#HOWTO: Understanding Record Labels & SAMRO

16 May 2017 - 13:30
Written by Dominique Jacobs


As a musician or music producer, there are three routes one can take with your career: sign with a major label, sign with an independent label or be an independent (unsigned) artist.

While the recording industry continues to struggle against the seemingly perpetual decline of physical album sales as everything becomes digital, it can be difficult as an independent musician to determine the best path to take for long-term growth and success. The rise of digital media has made it child’s play to set up a website; and the power of social media & the internet has allowed for easy access to resources that can aid in creating, distributing and marketing your brand all at the click of a button.

Today, being an independent artist is more of a viable option than it was before. We’ve all heard the stories about artists leaving their record labels to pursue an independent music career. Case and point: Frank Ocean. It is estimated that he made a reported $1 million profit within the first week of his independent album, Blonde’s, release. Musicians like Frank Ocean have made the life of an independent artist seem glamourous but in actuality it’s a lot more work on your part.

The term ‘independent artist’ can be slightly ambiguous because it can refer to an artist who is signed to an independent record label or an unsigned artist. As an unsigned artist, like Chance the Rapper, one would hold no contract with a record label of any kind. This allows for 100% creative control over your brand & your sound; all revenue generated goes straight into your own pocket. It’s the ideal setup for an artist but without a label, there is a limitation to the opportunities that come your way & the influence because of there is a limit to the connections you have.

Being signed to a major record label comes with perks and advantages. There are only three music labels referred to as ‘major labels’: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. They are the parent companies or affiliates of "sublabels" – a label which forms part of a larger record label but operates under a different name. Under major labels and their sublabel, the funding you receive for production and marketing is much more substantial; they have a wider network of contacts allowing for a wider net of connections and dispersion of your brand. Also, being signed to a major label comes with its own sense of reputation and influence and so media markets may have more of an interest in you.

A few years ago the music industry could get away with signing artists who they could mould into what they thought listeners wanted but nowadays creativity and self-expression are the driving motives behind a musician’s sound. More and more, artists are sacrificing the benefits that come with major labels in exchange for more creative control.

An independent label or ‘indie label’ is a music label that is independent from a major music label but independent labels could also have a parent major label. An indie label will have a much smaller list of artists signed to them, allowing them to focus more time and effort on your brand. In many instances, artists (eg Beyonce’s Parkwood Entertainment or Locnville’s Contraband) form their own record label and produce music through that portal. Artists moving to smaller, independent labels is becoming ever more common.

According to Complex writer, Jeffery Sloan:  

“The indie route, more often than not, leads to a special experience in which people of different backgrounds and expertise can come together under one common purpose—to create music that is unique, powerful, and reaches an audience that is equally diverse. The indie option also allows the artist a kind of self-expression that is rarely possible working under a mega-label.”



As a music creator in South Africa, it is important to get familiar with the Southern African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO) who oversees the performing rights of music composers, authors and publishers – but you have to be a member in order to ensure you receive these benefits. The intention of SAMRO is to establish worth of music creators; safeguarding intellectual property; ensure that royalties are paid and to reinforce copyright laws. You qualify for SAMRO membership provided that your musical work has been commercially recorded or has been performed in public or has been broadcasted on television or radio. In return, a music creator gets paid royalties for the public use of their works.

South Africa forms part of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works which recognises the intellectual property and copyright of authors from the undersigned countries. In addition, copyright is protected by the Copyright Act (No. 98 of 1978) in the South African Constitution.

SAMRO’s website makes sure that your every question is answered and easy to find.

Follow the easy steps to becoming a SAMRO member: