OK, for one moment, I’m going to think about what record companies did well when they were functioning (very few people that I know who were ever signed to labels had this experience, but it’s what in an ideal world labels offered artists):
1. A Label Let an Artist be An Artist – those of you reading this who are trying to run your careers as booking agent, publicist, record label, distributor, web master, etc. will know that the most scarce commodity in the midst of all that isn’t money, it’s time. Money’s hard to come by too, but the reason for the lack of money is a lack of time to do things properly, not the other way round. And what’s the first thing that disappears in this new multi-tasking time-economy? Creativity time.
Why is that? Because it’s very difficult to be unfettered in your creativity but it’s pretty much vital if your music is to really mean anything. If you’ve just been designing posters, on the phone trying to book shows (usually targeting a particular kind of venue), and on MySpace dealing with add-requests, comments and feedback, sitting down with your instrument and trying to empty your mind of all that nonsense and JUST PLAY is damned near impossible. It takes time to create that kind of headspace, and it takes frustrating hours of working all the hackneyed tired cliched nonsense out of your system before the magic starts to flow. In terms of pure instrumental technique, if your music is in any way challenging, it may require a whole load of ‘maintenance’ before you’re in any position to really get ‘in the zone’.
A functioning label gives you time to do that. Just imagine if you even had a web administrator, how much extra time you’d have to practice? Imagine if someone else was dealing with your press, how much less you’d be thinking about labeling what you do, about niche marketing, about whatever – that’s the stuff that labels are supposed to do, while we’re busy creating genre-busting epoch-defining life-changing music.
2. They allow us to get our creative priorities straight – one thing I decided very early on in my career – and that I still say out loud to other people as often as I can just to remind myself of it – is that my number one aim in making a record is to make the record that I want to hear, that soundtracks the world as I see it. AND THEN – once it’s done – start thinking about the best way to market it. Music that sounds like it’s been dreamt up by marketeers is horrible. No-one wants to be listening to music that’s been decided on by a committee. Actually, that’s not strictly true – a heck of a lot of music that sounds like that sells a lot, but doesn’t really have that much significance in the lives of the people who buy it and then forget about it.
No, we should be making the music we love. That doesn’t mean that outside influence isn’t important – it can be vital to stop us from becoming completely self-indulgent, or lost in our own creative mire. What it means is that the influence has to be from people who know what we’re trying to do, people who’ve earned the right to critique it by understanding what the end result is trying to be. I get less of them now, but I used to get a lot of emails from bass players telling me that I should write more uptempo music, to which my response was usually ‘No, YOU should write more uptempo music, cos it’s you that wants to hear it!’ – the assumption that I’m some kind of music producing automaton trying to meet the listening requirements of a bunch of faceless bass-monkeys sat at their computers across the world critiquing what everyone else does is utter bollocks. With the best will in the world, I’m really not interested in the opinions of people who have no idea why I do what I do.
I have a very valuable ‘council of reference’ – a range of musicians, listeners, fans, friends and people who have proved that they ‘get’ what I do – not by being super-fans, but by demonstrating an understanding of where I’m coming from. Record Label people are very rarely qualified to understand that stuff – not always, but almost everyone I’ve ever met who had record company interference in their project has ended up being deeply unhappy with it. Even some records that I love are the product of undue RC influence, and I can only imagine how great the record would have been if the artist had been able to choose their own sounding boards.
Here’s one of the bits of the entertainment industry-end of the Record business that is most horrible and that we don’t distance ourself from enough – that a label’s job is to sign ‘raw talent’ and then manage the career of the artist, handing them a producer, band, designer, etc. etc. etc. and then paying them a pittance for the privilege.
What would be a far more useful and productive way to operate if we’re interested in letting musicians be the ones who make music would be to look for the music that is already there. If musicians and writers forged relationships with producers, arrangers and ideas people for creative reasons rather than having those people foisted on them by labels as a matter of expediency, labels could concentrate on finding great music that they have a hunch they know how to market, and producers could be shopping for work based on creative understanding…
3. Labels built a reputation based on quality within a field – are there any labels that you trust? Chances are if you’re into old school jazz, there are quite a few records on Prestige, Blue Note and Verve in your collection. If you’re into more modern progressive jazz, ECM and Nonsuch may feature more highly. For free music, Cryptogramaphone may be up there. For extreme metal see Earache and Metal Blade, neo prog see Magna Carta… Do all the artists on ECM sound the same? Not at all. There are actually a few different ‘ECM sounds’, but there’s definitely a feeling of quality, and as a listener you kinda know that some thought has gone into the stuff that gets signed. Labels at their best are enthusiasts as much as they are business people. Why? All the business planning in the world can’t pick our exciting music. Great music is great music is great music – finding it is step one, working out how to market it is step two. Get those two round the wrong way and you’re screwed. Any deal that gets a so-so artist and tries to drop them into a marketing formula is back to front.
The problem with all this in terms of discerning what’s important is that getting it very wrong can be very profitable. I’m not talking about what’s ‘successful’ on a business level here. I don’t think that’s what being an artist is about. It’s important, but it’s ancillary to the job of creating great music. A good label lets musicians make music. A good manager does the liason, and anyone worth their salt will delegate the stuff they can’t do. Most of my headaches in negotiating my way through the future-is-now new media revolution are from trying to keep my creative energy at the forefront of what I do. I’m deeply passionate about finding new ways to market what I do, to communicate, to monetize, to get the music out there, but the music has to be what it is, not an attempt to second-guess an imagined potential market. That’s bound to fail.
This imaginary great label all in an ideal world. It didn’t happen much before. It happens even less now. So why bother writing about it? Because all those things still need to happen – you still need time to make music, you still need to think about how to market it, you need to find your audience, you need to build credibility with the people who are spending money on what you do. All those things that good labels have built in, YOU STILL NEED THEM. They’re just harder to find.
What we need to do is to abstract them as principles for making art happen then making it available, then finding a way to pay the bills while we do it. That’s the three steps. I’ll try and address the questions more as we go on…by