What do labels do?

There is a loaded statement which comes into earshot within about thirty seconds of telling anyone that I run a record label. Those thirty seconds are usually spent doing a visual check of what I am wearing, followed by an eyebrow-raise when it turns out that I am not clad in unicorn fur and platinum-mounted unobtanium crystals. Thirty seconds is usually enough to generate a comment along the lines of ‘Well, you guys have had your day, haven’t you? There’s no need for record labels now that bands have the innernet.’ I call it  loaded statement, because it usually acts as the precursor to a series of following comments, many of them something like these: ‘I know what kind of music I like and exactly where to get it, I hear about it on blogs and download what I want from there’; ‘I’ve bought so many albums in my life that the music industry has made enough from me’; ‘I support artists by going to gigs, not by paying for guys like you to leech off their creativity’; ‘bands can exist perfectly well just from MySpace hits and gigs without having to sell records, and I’m supporting them by filesharing their music, as long as I spread the word’. Bah, forget it, I’,m not on here today to re-hash a pile of old arguments about the filesharing issue. Everyone’s got a pet statistic to quote on behalf of their own views about the issue, and it’s either destroying everything we hold dear, or it’s reinvigorating music in ways we are just too conservative to understand or exploit. Blah, blah, heard it all before. What I do want to address is something that I do get asked quite often – what do labels do?

See, the idea of a record label is an ill-understood one. Sometime in the 1950s it was probably the case that if you were a skiffle band and were offered a recording contract by a major recording company (I think they were called ‘houses’ back then), there was every chance that you would become famous. They would get you on a record, buy you some fancy clothes, put you on telly and make sure your music got into the jukeboxes and dancehalls of the era. Simpler times. They would also ask you to sign a contract pertaining to ‘publishing’, muttering some complicated jargon about sheet music sales, by which you’d  ensure that your hard work and creative efforts would bring nice chunks of money to your record company long after the point at which you’d grown too arthritic to pluck the strings of your guitar or thrust your pelvis in a suggestive manner. Actually, having signed away your publishing rights, the label would continue to benefit from your hard work for up to seventy years after your death. Which is nice. For them. Now, that model of record deal has been long exposed as exploitative and damaging. Musicians and their lawyers have been fighting for their rights since sometime in the 60s, when songwriters and performers began more often to be the same people. The industry has grown, mutated, evolved and transformed. Every act that is signed to a label, big or small, has a different set of understandings with the label over who shares which proportion of income, publishing, advances, etc. For the most flagrant wannabees – the ones who insist on making all their music available for free; who pepper their videos with bikini girls; who appear on tv talent shows, etc, these deals are as exploitative as anything from the 50s. For the big-selling acts like U2 or Coldplay, it would appear to be the record company that gets ripped off. Nevertheless, the fact is that most of the uninformed public still see the industry in Elvis-era terms, and cannot imagine how it could be that a record label can exist without its acts appearing in national charts.

Lady GaGa is number one in the UK album chart this week. Her album sold 45,025 units this week alone. Good luck to her. Now just think of how many albums that is, in a week. That’s a heck of a lot of people going out and spending money on music. Sure, it’s on an overhyped act that everyone will have forgotten in a year or two (I don’t feel she has the talent for a ‘Like a Prayer’-style re-invention, but time will tell), but surely for every album sold by GaGa, there’s another person out there who is willing to part with some cash for an album they feel more intimately connected with than this week’s most publicised offering. The question for a label is, what do we want to do to access them?

Clearly GaGa’s publicity is enormous, and expensive. She doesn’t come from a background of having played live gigs for years, building a fanbase, backing up her album with years of honing her craft and reach. She’s going for the faster route to fame and sales – the PR overload. There is an industry out there geared toward creating publicity for your product, whether that product be flavoured condoms or plastic pop acts. Convince someone (in this case a record label) to front the cash, and you can buy all the PR you need. If you’re lucky, and talented (she has talent, no doubt. It’s not musical, but it’s talent nonetheless) that exposure can lead to sales and recuperation. If you’re unlucky (or EMI) it can lead to a situation like OK! Go generating 8 million YouTube hits for their video, but less than 25,000 units sold. It’s clearly a rich label’s game if you want to do it quick. Hopefully, it’s avoidable, and the small investment – small return model favoured by independent labels like us is more sustainable. At least with a roster of acts, we can drum up some PR from more organic methods such as gigs, fanbase, interviews, etc. That said, even the smallest PR splash needs the professional approach now that music reviewers are hit with more bedroom-recorded music in a week than they used to receive in a year. How do they know what to listen to out of the massive amounts they are presented with every week? They rely on trusted sources – a publicist they got good music from before; a band whose last record was a hit; or an old favourite – a label whose roster they are already impressed with. Do labels still have a role in the music industry? More than ever.

Bah, enough bleating. Better post tomorrow about how newspapers choose the records they review. Interesting stuff. Here, have a listen to last week’s tune again:



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