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The End Of Record Labels?

June 10th, 2009 | 26 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

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
  • sponsors
  • investors
  • 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. :)

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26 Comments so far ↓

  • Ben Denison

    Inspiring Stuff. I help out with http://www.alamomusic.co.uk, we currently call ourselves a fan funded indie “record label”, but I can see that title changing to reflect what we actually do.

    We released an entirely DIY album in a “Pay What You Want” format last week (Here: http://www.hopeandsocial.com), the response from the fans has been remarkable.

    This kind of thing is becoming more and more viable, and a new way is emerging.

  • Oliver

    Musicians can be their own best marketeers and whatever. They understand themselves as a brand. However, do musicians have the time and energy to do this? 1 hour spent being a musician should be time better spent than an hour trying to get hold of a journalist at the Times or following up on when a CD will be delivered.
    Recordings, live performance and the music are the three legs of a musician’s stool and they all have to function well and on their own terms. I think that to make recordings into an adjunct for live recordings alone may be wrong, in the same way that it was wrong in past decades for labels to think of tours as a means of selling albums.
    But it’s a long and ongoing thought process……

  • Chris West

    It’s quite likely that I’m going to be self releasing my band’s first full length later this year. I don’t really want to do it because the main skill I am missing is on the Press and PR side.

    As far as I can tell I can find services to do everything else apart from this. I can use TuneCore for digital distribution and I can write the music, fund it’s recording and CD pressing and I can use the social websites but getting it into on and off line press is something I’m not good at. Is there the equivolent of a Record Label that does this stuff? Places I can hire someone?

  • John Goldsby

    Very inspiring and useful information here. I especially think your suggestion to “save” for projects is important. As you point out, there are many levels of costs involved, and a savvy musician can decide where to cut costs, where to not cut costs and which work to outsource. Musicians need to have a business plan of some kind, or at least a business strategy to help any type of project take off.

  • Lee Pellington

    Steve, another great post, very inspirational.

    I love the idea of a musician/creatives based LETS scheme. The area I live in is trying the whole time banking thing, could be really good for local links. The possibilities of applying this model to music based work is v.exciting.

    I quite often exchange skills with other music makers; I’ve just done a full set up one of students basses for example and he’s offered to help me service the van (he happens to be a mechanic), I’ll just get the parts in. I like the idea of avoiding big traditional businesses where I can and this kid of thing fits in well.

    I think the idea of a label in this ecommerce, social media world as abit odd. Still not sure what a label can offer me as an independent musician.

    After all why would I pay some one else to do something I can do for myself?

  • Maury Giles

    Simple and sound principles that came out of the music industry experience but apply to life in general, don’t they. The summary points you make about saving up and building your own way apply to the bootstrapping concepts of entrepreneurship. Tools today allow it. Yet society tends to push the something for nothing. The truth will remain irrespective of our ability to act on it… Thanks for some great thoughts to start the day out with.

  • Luke

    Great post.

    When I think about the future of labels I can’t help but focus on formats. I envisage an MP3 majority of bands and indie labels who will seek the help of online consultants.

    But I also believe there will be a parallel minority of traditionalist analogue (vinyl-only) artists and labels who will use this alternative stance as a unique selling point.

  • Chris Bestwick

    Would your web-skills stretch to sorting out an “I Wholeheartedly Agree” button for the bottom of your blog posts, because I’d get a lot of use out of it, although for balance I suppose you’d need an “Utter Bilge” one for the few naysayers.. :)

    On a general point, I’d be interested to know if you think telling a story with social media tools is something that’s going to be infinitely scaleable as more and more people use them? I feel that a big part of your story is that you were one of the first to use these tools for this purpose and so have built up a certain momentum as a result (and as a result of being interesting and good, of course :)

    If we get to a point when most artists realise they don’t need record companies in the traditional sense, do you think it will still be possible for everyone to get their voices heard?

  • steve

    just got this tip-off from an old school friend of mine – Honey Ryder, raised £250,000 selling shares in the band. Some details are here – http://www.honeyryder.co.uk/about/

    Really interesting idea (didn’t David Bowie also float himself on the stock-market years ago?)

    Perhaps there’s mileage in thinking of actual fans as stake-holders, rather than as investors looking to make some cash. If the fans are willing to pay for great music, how do we allow them to get more for a greater investment?

  • Mikael Suomela

    This whole notion of musicians’ need to concentrate on the art and letting others do the rest of the business is worth a lot of thought. Many jazz musicians have been educators/publishers/speakers/wear-a-many-hats for many decades (Dave Liebman springs to mind). But it’s never been easy, to get even the small monies you had to work for it pretty hard.

    Division of labor has been the basic tenet of productivity from 19th century. With vinyl records you couldn’t own the production facilities even if you were a relatively known artist and the same goes for printing presses and so forth. So the division that existed then exists now, too – to some extent. You buy these services (still!) from organizations outside your company/band like labels have done for decades!

    So we are talking about record labels as marketing machines and venture capitalists who are in the business of selling copies of music. Steve and many others have written extensively on this, let’s just say that on the web copies of information happen instantaneously so copy business is becoming pretty hard to monetize. There is one advantage to getting signed though. Record company people have extensive social networks on the whole music industry (at least here in Finland) and usually they are pretty convincing salesmen.

    But the web does away with many marketing issues – if you let your music be available on the net. The music itself is the ad for the product and the thing you are actually marketing is…your band/you! And I don’t mean this in the egotistical sense. I mean in the way that now I can look at performances of – let’s say – Jeff Beck and be blown away by his music. Should he come to Finland I would be the first in line to get a ticket. He himself is obviously the perfect marketing for himself because I hear something that I truly like.

    By thinking of your band as a company which has also an economic dimension and a responsibility to keep itself afloat makes a big difference. We have all heard about the excesses of musicians past but when we see a great company we don’t usually associate that company as being fiscally irresponsible nor do we think them as being poor/broke.

    Think of Elvis Presley for a sec. If he had been even a bit more responsible in his fiscal matters he might have had 20 years (or more, Paul Anka from the same era is still doing gigs) more career. To me it seems that the only way to keep sanity with music as making a living is to think of music as firstly as a bloody great thing in itself and secondly as a chosen profession. Marketing is part of it, but not all. The labels made music as a profession easier for some in the past, but others found their careers stymied by ill-fitting marketing. If you are like a company responsible for your marketing then you can be very truthful about the product that you bring to the people. Hopefully that will mean longevity for your careers.

    Actually it seems that this is a longwinded way to say that the values of beauty, truth and being good are always extremely desirable in the minds of many a people regardless of how those values are being brought to life (records or other means). We just need to work on these things more so that we can make decent earnings as musicians. All professions have had their share of work that is not directly the art – bookkeeping, taking care of facilities and other maintenance activities. You take care of your instruments, right? At that moment you are not playing…

    Ok, I admit that being a business is a lot of study, too. Maybe that’s the hard part for musos. We think that because we practise the hell out of our instruments (or do we?) we don’t have time for anything else. But how about half an hour of basic business studies a day for how long it takes? Is that really horrible? It’s just practising…think about all the progressive rock groups today? They are pretty good at business, eh? And still playing music that is utterly meaningful for them.

  • Mark Wallace

    A year or so ago, the rural arts organisation I work for finished a three-year side project providing business training for rural artists across artforms. From musicians to glass-makers, everyone was trained and supported in marketing, accounting, legal – all the right stuff.

    Even in our isolated area, 174 artists took up the free offer. Some of the visual artists who applied it saw the price of their work double or triple over the three years. One or two musicians have gone on to study and are developing in interesting and successful ways.

    The vast majority of participants spoke positively of what they had learned. But overall, less than half reported any increase in sales as a result.

    It’s an interesting case study into whether artists will actually follow the new path. I think it says that even if relevant training is freely available, good, and comprehensive, applying it all solo might be too much for many artists. (and I’m talking about good, committed and experienced people currently making at least part of a living from their work.)

    I guess Darwin suggests one eventual solution – but your conclusion about cooperatives /collectives / skill-pooling feels important (and rather nicer) in this context.

  • Corey Mwamba

    Very interesting indeed. Good post.

    I totally agree with your statements about saving up for the things you want, and about sharing skills. Living half for oneself and half for others, as almost nobody says nowadays.

    For me, the bottom line is that being a musician is a job – a fine and rare thing in which I get to do what I love and get paid – and so I have to be “tooled up” for that job. That includes web-type stuff, earning money in other ways so I can buy things, making a connection with people and asking them to help me spread my art.

    Press, labels, et al. *might* help; but let’s face it, it’s not really a dark art. A lot of people in those areas just have favourites and cliques that they tend not to move out of. You might be on their list for a bit, as long as you do what they want or need.

    But when the time comes that those people have no use for you, the only people left to help you are you and the people who like you. If you rely on those last two things in the first place, you’ll have saved yourself a lot of bother.

  • Tim Chilcott

    I think if any label wants to survive they have to have the trust of the artists and the fans. Without either they will fail. The way to win the trust of both artists and fans is the same. Be honest, responsible, and trustworthy with the art that you are sharing.

  • Colie Brice

    I run a small indie label in Asbury Park, NJ.

    There’s nothing we do that an artists can’t do for themselves, but its nice to team up under the same banner and try to promote our collective scene together.

  • Colie Brice

    Thanks Steve, and you as well. We’re fortunate.. Asbury Park has quite a reputation for original music and quite a history, so it at least inspires a bit of interest from discerning music lovers. But yes.. Coming together at a community level or some other organizing principle that can help create some type of “brand” distinction to hopefully galavanize public interest and patronage.

  • steve

    Oliver,

    thanks for chiming in – much appreciated. I think the lack of energy stems from some mistaken idea that someone musicians ought to be allowed to just get on with playing, and leave the rest to someone else, and that the resultant costs and impossible career mean that the industry is somehow ‘unfair’.

    The imbalance between reality, concepts of sustainability, the actual costs involved in releasing a record (in terms of physical costs, infrastructure and person-time) and what musicians really spend their days doing, is the downfall of many a musician.

    I’m trying to imagine how much more you could do with Babel if all the bands saw themselves as being part of the promotional effort – you’ve released some of the finest jazz records ever to come out of the UK, and even the artists haven’t told me about them! I’ve had to discover them randomly via stumbling on them online, or hearing them played before gigs at the Vortex.

    If I was running a label, I wouldn’t let the musicians get away with that – get schooled in how to promote your own music, or stick to putting out live recordings for free…

  • Chris West

    Edit: I had meant my comment to imply that I would like a record label to release my music becuase they can do the press and pr stuff. That would be my reason for going with a label and why for me, they’re not quite dead yet.

  • steve

    Press feels like a really dark art. The people with the direct links often charge a heck of a lot of money for it (pluggers), but there are ways of getting press without it. The trick is building it up slowly.

    I’ve had friends who’ve spent lots of money on press and promo, only to get one radio session out of it that lead to nothing.

    I’ve never had any help with press or promo, and have managed to get press and radio play across the world.

    Maybe you could run a competition with students at a local media college (talk to the course leader – do some research online) to write a bio/press release – you go in, tell them what you do, answer questions, then they write it up. Winner gets you for a house concert :) Could be a whole lot of fun, and give you some killer video footage to boot.

  • Chris West

    The college thing is an interesting idea.

    Maybe the whole deal with press is if you’re worth writing about then you will be written about.

    I like the dark art description. It does feel like something that is just beyond my reach and that others know secrets that I don’t.

  • steve

    Thanks Maury,

    I’m really glad you brought that up. There is so much thinking in music that’s driven by a sense of entitlement, informed by the mythology of ‘rock ‘n’ roll’, and which is utterly detached from ‘business wisdom’ and just smart thinking about how we flourish as people.

  • steve

    Chris,

    thanks – I’m so glad you find this stuff useful. the ‘Share This’ button on each post is a good way to show gratitude 😉

    I think, when thinking about ‘what happens when the playing field is leveled’ we should look to genres that have always been ‘outside the mainstream’. The thrash metal scene of the 80s was built on tape-trading – hard-ware-napster :) Loads of bands were formed, gigged, were recorded and traded, but a handful were traded more, got talked about, got shared, and grew fairly organically… Some became Megastars – Metallica got a massive leg up from the tape trading world. There wasn’t really a mechanism for ‘hype’ beyond lots of people getting excited about them.

    They then moved up to the next level.

    Same goes for folk, jazz etc. etc. Each of them has ‘stars’ whose fame is bought off the back of massive expenditure, but also has those who are lauded for being great at what they do whose success is built over a longer period of sustained recognition.

    I also think that the kind of web tools we have for discovery, and the mechanisms we have for fan-promotion of the music they like are rudimentary at best, and that whole area will be developing over time…

    Good thoughts, sir!

  • steve

    Luke,

    I think the format thing is already a big part of marketing – I have a post that will go live tomorrow about what happens post-CD. Seems v. timely given today’s response :)

  • steve

    I think the abdication of the responsibility for those kind of decisions to a label is one of the biggest mistakes an artist can make, forgetting that it is, ultimately, their money that’s being spent.

    The wastefulness of labels drops exponentially with the size of the label, and I’m sure that a label like Babel (see the comment here from Oliver) would be far more conscientious in its spending than, say, Universal or V2, given that Oli is spending his own money, and recoupable or not, the investment is his own.

    In situations like that, it’s more a matter of working out what the important tasks are and how many of them we as artists are a) the best person for the job and b) capable of doing because the resultant costs of getting someone else in would make the project unsustainable.

  • Ben Denison

    Ha ha, yes, apparently Bowie technically invented the futures market … and look where that got us.

    Im not a musician, but im fascinated by the industry. I invested in a band 3 years ago (http://news.bbc.co.uk/…/4724650.stm), not just for the music, and certainly not for any ROI, but for the unique experience of being part of group of people trying to get their music out there in a new way on their own terms. Like the ones they sell in WH Smiths, with Alamo, I had the opportunity to buy into the ultimate experience package for me.

    I also felt the conditions were right back then to make a reasonable go of it, but i could never have imagined how technology would have progressed to make it as viable as it is today.

    Aside from the physical music, I think thats what musicians have always been selling. Experiences. A gig is a unique experience.

    Instead of thinking of your music as a product, I think musicians need to think music as conduit for the experiences they sell.

    You just need to think like a fan and be more creative with the experiences you sell. Instead of paying a label guy to organise your tour, let your fans do it. What an experience that is for a fan. Imagine being tour manager for your favourite band. What an experience.

    For the price of a 2 week holiday, 3 years later im still enjoying my ultimate experience, more than ever.

  • steve

    Mark, that’s definitely why I prefer the idea of skill swaps/time banks/LETS schemes/Co-operatives/Collectives. If utilised well, they can be greater than a sum of their parts. As larger entities, they have the innate gravitational pull that comes with size, as well as the option for one person who gets some success to give the others a leg-up.

    Win-win-win :)

  • steve

    Absolutely – the various ways that artists and people who want to support artists (and make businesses out of supplying the tools that artists need to get their music out there) are many and varied – the word ‘collective’ seems key to where we go from here. The idea of pooled resources and skills, to leveling the playing field a little in terms of who works for who… Thanks, and good luck with your endeavours!