What do labels do now, exactly?

Just a quick one today. We get a fair it of music coming through the letterbox at BlancoMusic, although to be thoroughly accurate, that letterbox tends to quite often be the electronic kind. Most of it somes to us from acts who either want to ‘sign’ to BlancoMusic, or who merely want to be signed to anyone. The tenacity and energy of acts who send out thousands of e-mails and presspacks is really something to be admired. I really mean that, possibly because we’re fairly new ourselves, and can still remember how demoralising and exhausting it is to send out those hundreds and thousands of letters, hoping that some small number of them will hit their mark and lead to that deal we were hoping for. For a label, that can mean anything from convincing an established act to collaborate with one of our own acts on a record, for example. It can also mean trying to organise reviews, or get an act on the lineup at a festival, or getting one of the better publishing companies to represent our work. Whatever level you are at in the music business, there’s always someone whose attention and goodwill you want to cultivate, more so now than ever. For an act, it can mean that instead of in the ‘old days’ when your music had to impress the a&r representative of an established record label, you now have to jump that particular hurdle a number of times. Traditional big labels arranged everything for their signees – publicity, promotion, distribution, publishing, retail, live shows and legal issues. Dealing with thousands of acts gave them an organisation that was self-contained and all-encompassing. A band could go from having a good demo tape, right through recording their albums, playing them live, having them used on movie soundtracks, splitting up, going solo, getting back together again twenty years later and doing a farewell tour without ever having to bring in an outside entity. From studio engineers to legal representation, it was all done in house, by organisations that had thousands of acts on their roster. Obviously, there were downsides. The downsides of major labels are pretty famous now, and it would take another post to detail them. Mainly though, it was that they were so large, so dedicated to the business of making money for the investors and shareholders who funded them, that music and musicians were forgotten, or turned into faceless product. That’s for another day.

If, however, your music interested a big label enough for them to sign your act, that was, as long as your contract was still live, about the only people you had to impress. Other than your fans.

The new music industry has all the same opportunities for acts to take advantage of. I rant on here quite often about the shortcomings of Music 2.0, mainly out of frustration with a business model that depends upon selling a product that is identical to its free competition. If there was a significant difference between a legal download and an illegal one, it would be a far less frustrating business. However, apart from the complication of illegal downloading, there are a lot of opportunities for artists, if they are incredibly intelligent and driven, to construct a more lucrative career out of their music than they would have managed in the traditional music industry. The old business did a lot of the administration and non-musical side of the business for an act, but they charged the act for those services. Now, those services are available on the open market, and an act can pick and choose which of them they need, and which are best suited to them. Need legal representation in a plagiarism case? Contract a lawyer yourself. Need physical distribution, studio time, a producer, album mastering, gigs? There are a thousand companies out there only too willing to do so for a fee. Everything that major labels ever offered is out there to be bought. Mainly from companies formed by ex-employees of major labels who have been made redundant in the last couple of years.

One of the issues is that a lot of these new companies charge quite a lot for services that they haven’t quite established yet. I know of a music licensing company who claim that they will try to place your music in advertisements or television/movie soundtracks, for which you will be paid a fee. This is a well-established part of the music business. Usually a licensing agency has to be quite convinced of the saleability of your music, and well-acquainted with your sound, so that they can place it more easily with a client. The agency I mentioned earlier doesn’t have such discernment – it will list your tracks in its database without even hearing them. Did I mention that they charge £4 each track? And that they get that money whether they place your music with a client or not? And that they really have no incentive to do anything with your music once they get the £4 per track? The sharks in the Music 2.0 pool may be smaller, but they can still bite. The same goes for PR companies, distributors, producers and just about every entity along the way to fame and artistic contentment. It can all be hired, but to get the job done properly, you really need to make the situation arise that your collaborator becomes just that. You need to find someone who has a vested interest in your music doing as well as it can possibly do. The big labels made more money the more records you sold. So did you. That, at least in most cases, made your success their success. It still exists in Music 2.0. For example, good PR agencies exist and will work on a commission basis. As will most of the rest of the service providers in the chain. Only now, the really annoying part, you have to impress each one of them with your music. Your distributor will need to be convinced that your music will sell, otherwise he’s left with a warehouse full of CDs. Your producer might take a percentage instead of an upfront fee, but he’ll need to be sure your music will sell too. The same goes for your lawyer, gig promoter, roadies and manager. That means sending out a lot of demos, and impressing a lot of people.

I’m going to stop here, because I’d like to spend a couple of the next posts on defining what exactly are the opportunities of Music 2.0 (don’t worry, there are lots), but mostly, what does a label do these days, and why are they still necessary?

Any comments, experiences or questions on this would be much appreciated, because it’s all a learning experience for us too.

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