so who’s driving this cart, anyway?

Crosbie Fitch’s thoughts on what’s a label anyway:

What I think we’re seeing is a market inversion, that we’re currently bang smack in the midst of.

When this inversion is complete, instead of a label acting as an artist’s promotional agent maximising the sale of their music to their audience, we’ll have an audience’s discoveral agent maximising the discovery and commissioning of the music they like.

A label in this case will be just like 4AD, but instead of representing a common je ne sais quoi character of the signed bands, will represent a common undefinable taste of the represented audience members.

I don’t completely agree. Yes, listeners are getting more power to pull fresh media according to their own taste, and publishers are losing power to push media according to what they can monetize. As Umair Haque would put it, attention is becoming scarce at the expense of marketing. And yes, listener-driven distributors like shared playlist sites have an edge over creator-driven distributors like garageband.com.

But at the same time, distributors with a compelling voice are gaining ground. Good music bloggers speak with their taste, and they have a lot in common with specialized labels like Dischord. Per Greg:

Maybe it’s just my view from the extreme edges of the indie fringe, but to me a label is a vehicle for a particular real life community, aka a scene. The indie labels that have had real and long lasting artistic and commercial success, from SubPop and Touch and Go at the high end to Kill Rock Stars and Dischord at the low, have been built around groups of people who actually know and like each other. They play in each others’ bands, they tour together, etc. Even when the bands on the labels play different styles of music, there’s some kind of shared vocabulary there that creates a commonality.

It’s these kind of relationships that give labels meaning for fans, as well. If you’re into Fugazi, you know what it means to be on Dischord. In fact, you might buy a Q and Not U record, or some other release, simply because it’s on the label. How’s this for a definition of a label: a collection of artists under a common banner where, if you like one, you’re likely to like more. That’s why labels (in the sense of companies) had labels (in the sense of logos) in the first place: as differentiators for the customer to know something about a new record before getting to listen to it.

The structure of the attention network is not so much around automated attention agents acting for listeners. It’s more like representative democracy — listeners are delegating the selection process to trusted curators like MP3 bloggers, playlisters, and labels.