Record labels haven’t gone away, you know
Why record labels will survive everything short of a Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event
When this blog kicked off in 2007, there was a line which many music business insiders and observers took regarding labels, both major and indie. As far as many sages and seers were concerned, the era of the labels was over. It was a hugely popular line as the seismic changes of the previous decade continued to reverberate. Sure, they’d grant an exemption for a few major-indies, but the day of the label as they knew it was well and truly over.
Who needed a group of people with the dedication, patience, expertise and largesse to develop raw talent when you’d all these new entities around to do just that without any of the old fussy nonsense of old? Everyone could get on with life and creating megastars and making a living from music without any interference from those gate-keepers and filters. It also applied to media, as far as I can recall. The record industry was over, the live industry was where it was at.
Over the years, I watched countless new entities rush into the space in an effort to take up the reins from the labels. They came, they strutted their stuff, they issued a press release, they got written about (well, the press release was copied and pasted) and they kind of faded from view. A few months later, another company popped up to take their place with more promises and further strangulation of the English language.
Me, I was never so sure that this would be how it would play out. I knew we’d miss what the labels were about if they were not around any longer to kick in the nuts, but I never thought that the end was nigh. Sure, you’d some who came acropper due to flirting with city-slicker bulls and bears or forays beyond their comfort zone. It was why you saw EMI’s many labels hived off to Warner Music or Universal Music.
But many labels continued in business, albeit slimmed down and with a reduced balance sheet. They had the assets to sweat and catalogues to pimp to weather these temporary storms. Meanwhile, smaller, more nimble, more music-focused labels shone like they’ve always done. New labels came onstream too. While many waited for the labels to shut up shop in the face of the sexiness of new technology and digital derring-do, the labels just kept doing what they’ve always done: developing acts, selling music and making some cash. The live industry was certainly never going to be the ones you’d call to develop acts.
It’s 2015 and labels are still around and they’re still not going anywhere. It was interesting to read a recent post from Bob Lefsetz alluding to this fact. Granted there are times when it seems that Lefsetz changes tack on something between breakfast and lunch depending on who he’s been talking to. But he made the point that the majors are only going to get stronger because they have honed the key relationships you need to develop acts and they now have the cash again to stay in business. Of course, this observation is not new. Anyone who has watched how majors have been going around snapping up new acts knows they’ve been back in the signing game with a vengeance for at least the last five years.
The other reason why the labels are still around is because they’re the ones with the permission slips. If you look at the various new music tech plays which have lasted the ins and outs of bootstrap camp, all of them have done so with the industry very much on side. The days of some hot shot trying it on with a new music venture without befriending the labels first are over.
It used to be the case that tech companies, fed up to the back teeth of talking to clueless label execs and getting nowhere, would simply run with their plans regardless and wait for the labels to catch up. Now, the labels are far more sussed in this regard – their corporate tie-in with Spotify is proof positive of that – and the execs who either ignored the new-school or sought to put obstacles in the way of the tech companies have left the pitch or have been given less onerous duties. The labels know the value of their catalogue and artists, but they also know they have to co-operate with third parties to exert that value.
Yes, it’s possible to work without a label. No queston about that. The internet allows you access to all the tools you could possibly need to record, produce, distribute and promote your music. It also gives a band a direct channel to their fans. You can get your music out without any need to knock on the door of a label. But, and people rarely remember this, this was always the way. You always had access to the tools you required, albeit more difficult to access without the ease the internet provides (you had to know who to ring to get the number of the best Czech pressing plant, for instance).
What labels did then and still do now is make that process easier. Musicians can get on with tapping the creative right-hand side of their brain and leave the admin and management and left-hand side of the brain stuff to someone else. It’s no surprise that one of the big rising areas in recent years is where companies like Kobalt provide acts with label services. Of course, these companies prefer to work with acts who already have established audiences. The only game in town if you’re new and keen and full of the conviction to take over the world remains the labels.
Theres’s a very good piece by David Drake about the effect of the major label machine on hip-hop’s culture and it’s well worth reading for some excellent musings about this interface. Drake cites Steve Albini’s recent conference address in Australia in the piece as well as looking at how acts like Mackelmore and Chance the Rapper have operated outside the major label machine. For many rappers, like many other musicians, the fabled, elusive, one-size-fits-all major label deal remains a dream-like economic exit strategy. “It’s probably no coincidence that rappers who come from nothing – like Keef, Bobby Shmurda, and Young Thug — end up roped into major label deals”, writes Drake. “Those are the only outlets gambling on poor artists who need start-up cash, even if it ends up feeling more like a Payday loan.”
The labels will always be around to offer the carrot of start-up cash, but acts with their heads screw on rather than in the clouds know that such cash always comes with terms and conditions. Just as you wouldn’t expect a venture capitalist to give your start-up a bunch of no-strings-attached cash, labels aren’t going to be flaithulach with their money unless they get something in return. It’s up to you to decide if you want to do that.
So, is this always going to be the way? Are record labels always going to be with us? To be honest, they probably are. If the economic sundering, disruption and destruction of the last decade has left the model more or less intact, there’s little else that can cause seismic deconstruction. There will be a new crew of execs taking over the controls and they know they operate in a changed world.
If record labels which used to be in clover on the back of huge record sales can survive and thrive at a time when those sales have more or less disappeared, it’s clear they’ve not only learned their lessons, but have put them into practice as well. Like we probably said back in 2007, they’re here to stay. They probably said the same thing about the dinosaurs back in the day, but nothing short of a similar extinction event is going to dislodge the labels.