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In order to be eligible for the charts, you have to be released by a record label. And yet, here’s Koopa — an unsigned band in the top 40 charts. How can these things both be true?

koopaYou may recall a story in the press not so long ago about an Essex band called Koopa, who had become the first ‘unsigned’ band to enter the top 40 charts in the UK. It was national news and as the BBC reported, “definitely one in the eye for the industry, but as Joe Murphy from the band points out – without any help, it was tough going.”

Some of that ‘without any help’ came from just down the road from me: Edgbaston brothers Lee and Matt Parsons run an online PR and distribution company called Ditto Music. In the Birmingham Post, Lee explained

“To get into the charts they had to launch on official websites – where the number of downloads are counted. But these don’t allow music from unsigned bands. So we let Koopa use our label to launch their single and they made it to no 31.”

And that’s where I became confused.

How could Koopa be an “unsigned band” that has a record in the charts, when that song was released on what seems in every respect to be a record label?

It started bugging me. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I thought of deals that ‘unsigned bands’ were doing all over the internet with organisations that would promote and distribute their music. MySpace, for instance. Or Garageband. How is that NOT a record label?

I decided to ask Lee himself.

Hi,

Obviously, I’m hearing a lot about you guys these days, particularly the way in which you helped get ‘unsigned act’ Koopa into the charts.

It’s great PR for what you do, and you should be congratulated accordingly. But perhaps you can help me with one thing that’s bothering me…

[From the Ditto website:] “…we (uniquely) release unsigned artists’ material under our own labels and distirbute them through our networks.”

What makes you think you’re not a record label?

Look forward to hearing from you.

Cheers,

Dubber

Hi Andrew

We are a registered record label. We operate as an umbrella company for artists without labels by letting them release on one of our many registered labels.

Obviously there are a great deal of differences between us and a normal “record label.” We provide many services including PR, manufacturing etc.

So we would clearly not want to limit ourselves to being called a “record label”

Best

Lee

Lee,

Thanks for that.

You’re right — and I do get the difference. My point is about the hype about Koopa being an “unsigned act in the charts”, which is new, interesting and important — but not at all about them being unsigned.

Obviously, they are signed. To a company that releases, promotes and distributes music. Not JUST a record label — but a record label all the same.

In other words, if an unsigned band makes an agreement with your company and you use your professional services to promote and distribute their music, then they stop being an unsigned band. Surely.

You may not think of what you do in terms of a traditional A&R model of record labels, but if your services include marketing, PR, manufacturing, aggregation, and online distribution, then you do pretty much exactly what a record company does these days.

To put it another way, you’re helping me make a point with my students about how the nature of the industry has changed. The word ‘unsigned’ is now essentially meaningless (and still vaguely derogatory). ‘Independent artist’ would be my pick for a replacement term.

Dubber

The point in our service is that sites like iTunes etc will not take content from unsigned artists.

Koopa paid for us to distribute their record under one of our labels. That was the only way they could qualify for the charts.

They still to this date have no record deal and are still by their own definition an unsigned artist.

There is still obviously a vast difference between an artist signing up with us and having a contract with someone like Sony.

Lee

Lee,

OK – you’ve found the bit I don’t get. Let me paraphrase you.

1) iTunes won’t take unsigned bands.
2) Koopa wanted to get on iTunes
3) We signed Koopa to our record label to get around point 1
4) iTunes accepted Koopa’s music

but then you say:

5) Koopa don’t have a record label and remain unsigned.

I’m sorry, but what? There are more than 4 record labels (Sony/BMG, EMI, Universal and Warners). You run one yourself.

When they say they are “unsigned”, do you mean they consider themselves unsigned until they have a deal with a major? Because you might want to let them know about the other 3,000-odd labels in the UK, and the fact they already have a deal with one of them.

Do you see what I’m getting at?

Koopa has a record label. Therefore they’re not an unsigned band, despite what their own definition might say. You might also want to let them know how much better off they are without the major label deal.

To clarify:

Being a ‘label’ is really a technicality that Catco need to register a song for release. It has to be attached to a PPL label member for the sake of airplay royalties.

You can’t register a song without using Catco and you can’t get a Catco login and the necessary codes to use without being a PPL label member.

It does seem that there’s an oxymoron in saying the ‘first unsigned band in the charts’ seeing as technically you have to be released through a label to chart.

In fact, Koopa have a non-exclusive distribution agreement with us, we do not hold any rights to their songs. They did not ‘sign’ over the rights to their songs in return for releasing and commercial vantage.

We do not even have a contract with the group so the point that they are “signed to us” is irrelevant.

Lee

Lee,

Thanks — I see what you’re getting at now: It’s about who owns the rights.

This important fact wasn’t entirely clear until just now. My apologies for persisting with this, but I think we’ve just revealed something crucial. The message of the Koopa success story is NOT that you can be an unsigned band and get into the charts. It’s that you can have commercial — even chart — success and still own all of the rights to your recordings.

You were, in every respect, acting as their record label. But while it might seem mundane and just part of everyday activity for you, you were doing it in a genuinely new way, and one that has important repercussions for the music business, far beyond that which was reported in the mainstream press.

That’s the important moral here and the lightswitch that needs to go on for all of the other ‘unsigned’ bands looking for the opportunity to sign away control over their livelihoods.

Record labels are still important and perform crucial manufacturing, distribution and marketing roles — but that need not necessarily come at the cost of outright ownership of intellectual property, especially in the new media environment.

Cheers,

Dubber