps of advice online about how to go about creating guidelines for your business, and if you do this well, it will set you up nicely for many years to come. My favourite example of this Eatbrain. We have been sending out their promos for almost four years and you can clearly see the strength of their brand by their incredible and unique hand drawn cover artworks for each release and their instantly recognisable logo.

Get involved

Something we can’t encourage enough is to completely immerse yourself in the scene you’re in, and make as many connections as you can with other labels and artists. Often, labels will aspire to be like one of their favourite labels, or at least take a lot of inspiration from what a more established label is doing. It can be good to analyse their marketing and business practices; how often they are releasing, where do they focus their PR efforts and when do they make announcements about new releases and label activities.


Don’t rush

One key mistake we see is when a label rushes the release of a big project or album. An artist has spent hours crafting an amazing release, high quality masters have been paid for, cover artwork and promotional artwork all designed, videos and online content are ready, premiers lined up. But when we ask for the planned release date, you find out the label wants it out yesterday! Rushing a release to get it out because everyone is so hyped to see it released can be of huge detriment to all the hard work that has gone in due to an effective marketing plan being bypassed. There’s so much to consider when promoting a big release and a lot of it can take time to organise and arrange, from launch parties to news pieces, features, premiers, interviews and reviews; the list goes on.


Make the right message at the right time

Something else we see a lot in the music scene is the constant recycle of posts and content online. Some labels and artists are posting the same thing day after day which can produce the opposite reaction from what they are actually after. Often less is more and this approach can be much more effective in achieving the levels of engagement that they are after. I would also recommend that labels learn about when the best time to post is. There’s heaps of advice online, for example one study found that you get a 32% higher engagement on Facebook by posting at either 9am, 1pm or 3pm on a Saturday & Sunday. On Twitter the best times are different to these and we haven’t even mentioned about factoring in other country’s time zones.

Get formal

On the legal side of things, a common mistake is to release music based on just a spoken agreement with the artist. While this can go fine much of the time, it’s not uncommon for artists to have opportunities come up later to release the same music elsewhere, want to use a track for another project or simply want a track taken down from stores. Without a proper contract in place the label doesn’t own the rights to the music, so it can definitely cause problems further down the line.

Having artist agreements in place for all the music signed means there can be no confusion about when artist statements will be provided, and will also protect both the label and artists from any unforeseen eventualities that could otherwise cause a release to be pulled. Invest in your artists and make sure it’s a pleasure for them to release on your label. Pay them on time and account with complete transparency as other labels they have worked with may not have done it and there is nothing more frustrating as an artist.

Make sure you have the right release schedule

In today’s music environment quantity can be just as important as quality. For labels that can manage it, we recommend a schedule of at least one release a month. Last year I had a meeting with a label manager who runs three labels through Cygnus to explore ways to raise the profile of one of their labels even further. We agreed that with the amount and quality of music they were receiving they could increase their release schedule from once every 6-8 weeks, to every 4-5 weeks. After much planning they presented a 12-month release schedule, all signed and ready to go. We’re now 8 months into this new schedule and their revenue has shot up exponentially by over 150% per quarter. When we looked closer at the sales and statistics we found that previous releases from the label’s catalogue held their chart positions longer, too. On top of that, more artists on the label meant increased exposure, and a focus on Spotify playlisting resulted in a leap in streaming revenue. The label was now at the forefront of store feature priorities and earning much more revenue simply by increasing their output slightly.


Set your sights on Spotify

For the first time ever this year, a report showed that Spotify now officially has more UK listeners than Radio 1, demonstrating a big switch of listeners going out to discover music online. In fact the platform now generates more revenue for our labels than any other digital service provider and we encourage our clients to put as much focus on Spotify as possible.

While the platform is all artist led, it’s important that labels work with their artists to ensure that they are all verified, regularly creating playlists and getting the most from the platform. Spotify is all about momentum. It’s bringing in heaps of new revenue for the music industry and it’s primarily down to the fact you get repeated revenue. With a digital download someone pays for one download and that’s the entire purchase, whereas Spotify users favourite, share and playlist the music they like which means each time it’s played a monetary contribution is made. We have many clients whose revenue is going up consistently every month because more people are discovering their music, sharing it and revisiting it, and this is very much the case for tunes that came out many years ago where the digital downloads have past their peak. We’ve found that labels that start adding Spotify links to their store link posts can increase their revenue by around 20% within the space of just 6 months.

A recent example is a dubstep label that was bringing in around £3.5k per quarter. We created an advice PDF on how best to pitch to prolific playlist curators on Spotify, and mailed it out to all clients. This label took it all in and spent quite a lot of time finding relevant playlists, reaching out to their curators (which isn’t always an easy task) and starting to converse with them. After a number of successful placements, the labels revenue shot up to £13k per quarter six months later. That’s an increase of 371% and the label hasn’t dropped below it since. It really highlights how investing time into Spotify can build consistent growth and momentum for a label. DJs will continue to download tunes on the stores, but you can grow a huge audience of listeners out there too, and it’s wide open!


And Shazam…

For a label, Shazam is a really powerful tool and is even used as a benchmark by major tastemasters to measure releases potential success before they even come out. As an example, one of our clients requested that their release was delivered to Shazam in advance of a Beats 1 premier later that night. We were able to do this in a matter of minutes and the release picked up thousands of Shazams after it was played on the show. The next day the label took this data to a Spotify playlist curator who gladly gave the release a feature spot, and the label and artists did very well from it. From an artist point of view, Shazam can really help you connect with your fans and once an artist is verified they can unlock a whole world of statistics and data, giving a massive insight into reach and popularity.

Think about how music is consumed by DJs too…

It’s worth acknowledging the current shift in the way some DJs are now consuming music. Whilst digital downloads are still performing well, there’s a new part of the scene using DJ locker services. Essentially, this is hiring a digital cloud based locker for a monthly subscription and having access to all the latest releases capped at their locker size. Pulselocker is the most popular example, allows for offline files and is used with Serato. Their revenue is increasing month by month as more DJs use it as a digital record box for performances. The music consumer will always dictate where the industry goes with the technology available, and services like this can all contribute to a label’s momentum.

Make money from mixes

Something happening right now that will really be of benefit to labels, artists and fans is the way DJ mixes are handled in the industry. Traditionally, if the person uploading the content doesn’t have full consent from every copyright holder for every tune in their mix, sites like YouTube and now SoundCloud will allow the copyright holder to pull the entire mix. However,

MixCloud, who operate as a radio station, can keep content up as they pay PRS royalties for all tracks identified in a mix. Mixcloud are also making changes soon to add a subscription tier to their service too, adding premium content as part of their existing platform. Similarly, a new service called Mixbank allows DJs to upload full DJ mixes to go on Spotify & Apple Music. Mixbank works by scanning DJ mixes with a content ID system to identify the tracks, and then notifies the corresponding rightsholders when their tracks are used. This allows the rightsholder to consent to the mix being published and earn royalties from plays of that mix. This will create a new income stream for labels and means music fans will have access to even more of their favourite artists and labels music!


Understand your revenue streams

In today’s digital age there are many different ways that artists and labels earn money. Some of them are obvious ones like download sales and gigs however there are a number of other income streams which can often get missed.

Publishing revenue: This is mainly comprised of performance royalties, mechanicals and sync license fees. Performance royalties are earned whenever your music is performed publicly. That could be playing a live gig or being played on radio for instance. Mechanicals are earned when your music is reproduced, such as a CD, download or stream. Sync license fees are earned when your music is licensed to feature alongside visual content, such as games or tv programmes. Writers can either sign the with their local PRO and register their own content or sign with a publisher who can do this for them. Often labels can be the publisher as well, as this gives the label full rights to be able to exploit the music to its fullest extent.

Neighbouring rights royalties: These are earned in a similar way to publishing but these are paid on the usage of the master copyright rather than the publishing copyright. Both labels and artists can earn royalties from this whenever their music is performed publicly. Whenever a royalty is accrued it is split between the label and artist. You can either sign up with your local organisation such as PPL, or speak with a company such as ours who can handle this for you.

YouTube can also earn you money: not just from the plays on your own channel, but also for any other instances of your music being used. A label’s music will be delivered to YouTube for the purpose of creating a ‘fingerprint’ of the track so that it can scan for any other usages of this and claim that works as the labels. Adverts can then be placed on the video generating money for every play.

Consider working with Cygnus…

There are heaps of distribution platforms out there and on paper they all offer very similar things. A distributor’s role is essentially to deliver a labels content to stores and account the royalties back to the label. At Cygnus, our unique selling point is our excellent customer service and our in-depth knowledge and experience in the digital side of the music industry.

Having a phone number where customers can call us anytime within offices hours allows us to really connect with our client base. We can address any issues immediately and have discussions with clients, brainstorming initiatives or just having a catch up. We’re home to around 900 independent dance and electronic record labels, and in a lot of cases we may not have had a great deal of direct contact with them. Some labels just like to use our in-house label management system to schedule their releases, get daily sales updates, buy services, view YouTube analytics or use the accounting facilities. Our online system provides all they really need from us to run their business. However, a significant number of our clients like a much more personal relationship with us, and that’s where we really come into our own. We encourage regular catch-ups and like to input ideas to help them increase their exposure and revenue. We’re also very proactive with new initiatives and have some fantastic relationships with key stores such as Beatport, JunoDownload, Spotify & YouTube resulting in loads of featured content for our labels.

Most importantly; we don’t just take on any one. We have an application process where we ask every label starting with us to outline their plans for promotion and marketing, and provide us with examples of their forthcoming music. From this we’re able to quickly gauge how well prepared the label is. We also check over all the audio we are sent and carefully review the metadata to ensure each product is up to scratch and there aren’t any mistakes in the data, or audio problems that have gone unnoticed. This approach brings so much value to the company but also hugely benefits our clients and what can be achieved with their content. Making sure the content we deliver to stores is never substandard yields a much stronger relationship between us and the stores. The trust that stores can put in us to deliver really good products creates knock-on effects that benefit our labels; more featured content, increased promotional opportunities and faster response times when updates are made.

What speaks volumes and something we’re very proud of are the testimonials from artists we’ve worked with…

Lynx: “Cygnus excel in the personal touch. They are always there on phone or email to discuss ideas or any problems a label may have.”


Macky Gee: “Cygnus are really easy to deal with & very helpful with the services they provide with a very quick, careful turn around. Highly recommend. Big up Cygnus!”


Shimon: “ I’m really happy with the way the team personalise their service to AudioPorn and look forward to a long lasting working relationship with them!”


Optiv: “I have been working with Cygnus Music for some time now and the service they provide is the best I have experienced.”


Hatcha: “An absolute pleasure to have them in my corner. 100% professional people, a big thanks for what you are doing with my label. I’m chuffed to say the least”


Junodownload: “Cygnus Music are always working hard to be sure that their labels get the maximum support and exposure for their releases. Their label roster features some of the most exciting brands in dance music today and it grows stronger every month; this is testament to the service they are offering.”

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Drum&BassArena Editor: Dave Jenkins has documented beats for over 15 years working with the likes of UKF, Mixmag, DJ Mag, iDJ, Bandcamp, Resident Advisor, Radio 1 Xtra and many more.