With Major Label Deals Expiring, Will Beloved Alt Bands Go Indie Again?

In the mid-2000s, indie rock was booming, and major labels swooped in to sign many of the genre’s biggest acts. Two decades later, MGMT, The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse, among others, have emerged from those deals into a wildly different music industry. For artists who are coming out of long contracts, “it’s a whole new era,” says Kirk Harding, a longtime manager and co-owner of label and management company Bad Habit. 

Recording contracts changed drastically between 2004 and 2024. There is also a new set of players for artists to choose from — not just the major labels and prominent indies, but a number of distribution companies that offer some level of services. “You can cherry pick what you want to be in your contract to some degree,” says Scott Booker, the longtime manager of The Flaming Lips, which is currently without a label contract after fulfilling their deal with Warner Records. (Paramore is also a free agent.)

“If we end up signing,” Booker adds, “it’ll be a different kind of record deal than what we would have signed even a decade ago.” 


Throughout the 2000s and into the 2010s, the majority of major label acts signed low-royalty deals and typically gave up ownership of three to five albums for a long period (often forever). On top of that, many agreed to what are known as “360 deals,” in which the label also participates in income from merchandise, sponsorships, ticket sales and more. 

In those days, labels could get these kinds of terms because it was difficult, if not impossible, for artists to get national exposure without a record company’s help. Now, artists can build a global presence before partnering with any label. That means they have the negotiating power to ask for, and sometimes receive, terms that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. As a result, industry expectations around deal-making have shifted.  

“I don’t think I’ve done a deal with anybody in the last few years where the artist hasn’t had at least 50% of the profit,” Harding says. “The new wars to wage are making sure that the deals and the reversions are short term, so that the artist can get through the deal and get back these new recordings quickly.” (If a band licenses its album to a label for 10 years, for example, after that time, the album reverts back to the band, usually conditional on recoupment of the deal.)


All that said, an artist’s leverage in record deal negotiations stems in large part from their ability to generate streams. And this doesn’t always work out in favor of veteran rock bands; rock is the fifth most popular genre when ranked by percentage of current streams, according to Luminate. “There aren’t as many options as one would think right now given what’s going on with rock music and streaming,” says Jordan Kurland, who manages Death Cab for Cutie. 

Still, these acts have mostly proven that they can build and maintain an audience — especially on the road, a challenge for many artists who came of age in an era of passive streaming engagement. And some of them have a level of cultural cachet that’s attractive to labels, who always have to think about what will entice the next generation of signings. Friendly deal terms help, as does having artists on the roster that young acts look up to. 

Whenever an artist who signed a traditional contract with a major label completes the deal, their old record company typically still has one hook in them because they still likely own the act’s previous sound recordings. “If the label wants you to stay, they have the power to say, ‘We can adjust the royalty rate on your catalog,’ or in rare cases, take your recordings out of perpetuity and set reversions so you eventually get them back,” Harding says. 

“That always comes up now in renegotiations,” adds an executive at a prominent indie label. “Artists say, ‘Cool, we’ll re-sign with you, but we want those recordings back in 10 years.’”

This leverage is conditional, of course, on the label wanting to keep the band. In the case of The Flaming Lips, “after American Head, we started the conversation of, was Warner gonna sign us again?” Booker recalls. “Is Warner even interested? It really came back that they weren’t, to be honest.” 


Some veteran bands might still want to find a major label partner for particular services. While radio’s influence continues to diminish, promotion remains expensive, and the majors still have the most radio muscle. “Radio is still a big part of the Death Cab picture,” Kurland says. During “the last Death Cab campaign in ticket sales, for example, if you look at markets that no longer had an alternative radio station, it [negatively] impacted our shows.”

“Could you sell less records and keep more of the money?” Kurland asks. “Yes. But are there other aspects of your business that might suffer by doing that?”

Gandhar Savur, an entertainment attorney who represents Built to Spill and other bands, asks a similar question — but he’s more optimistic about the answer. “If they’re doing really good business as a band, they can sell less records but retain the lion’s share of income and make so much more money,” he says. “That’s why you’re seeing a lot of bands go into situations where they’re no longer doing major label deals or even your standard 50-50 indie deal. They’re looking for something that’s more akin to a label services deal — which is a distribution deal with some services added for publicity and promotion.” 

This is the route taken by The Decemberists, who previously released five albums on Capitol, including The King Is Dead, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. For its upcoming album, the band opted to sign with Thirty Tigers, which is distributed by Sony’s The Orchard and offers some services, including radio. 


“We found an option that provides label investment and infrastructure without compromising on ownership, and that gives the band and their team real autonomy with the marketing,” says Jason Colton, who manages the band, via email. “It’s a lot of responsibility for a larger release, but ultimately, it’s more investment, more control and outright ownership than we were going to find in a more traditional deal.”

Outside of the majors and major-owned distributors, indie label executives say they have also seen an uptick in interest from veterans leaving majors in recent years. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs signed a deal with Secretly Canadian in 2022 after years of working with Interscope, for example, while PJ Harvey released an album on Partisan in 2023 after a 20-plus-year affiliation with Island Records. MGMT’s new album Loss of Life came out in February through Mom + Pop.

Potential label partners have their own calculations to make. “It’s hard for any label if you only have the new record and someone else has all the catalog, because a new record always drives catalog listening, but you’re not participating in the income,” the indie label executive says. “But there’s always been a thing where labels need and want important artists, even if they’re expensive, to attract other artists.” 

“A lot of these bands are in a good position so they can get favorable terms,” the person continues. “Maybe they only do a one-record deal. The hope is we do a good job, the artist is happy, and we renew that contract. Over time, we work with them long term.”

Additional reporting by Melinda Newman.

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