One of the most interesting things about UnConvention this weekend was the chance to listen to some people from a number of record labels talk about what they do.
The thought that struck me from the discussion was that, while a lot of the work they do is still very much important and of value, the notion of ‘a label’ is stifling the reinvention of ‘companies that support the spread of music’ in the lives of musicians.
See, the term “label” suggests that there’s something physical to print a label on – that the biggest part of what they do is provide the funds and resources to record music in a studio and then release it in various containers, be they CD, vinyl, DVD or whatever…
Given that most of the steps in that process are now either
- doable at home, or
- doable for very cheap
having that as the focus of an operation seems facile, if not actively misleading about the nature of the world of music.
The same goes for the marketing support that they give. The knock-on effect of the broadening of the scope of (free to use) social media tools for connecting artists and audience means that any business plan that puts expensive big media conduits at the heart of a promotional strategy is a massive waste of money. They can now only really be seen as a smart investment as part of a much wider promo campaign, that is built around a social media core.
And of course, social media is MUCH more interesting if the artist is front and centre. As cool as it would be to have the guy driving the bus for your favourite band tweeting about his experience, it doesn’t really compare to the band themselves getting onto Twitter or Youtube and letting you in on what goes on when they aren’t in stage clothes punching the air and pretending to be important.
With those tools being used well, the artist can indeed build a big story around what they do, and then find ways to plug other non-web-based elements into that story-telling process. It gives whoever is doing the negotiating a lot more to play with when looking at conventional advertising, because it’s no longer ‘needed’, and can be used to point people to the web stuff so that the relationship can be deepened and the direct connection made between artist and audience.
So where do labels fit into this? If you need money to do this stuff, then there are loads of ways of making money:
- pre-sales/fund-raising gigs
- day jobs/side-lines
- bank loans…
…Record deals were never particularly good ways of borrowing money anyway. And if what you need is advice on how to do any of this stuff, there are:
- friends who know it
- web resources that teach you
- consultants who can come and help you with what you do
And they are all available for free or a day rate rather that down the wrong end of a contract.
So what’s the new model for formalising the relationships that make this stuff happen? I think we need to start looking at models for music collectives that offer mechanisms for skill-swapping. I’ve already raised the idea of a musicians’ LETS scheme, and being able to get that kind of relationship going would be really empowering. Good with photoshop but not so great with drum programming? Do a swap! Swaps like this remove unnecessary nonsense to do with publishing details when trying to do it via writing shares on future royalties, and mean that you get a record that sounds AND looks great.
If you’re going to pay for things, SAVE UP FOR THEM. It’s a bit of an old-timey cliche, but you’ll definitely value things more if you save up for them than if you borrow the money, act rashly and then worry about how to pay it back. Get a job, save up, blog about the process, write songs out of the place of journeying and struggle, and think hard about where every one of your hard-earned pounds or dollars or euros are going to end up.
The kind of relationship that artists used to have with labels when we had no other option is dead, but that doesn’t mean that organisations that support and facilitate musicians getting their music out and finding an audience for it are no longer needed. They just need to change – a lot – re-name themselves, and get creative. Over to you, Agencies-Formerly-Known-As-Record-Labels.by