the mo bettah label

Ok, so, this might seem like a basic question but what is a label anyway?

Ian thinks it’s a music service organization oriented towards market niches:

With the disappearance of advantaged label competencies such as superior production, distribution, and marketing, reconfigure your labels to be based around affinities and focused narrowly enough to serve roughly the same audiences from release to release. The labels would be very small teams responsible for fan cultivation, focused and direct marketing, and A&R. They would rely on EMI for service, support, and tools (generic marketing would happen on the EMI mothership, for example).

That’s sounds an awful lot like a marketing company to me. And if that’s the case, Victor isn’t down with it:

as far a I know no major label have ever, as in never, broken a band. The band breaks itself, proves it has an audience, and then the labels cash in and sucks the artists’ till dry. There is zero expertise there.

The thing that I get hung up on is that the music business doesn’t have a lot of empty niches, and I don’t see what a label brings to the table in any of the niches it doesn’t already occupy. Sure, labels can get into the concert business, but why are they better at it than established players? They’ll be coming to the party with culture and resources designed for a completely different line of business.

Every other significant revenue source in the music industry is a complementary product to recording sales. As far as concert promoters and merch vendors are concerned, every CD should be 100% free. Having to sell the CDs just gets in the way of creating the attention that moves t-shirts and concert tickets. So how does a label get into these businesses if its legacy interest in selling recordings interferes with its new interesting in giving recordings away?

The business of a record label is selling records, and if selling records isn’t the point then labels seem to be the wrong kind of business to drive the music industry. That’s not to say that there won’t be label-ish things in the long run, just that the labels seem to be the worst candidates to fill that slot. And what slot is that?

Bands need to cluster

Comment thread at

Bruce Warila:

If I were writing a business plan, investing money or advising investors, I would say – stay away from stand-alone artists and invest in groups/collectives/labels/consortiums/franchises, but not stand-alone artists or bands.

Stand-alone artists are not, and can barely be entertaining on the Internet. Clusters of artists can. The person that can figure out the “model” – how to cluster artists and make it all work, will be creating a real business.

Justin Boland:

Well, I agree with you…we were lucky with World-Around Records, though. I look back at the past year of our operation, and it was mostly formalizing informal networks that grew organically and mostly by accident.

Taking this back to the long running theme on this blog about musician sites and musician blogs, the success of standalone musician blogs depends on becoming part of a network.

A complementary point from a blog post on titled Do I really have to blog?

The idea that the world is divided into content creators and consumers is increasingly redundant. What’s important is the quality, frequency and ‘engageability’ of your content – and that’s no longer restricted to your musical output.

The fact that you make music is unremarkable. The quality of your communication — musical content included — is now the measure by which you will be judged. This is not a call to pick over the mundane minutiae of your life. This is a challenge to be interesting.

And really, this is not such a radical or transformative idea. Your music has always been communication. Your music business has always been a communication business. This is about using the online tools to enhance that communication.

But blogs can easily be isolating experiences, and that’s a core problem for musician-bloggers, who need to keep up a steady stream of releases but have to stay connected to a vital cluster of fans and other musicians. Hence the reason why most musicians thriving on the net pick a social publishing context like YouTube, Myspace, CCMixter, or GYBO.

Mo bettah, Mr. Hands

Clustering is something labels are already doing. Blue Note is for jazz. Warp is for a particular kind of electronica. Matador, Sub Pop, Metal Blade…

Which brings me back to Ian’s proposal to Guy Hands: reconfigure your labels to be based around affinities and focused narrowly enough to serve roughly the same audiences from release to release. I’ll buy that this is an important thing to do, and the need is not going away. But I’m still skeptical that record companies can cannibalize their current business to do the right thing in this new niche, and in the meantime YouTube, Myspace, CC Mixter, and GYBO are doing fine without them.

So here’s my proposal to Guy Hands as to what he should do with EMI’s new music business.

Creative Commons has posted a Request for Proposals (RFP) regarding the future of the site, and Victor has posted detailed comments on this. If I were EMI I would step in to operate CC Mixter. It’s a fully functional cluster of music makers with a strong hold on its niche. I don’t know how to monetize it at the scale EMI would need, but I do know that at least EMI would be in the game. Take over and learn how it works. Use the time to gain the institutional skills in managing community. This will take a while, but in a few years the Mixter community will have started to reverse colonize your company. And that’s EMI needs — to absorb the values and skills needed to manage clusters.

8 thoughts on “the mo bettah label

  1. 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 majors certainly don’t contribute positively in this regard (i.e. what does mean aesthetically to be on Warners?) and, increasingly, their impact is actively negative: their bad press from root kits and suing grannies bleeding over to hurt the records that carry their labels.

  2. Monumental sell outs throughout the ages:

    – Brutus stabs Caeser
    – Dodgers move to LA
    – Dylan goes electric
    – (Bill) Clinton pass welfare reform
    – Victor works for EMI


  3. The discussion of content generators and content consumers resonates with me. I believe that interconnection between artist and listener is going to be the key to the new uses of media.
    I don’t mean that an artist needs to be warm and cuddly, or an excellent weblog writer. I meant that a coherent set of images, ideas, and sounds are going to be the key to what resonates with the listening public.

    I think it’s telling that even the “most commercial”, “most a & r”, and arguably “most karaoke” of the new chart-toppers,the American Idol movement, involves a great deal of read/write experience. Despite the weeking of the candidates into semi-finalists, and the various aesthetic imperfections of the process, the show nonetheless generates chart-makers by getting niches of America excited in a participatory system to choose their celebrities. Why has Idol stormed America in a way that, say, the Eurovision song contest concept or Star Search or the Ted Mack Amateur Hour never could? For all its flaws, American Idol has its finger on a key artery of the Amrican pulse. Carrie Newcomer is a perfect example of a star who became a star because middle America felt it chose her as its star. Never mind that the song-writing is pedestrian. Never mind the image-management, the
    production values, all that. The reality is that
    American Idol created a facsimile of read/write experience for the audience.

    What mixter and indie CC and collective artists and new labels offer is a chance for the audience to be part of the experience,and not removed from the experience. This is certainly true in the netlabel movement, in which I am on-line friends with a number of my current musical “heroes”. We all live in a giant and unforeseen graphic novel in which all the comic book heroes have been replaced by everyday working forces for good.

    When America is offered a chance to replace the faux read/write of American Idol (or Disney Channel or what have you) with real collaborative experiences,then the mainstream audience will evolve to embrace these artists, to the benefit of all. This is the music revolution that beckons to us like the angel of justice waiting in the wings, sword set aside, and harp at the ready.

    I do not know whom is the best purchaser for mixter. I think that the transition is inevitable, and may well be a good thing for all concerned. I would like to see the winning bid be a non-profit/for-profit blend with a core non-profit supervising the fulfillment of the CC mission while a for-profit utilizes the franchise for purposes of good. It could be that the right for-profit is a record company, but I also imagine that an unconventional media player might work, particularly one from the computer software side or ‘net media side of the equation.

    Regardless of whom is the winning bidder, I think that the key is to take the simple concept of the mixter and to understand it and further implement it, as opposed to “improving” the concept beyond recognition.

    I come to CC music from a DIY/mail art/social network place. I see the music industry as fulfilling the promise of cassette exchange, only using technology to move us from (wonderful but not mainstream-able) R. Stevie Moore country to
    a different way to define music.

    The resizing and evaporising of the recording industry is not at all a bad thing, really. The CD over-pricing problem is just as serious as the Detroit plan to make cars go quickly obsolete. In the face of *any* competition, this strategy folds, because it was built on hegemony and control of the sales portals, not upon a wise business plan. The hegemony is shattered–long live the shards of the splintered glass.

    Should investors invest in labels and collectives rather than individuals? Perhaps. Is there a place for aggregations of artists? Absolutely.
    Do people still think in terms of an artist’s body of work? I think so, because I sure do think that way.

    Yet all of this is to me a bit beside the point.
    An enormous flow of great music, images, and words exist out there, far more signal than the people who dismissed everything as noise might have predicted. Will this array of vibrant culture be reduced back to traditional record industry paradigms? Never.

    I’m not worried about whether open source music takes over the American airwaves or the majority of the listening audience.

    I have faith that a new way of sharing and experiencing music has begun–and investors, artits, and labels are part of it, or they are obsolete. It’s not really more complex than that.

  4. What we’re seeing is a market inversion*.

    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.

    The audience will subscribe to the discoveral agent and this agent will then patronise/commission those musicians it believes can deliver what will increase its audience/subscriber base.

    It’s all very similar, it’s just inverted. ;-)

    But, don’t worry, the musicians still get paid! (although it will be a bumpy ride through the transition)

    See ProjectVRM to see others who have twigged about this inversion.

    * The inversion is actually a reversion to nature – due to IP reverting from its unnatural inversion by copyright, and also helped by the fact that individuals are once again able to participate as first class citizens in the market place (instead of passive consumers to mass producers).

  5. gurdonark, re: “The resizing and evaporising of the recording industry is not at all a bad thing, really. The CD over-pricing problem is just as serious as the Detroit plan to make cars go quickly obsolete. In the face of *any* competition, this strategy folds, because it was built on hegemony and control of the sales portals, not upon a wise business plan. The hegemony is shattered–long live the shards of the splintered glass.”

    A-fucking-men. Double plus.


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