What’s the point of record labels?
Last week the TechCrunch website announced the death of the record label as we know it.
“Record labels are obsolete” they wrote. “They haven’t kept up as music evolved from selling CDs to streaming songs to promoting concert tickets and merchandise. Labels were meant to help artists generate albums, fame, and money. But now anyone can record themselves and no one “buys” music. So today that requires being a technology company, combining analytics with hyper-targeted advertising. And the old labels don’t have the engineering talent for it.
It just so happens that TechCrunch have such a company in mind - Google’s latest venture into the music industry; UnitedMasters. Put together with a $70million investment fund raised by former president of Interscope Records, Steve Stoute, UnitedMasters is claiming to be the final nail in the coffin of the old school label system. Their gimmick is relatively simple (and to be honest, far less innovative than the breathless coverage on TechCrunch suggests) – instead of owning an artist’s masters, UnitedMasters take a fee upfront to distribute music from artist direct to all the usual suspects (Apple/ Spotify/ Deezer/ Amazon etc), and then takes a cut of the revenue generated. None of this is in any way breaking new ground btw – digital distributor TuneCore has been offering musicians a near identical self-releasing service for over a decade.
BUT UnitedMasters big game changing innovation comes in its use of big data – something which Google most definitely have a handle on. The company seeks to mine as much data about an artists’ fanbase as possible, breaking down the who, when and where of their listening base, and then finding a variety of ways to market extra shit (merch/ tickets/ exclusives) to these fans. The model behind this comes from the world of gaming, where mega-fans will chuck huge money at the various downloadable content add-ons of a game – UnitedMasters seeks to use high end analytics to plug artists into these mega fans in the music world.
First, we should point out that, matching the awfullness of the UnitedMasters advert, the TechCrunch article is written by a terrible bastard. “Once artists see that they’re not much different from Nike and their songs are like commercials,” they write, blue sky thinking their little socks off, “they realize they need help getting listeners to convert, and turn their passion into a purchase.” So there we have it; the endeavours of the human soul reduced to a unit of commerce. What’s the difference between Strange Fruit and a limited edition set of Yeezy’s? Fuck all say TechCrunch! Modern life is excellent.
Still TechCrunch’s woeful brand-first arselicking aside, are UnitedMasters onto something? The fact that $70million has been raised to kick this project off suggests that there are more than enough investors believing that the company have got a fair chance to upend the industry –although the same types of people poured money into Myspace ten years back, so y’know, they’re kinda of wild with their cash.
But whether UnitedMasters is successful or not doesn’t change the fact that there is a growing narrative that record labels are over. Years of shonky deals and protracted court battles between artists and labels have resulted in the rise of a new wave of artists; stars such as Chance the Rapper and (supposedly) Stormzy who – to great media applause- have positioned themselves outside a label structure. Whether it’s Jammer posting rambling twitter rants about label devilery or adverts popping up in your facebook telling you how to make a fortune from going it alone in music, the zeitgeist seems to be that record labels are relics of a bygone era where sharky money men would extract maximum blood money from plucky young talents. And to be fair, there's a lot of mileage in this narrative.
Off the top of my head I can think of countless examples of record labels - and not just the majors, there have been countless indies who have taken the money and run: Silvertone with the Stone Roses, Relentless Records going bankrupt without paying out the royalties on Gotta Get Thru This, Trax Records screwing pretty everyone in Chicago, and a very well known UK House 'legend' having label practices so dodgy that tunes were written in celebration of escaping his clutches [all of this is very ALLEGEDLY obvs].
But even amongst all this chicanery there are and always have been legions of record labels staffed by people who have dedicated their life to a love of music, working insane hours, dealing with the maddest bloated ego monsters under the sun (and that’s just the managers) and occasionally, just occasionally bringing the gleaming joy of music into this otherwise dour trudge of an island. It's as easy to think of the good guys as it is to think of the villains (perhaps easier!). When UnitedMasters claim that a record label's job can be boiled down to data scraping, algorithms and flogging merch to suckers, they're hustling, pure and simple. I know from experience that the staff at labels such as XL, Heavenly, Domino, Fat Cat, R&S and so on(and the list is endless) have found themself doing everything from connecting singers with producers, to putting together tours, to designing amazing artwork, to editing tracks into their perfect form, to bailing out drug addled nutters from a night in the cells. UnitedMasters even admit that a label structure is a great help to progress in their own promo literature - dig through what they're offering and you see that any artists performing well will get offered all sorts of services; marketing help, A&R advice, video funding. If this sounds familiar it's because it is; it's everything a record label offers. Viewed from this angle the UnitedMasters model seems to be that unsigned bands pay them to upload music, and the ones that grind out the most success then get the chance to sign up to a deeper deal. To be honest this sounds lazy and unimaginative - whatever happened to spotting talent, believing in it and bringing it to fruition?
This culture of viewing stats as the only true arbiter of great art is leading us to a bad place. Look at the multiple identities, weirdo spelling, erratic release schedules and (most mportantly) sonic insanity of any of the golden age Chicago house producers, and then consider how unlikely it is that they would have had any kind of massive streaming data in the early days. Without the support of labels - often born from inside the scene - it's doubtful that they would have made it. The same applies to hip hop - it's hard to imagine hip hop's immense success without Def Jam, Profile or No Limit. Record labels - good labels - should act as a conduit, communicating an artists often erratic genius because they have a burning passion to share the artists music with the world. They should believe in music that no one else does, support talent and give it the space to reach full potential. They should also do all the bullshit parts of A great songwriter doesn't need to also be filling in metadata forms, writing PR and sorting out video shoots - they need to be writing songs. So despite some wild claims from the media (of whch TechCrunch's are only a small corner), and despite this attempt from Google to install their data hungry platform capitalist model into the music industry (whilst still maintaining a now almost laughable veneer of 'being good') - record labels are going to remain around as long as their are artists who want to make music and people who want to help them. And if a few of the cowboys go under along the way, well, all the better.