how is an artist services company different than a record label? (#5)

Derek Sivers’ (of CD Baby) response to Peter Wells and Gurdonark:

Artist services are the opposite of a label

The key point is who’s in control.

A label owns the music and in a way, the musician. When an artist signs to a label, the label is in control.

(Too many horror stories of a label making Billy Squier wear a pink Flashdance suit and learn to dance for a video, or labels making their artists do a Christmas album.)

What I love about artist services is that the musician is in complete control.

The artist knows best. We’re just the tool.

I set up CD Baby just to help my musician friends doing whatever they needed help doing. The benefits of aggregation is that we can help them do things much cheaper and easier than doing it themselves, because we can build a system to do it for many people at once. (Negotiating distribution deals, sending files to iTunes, making artist websites, etc.)

As for arbiters of taste, I prefer the separation of duties :

Let editorial outlets like people’s blogs, WebJay playlists, or webradio (SomaFM) be the arbiters of taste, helping to call your attention to what they think is great.

Let the distributor be unbiased : getting all of their clients’ music to all outlets equally.

Then the promoters can be either paid up-front for their work, or agree to gamble and take a back-end reward, but not confusing paid-promotion with objective tastemakers, and not confusing promotion with distribution.

15 thoughts on “how is an artist services company different than a record label? (#5)

  1. It’d be interesting to map out the history of the “recorded music business” against recording artist needs.

    Early on, there’s especially a need to access scarce technological resources (the means to record and manufacture physical discs). Then, later, there is especially a need to access scarce distribution channels (be part of a popular record label and/or genre outlet).

    These days, the needs look more and more like “commodity” services, e.g., it’s about as hard to find a way to meet my need for a bookkeeper as it is to find a way to have my CD manufactured and sold (thanks to CD Baby for the latter!).

    However, there are some cultural factors that come into play, as well. IMHO, being a successful musician means having a successful business–and many talented musicians don’t think that way or otherwise don’t have the business skills.

    So, the “label” model has a function in that it provides a “business” for musicians who aren’t into or otherwise ready to create their own business. A lot of the “label” business models out there involve preying on musicians’ lack of business savvy.

    There are also cultural reasons why people think in terms of genres and gravitate towards “trusted” marketing channels, aka the so-called “taste makers.” Both fans and musicians look for social confirmation that their tastes are “good.”

    Again, the “label” model has a function in terms offering social confirmation. And again, their business more or less preys on the fact that, to some degree, they can manufacture this, e.g., they can promote an artist as being “good” so much that a lot of people really believe it and it even changes the definition of “good.” (I saw a commercial on TV yesterday about how the Eagles were the greatest American band of all time. . .)

  2. It didn’t quite sit right with me when I wrote (above): “being a successful musician means having a successful business.”

    What I meant was more like: being a successful musician means having successful interactions with listeners. To the degree that any of the interactions cross into the realm of business, the musician needs to create (or work for, or buy into) a “successful business.”

  3. Terminology: I’ve been saying taste-maker and every else has been putting that in quotes because I guess that’s a non-PC term confused with corporate ram-crap-down-your throat. Fine, pretend like all along I’ve been saying “taste-sharer.” I don’t need someone to tell me what is good or what I like, I just need someone to find exciting music I am likely to like.

    Again, keeping my romantic, if un-visionary, hat on for a little longer: my ideal situation looks like what my childhood experiences were when a radio DJ’s shift was a *show*, authored by the DJ and reflecting their personalities (and ingested chemicals). They had fan followings for inventive sets with musical themes and soul.

    Everybody appreciates all the good work you folks have done in enabling artists to simplify a boring part of their day and therefore indirectly cultivate their art. But I could make an argument that open music won’t have it’s break out moment through these massive online catalogs. They will break through taste sharers at which point the only services necessary for the artist are paypal and a remote host. Who is cultivating the taste-sharer? Who is enabling the next Ahmet Ertegün? (I’m aware of the many attempts at podcasting-enabling sites and I suspect many of them fell down for all the typical dot-bomb reasons).

    I don’t want to put anybody on the defensive but I challenge the idea that you really see it as someone else’s job to serve as bridge between consumer and warehouse. CD Baby has ‘editor pick’ and ‘music for your mood’ ‘flavor of the month’ etc. I don’t know of an artist, upon seeing that, who would assume you are truly unbiased and uninterested in their ultimate success.

    paypal is unbiased. is unbiased. you guys want a hit.

  4. Victor said: “I could make an argument that open music won’t have it’s break out moment through these massive online catalogs. They will break through taste sharers at which point the only services necessary for the artist are paypal and a remote host. Who is cultivating the taste-sharer? Who is enabling the next Ahmet Ertegün?”

    I think the near-global importance of the Ahmet Ertegüns of the world is an artifact of late-20th century communication media. Before the 1920s, there were lots of people who influenced others’ tastes in music, but there were very rarely break out moments on the national or international scale.

    We’ve always had thousands of “tribal” and regional tastes that had little basis of or need for agreement with each other. During the second half of the 20th century, we also had some shared national and international tastes that allowed for artists to attain large-scale popularity.

    I think we’re returning to a world where tribal tastes are primary over any apparent global tastes. The webs of music online connect across online tribes of interest and taste.

    I put “taste maker” in quotes because it tends to imply that there is some kind of “global” set of specific agreements on taste, and that there are a few people out there who help everyone globally come to these agreements and know the specifics. I think it’s all just a lot more fuzzy and distributed that that.

  5. I agree that CDbaby offers artists a set of services useful to artists. I appreciate Derek’s post, as I’ve observed that CDbaby has worked for independent artists in just the way he’s described, as a resource for the indie to distribute product. So many times artists need one-click convenience for ministerial but important business things, and that’s what artist services offer. I love hearing things like “this will show up on your credit card as CDbaby” instead of “I can only take cash, and I don’t have any more change”.

    I still think that Victor has a point about taste-makers (personally, I put things in quotes or not in quotes according to the guiding rule of whim). I do think that new taste-makers will arise and are arising. I agree with Victor that nobody much expects/wants/falls for “being told what to listen to”, but I do think that gifted people have always helped find cool stuff in popular music.

    My own feeling is that new taste makers are arising, and will continue to arise. I find the most useful ones to be websites, whether it is biotic’s black sweater white cat or gorilla v. bear or, for my own beloved genre as a listener, ambient music, the forum at

    Victor’s point is a powerful one. When I was a young teen, one listened at midnight to one particular radio station in Chicago to figure out what was cool and new. Did we accept that station’s DJ’s judgment as gospel? No. We took and we discarded. A similar thing happened with Bingenheimer in Los Angeles, on an even larger scale with Peel in the UK. On a recording front, the Stax sound was not sheer serendipity, but a set of choices made not only by musicians but also by record-company-types who believed in them.

    The technology now exists to liberate us from the market dominance of record labels. Yet as Derek and Peter Wells both point out, their companies are to serve artists and not to replace labels. They bundle services to make artists’ lives easier.

    Jay’s point is right in that the construct of how we thought about labels no longer need apply. Among the essential industries that must arise in this era of “commodity services” is effective ways to “get the word out” on signal amid noise. Don’t get me wrong–there is no one signal, and noise (believe me) is delightful. But a community of music lovers benefits from people who help create community through recommendations.

    I don’t read Victor at all as saying that there is One True Global Taste which taste-makers can point to (indeed, Victor would be the absolute last person to say so). Yet the sense of shared commmunity which taste-makers provide is one thing that binds similar-minded listeners together in their musical interests. I still believe that such taste-makers will inevitably arise (and are already arising), but I don’t deny that they’re a good thing. I just think, as Derek suggests, they need not be part of a record label (or, to extend the point, cdbaby or tunecore).

    At the same time, I don’t really disagree with Jay so much as see the “tribal” nature of music spread as inevitably including taste-making on a big scale. The tribes are virtually bigger, so to speak, even as the niches get smaller.

    I have a bit of nostalgia for times when I was 13ish and Lisa Robinson was putting out a teen photo magazine which told me about these incredible unsigned bands called the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Television (or, now that I think of it, Wayne/Jayne County). Those were heady days, when one could find destiny in a pulp magazine at the local IGA grocery. That kind of taste-maker was an essential and wonderful thing. Finding that kind of taste-making again will be the liberation of artists from the old record label paradigms. The technology makes it every bit as possible and inexpensive for them to arise as using tunecord and cdbaby. It just requires practicality amid the visionary dreams.

    In the communitarian ( v. Ahmet Ertegun divide, my sympathies are definitely communitarian. I favor free download music, Creative Commons BY licenses, and a conspiracy of user/hobbyist/creator/fans to share culture.

    But I believe that the era of artist services and indie direct releases will benefit as taste-makers arise. We see the first embers, but the burn is inevitably going to come.

    Let’s take a simple example. A few years ago, a weblog friend of mine named CP McDill announced that, having sold only a handful of CDs as an artist, he intended to start a Creative Commons netlabel. He would release his albums for free under his Webbed Hand Records netlabel, and then release other artists as well. Webbed Hand releases were soon rather popular in the way of such things, because the label’s experimental/dark ambient “branding” meant that people knew what they were downloading when they downloaded a Webbed Hand release.

    A free album on Webbed Hand is not directly analogous to a commercial release (being on the communitarian side of the fence). The idea, though, plays on the commercial side of the street, I believe.

    People will arise, whether journalists, website maintainers, label owners for a new type of label, or webloggers, who will help create this kind of “branding” and association. This is not the robotic “look into my eyes, you are getting sleepy” hypnosis theory of forcing style down one’s throat. This is organize style-making. But until those style makers have the sway of late night Chicago rock radio blaring 100,000s of thousands of watts across the midwest and south,
    then the rocket has not yet launched.

    My optimism, though, is that this rocket will indeed launch. My belief is that the next fame/money/glory will go to the people who figure out how to light the way the way that the talented locators of talent once did. I don’t care who emplys ’em–I just care that we all connect to the cool music.

  6. for full disclosure of folks who might not know I run the music community web site for Creative Commons where Bob/gurdonark is major star so I think (hope?) I get the tribal aspect of things.

    Finding talent takes talent. Finding special talent takes special talent. I don’t want to live in a world where there isn’t room for the person that brought me Ray, Aretha, Otis and Zeppelin. I take it for granted this person has a role in society, Internet or not, label or not. I would like to know how we are servicing him/her? (Mainly so I can implement the features on my site.)

    But my main point was to get at the seeming discrepancy in Derek’s post between saying they are neutral unbiased service and then visiting cd baby and seeing ‘Editors Picks’ below which it says ‘We listen to everything!’ implying to me that they listen with ear toward guiding the consumer. That’s classic taste-making, no? Otherwise that’s like FedEx saying: We look in every box!

  7. I think I am totally with you. But, I don’t know if there can ever be another, say, Ray Charles–because Ray Charles is the combination of a great talent and a no longer existent world boxed in by nascent inter/national media.

    Imagine, in 1955, when “I Got a Woman” went to #1 in the US, how many other R&B artists were out there who never ended up getting a chance to make records, and whom we’ve now never heard of. Or ones who cut a 45 that is now lost to obscurity.

    I don’t know that we’d see Ray Charles as such an amazingly legendary talent if all of those other artists could have made albums, and we could hear them a lot.

    And, looking at it the other way, people don’t know that the Motown girl-group, The Velvelettes are great because The Supremes, etc., were the ones Motown turned into legends, circa 1964-65.

    It’s not that Ray Charles or The Supremes are made less talented by suddenly being seen against more obscure contemporaries. It’s just that there’s less space for them to be legends on a pedestal.

  8. Jay, at the same time that you make an excellent point about “finding a Ray Charles”, I also believe that the wonderful thing about ‘net culture music is that there is every prospect we will after all learn who is a next Ray Charles—and he may be uploading from Mali, or Greenland, where before he or she would toil in solitude.

  9. Gurdonark, yes. The more I think about it, too, the more I think we’ll keep seeing the figures behind the music we love as being legends in some way. Probably just more legends, more often.

    Also, I was thinking about Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the idea that things “tip” into widespread popularity via the relationship between mavens, connectors, and salespeople. When you think about “taste making” in terms of these three different roles, it’s maybe easier to see how the web is still fostering relationships between people in those same roles–just in a looser way (e.g., less formally, more dynamically, etc.) than 20th century media.

    p.s. I really like your “Roadrunner” — listening now.

  10. >> visiting CD Baby and seeing ‘Editors Picks’

    Yeah. I agree. In a new future version of the site, I could see us not having that editorial aspect at all anymore, but rather finding a way to import/syndicate others’ editorial reviews, instead.

    But we do listen to every CD anyway, so that we can make sure the clips are correct, and know which albums to link to which others.

    I really would prefer CD Baby to be absolutely neutral with no “Editor’s Picks”. No we’re not looking for a hit. See and

  11. Really interesting conversation, everybody.

    For my part, while I can admire it as a virtuous response to the excesses of the labels, I’m not sure that the “separation of duties” approach that Derek advocates tells the whole story. While distribution channels free of the editorial filters required by the costs of shipping chunks of vinyl and plastic around are a great benefit for contemporary indie acts (my own band has sold its CDs on CD Baby since our first record), I think that the move to a web-centric music world will actually make the work of taste-makers and music purveyors even more intertwingled than they’ve ever been.

    On the web, conversation is distribution. Music bloggers don’t write about songs and then expect you to go find them somewhere else. They link to them. And if their writing convinces you to click, now you’ve got the song.

    Right now, the only thing that web music writers can do to monetize their ownership of this distribution channel is to put iTunes and Amazon affiliate links right next to the mp3 links and run ads (an option which, in a truly profitable form, is really only available to the big fish like Pitchfork and Stereogum). But there’s little — besides a good idea — preventing some technology company from coming along and turning them, as a whole, into serious competition for the existing distribution channels.

    Secondly, even though these new forms of online taste-making seem virginal and pure, that doesn’t mean they’ll remain free of label influence forever. Granted the majors got a slow start because of their entrenched historical view of the internet as a frightening den of immoral file-sharing pimple-faced pirates, but they aren’t going to stay clueless forever. They’re already starting to send out ‘exclusive’ promotional mp3s to the best-read music sites and the bigger bloggers when promoting their indie artists (Feist, TV on the Radio, etc.). How long before those missives are accompanied by Paypal-ed payola (or even the old fashioned physical kind)? I would bet that, somewhere out there, is a blogger or Pitchfork author whose web-published opinion’s been swayed by a back-room SXSW meeting, a stack of free CDs, or an offer of an exclusive track or interview.

    When you put these two factors side-by-side, the current situation looks an awful lot like a race between Music 2.0 companies and the long tail of blogs on the one side and a new generation of web-savvy music biz publicists on the other. Will we figure out a way for the conversation to empower and profit music bloggers at all scales before the majors figure out how to manipulate this new promotional outlet like they have every other? Or, more diplomatically, when these two sides finally drop their most vicious differences and meet in the middle, what will the balance of power look like?

  12. I read a blog about who were the first distributor to get an unsigned artist into the UK top 40.
    The guy blogging went on and on about them being a record label and not a distributor but the main point is, the band ( Koopa ) held ALL of the rights to their songs, they used Ditto for their back office to make sure they were chart eligible.

    I think either way, its an exciting time and there isnt any point argueing about terms


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