Cheap recording technology and freely accessible distribution platforms threaten to make the record label redundant. But there are still ways for labels to survive and thrive, says Britt Brown
It must never be forgotten that music precedes the organisations that bankroll and benefit from it. As such, the relevance of the record label remains in flux, mutating in tandem with trends in music consumption. What follows is a set of ideas for running a record label during a cultural epoch that no longer explicitly requires them.
For many years the label’s purpose was to facilitate documentation of an act or artist, so as to increase awareness (and, by proxy, heighten profitability) of their music. This model began to break down as recording technologies and distribution platforms became increasingly affordable – if not free, via piracy – and as the internet supplanted physical reality. Triumphing over gatekeepers is a cherished notion in Western thought, from Prometheus onwards, so the slow decay of the record label has largely been perceived as a positive development. Now anyone can upload anything at any time and have it be heard, theoretically, by anyone, anywhere.
But when dams are destroyed floods tend to follow, and the current music landscape is defined by deluge, by unmanageable quantities of content coursing through global feeds. The role of navigation, of plotting a path through these infinite seas of sound, has become central to the identity of the 21st century record label.
These tend to fall into one of three tiers. Firstly, bottom line-driven, for-profit businesses – majors, major indies, plus various pop, rap and electronic training grounds. Second are the independent, self-sustaining operations with minimal staff, and focused but flexible aesthetic concerns – labels for whom the term indie was originally coined. Last are the niche, hermetic or hobbyist imprints, often artist-run, with little intention of expansion or market integration.
It’s impossible to prescribe principles or advocate methodologies that apply equally to all the above. But as a participant with 12 years of experience in the field co-running the Los Angeles label Not Not Fun, certain strategies and beliefs have revealed themselves as useful, regardless of style or scene or time or place:
Purity is as tedious in the art world as it is among xenophobic extremist groups. Labels are at their most compelling when they expand our conception of an aesthetic, connecting threads that algorithms cannot. Labels should overlap conflicting influences and risk fusion, fission and complication. Not all experiments are successful but labels that avoid the tyranny of a singular taste or mood intrigue deeper than those which consistently embrace a similar palette. Sameness is the antithesis of stimulation.
Larger labels ensure the constancy of their roster through legalese and lawyers’ signatures, but more casual operations can be hindered by high turnover. In ideal circumstances a label can offer stability for an artist to flex, grow, experiment and evolve, without the distraction of worrying where the work will end up or how it will get heard. Capitalism must capitulate to market demand or indifference but adventurous record labels can heed more utopian concerns – and should be championed when they do so.
Don’t Dictate Presentation
Imprints run by visual artists are an exception, but otherwise a release should reflect the vision of the musician(s) who created it – for better or for worse. To operate otherwise is overbearing and disrespectful. Too many labels are hung up on their own branding, aping the logo-centric totalitarian design mindset of the Western business world. A genuine label accepts the mantle and responsibility of facilitating an artist’s complete vision, whether or not it slots conveniently into the public image they prefer to project.
Fluidity Is Freedom
In music, nearly all constraints are self-imposed. Many labels restrict themselves to an ever narrower aesthetic over time, which hastens burnout. Prolonged fixation on micro-niches tends to end in aggravated cynicism and the false perception that everything musically meaningful or important has already taken place. This, of course, is an illusion. Astute labels allow themselves space to renovate and recalibrate, adapting to shifting paradigms of instrumentation, fidelity, volume, or accessibility. Enthusiasm is a profound and regenerative resource - tap into it by whatever means necessary.
The ecosystem of music can always benefit from another committed and freethinking fan but the same cannot be said of labels. A glut of curators fosters aesthetic claustrophobia, and a scene, subgenre or city can only reasonably sustain a certain quantity of documentation before becoming drained and overexposed. The issue is less one of originality than of utility – a party with more photographers than dancers will never look as good as the other way around. Before diving into such a fickle, frustrating and time-devouring pastime as a record label, questions of redundancy should be pondered: is there extraordinary music being made that deserves a wider audience? What sphere or sound feels unjustly unheard? And, most importantly: how extreme an abundance of free time is available? Be deliberate, be selective, and don’t tread too closely on the coattails of others.
Imagine The Future
The desire to champion others is ancient and universal, be the recipient a deity, sporting organisation or fellow human. Such gestures, properly preserved, become time capsules, showing future generations the passions and passing fancies of their ancestors. Music offers an extreme version of this phenomenon. To drop a needle on a crusty blues 78 from 1922 is to eavesdrop on an alternate reality. Without ancillary research we have no way of knowing: was this piece of music considered riveting in its time? Was it derided as derivative? Or was it simply a fringe act of folk art music? Record labels throw sounds into an invisible future. Contemporaneous criticism or praise will be remembered, if at all, merely as a footnote. What remains is the work, the distillation of a moment. The hope is that at least once, in time’s endless slog towards oblivion, it will catch the ear of the listener it was destined for.