There’s a curious contradiction in how people perceive record labels. My friend Jonny, a guy in his mid twenties, was telling me that he didn’t mind downloading music illegally because record labels make enough money – and that we would be better off without record labels anyway. I found myself fascinated by his perspective and sentiment. Record labels are often demonised in the media, whether it’s for making their artists sign exploitative contracts, or for an over-the-top approach to copyright enforcement. In the minds of a lot of people outside the industry, record labels fall in the same category as big, evil corporations.
The post-label world that Jonny described is one where artists self-release, and there is no need for record labels. He thinks it’s an inevitable future, and a positive thing. “Get rid of the money-hungry labels that prey on artists, and things will be better.” I agree that companies should not be exploiting people (obviously) but I think his views are based on stories about a small minority of labels, and don’t paint a fair picture. I believe the musical landscape we have is much richer because of the work record labels do, and I want to do whatever I can to support it.
The ultimate goal of anyone that works in the music industry should be to promote, develop and contribute to the culture of music. That’s why we should all be doing this. My company is a promo platform which is used by record labels and PR companies to send music to DJs, journos and other tastemakers and I have a keen interest in the relationship between those two groups: record labels and tastemakers. Recently, I’ve been thinking about what business model makes the most sense to encourage better music promo.
When a record label has a release to promote, they want DJs to listen to it, support it, review it, chart it, play it. In addition to the music they send, it might make sense to throw in an expensive gift, or perhaps a back rub if it means they’ll support the release.
Paying a DJ or radio station to play your tracks (aka “payola”) might be an effective strategy for getting airplay and potentially boosting public performance broadcast revenue, but it’s not something that should be encouraged. People want to hear good music, not just music from labels with deep pockets. In the interest of a more level playing field, where good music gets played because it’s good music, money should ideally be taken out of the equation.
Most label owners I know are deeply passionate about music first and foremost and focused on finding and nurturing the best music they possibly can and bringing it to the surface for people to hear. They provide a much needed quality control mechanism. Many of them now rely on revenue from sources other than selling music to keep their businesses running. Small indies will put on events, sell merchandise, or come up with alternative ways to supplement their income in order to keep releasing music.
On the other side of the equation, DJs and music journalists also play a key role in the quality control process, and try to ensure the cream rises to the top. From the aspiring journalist intern at a magazine to the A-list DJ headlining parties around the world, tastemakers are invariably music lovers and some receive a lot of promos. (I know this because we see the numbers.)
The fact that so much promo is being done digitally now opens up an interesting possibility that didn’t exist before, which is for tastemakers to make a small contribution to subsidise costs for the labels and PRs. It helps labels with their operating costs, and allows a way for tastemakers to support the labels that send them music – something a lot of people are happy to do. It’s an idea we’ve been thinking about and recently we rolled out Pro DJ accounts on the FATdrop platform to try out the model. The idea is that we reduce the costs of sending promo campaigns for all labels and open up the ability for smaller labels with little or no promo budget to run promos campaigns for free – all supported by Pro DJs that receive the music from them. As an experiment, we don’t know where it will lead but hope that it is a small but positive step towards a better promo culture in the industry.
Record labels have been misrepresented because of the dubious practices of a few, and one way to address that is to encourage the work of those that are in it for the right reasons. The barriers to making music are lower than ever, and so the roles of record labels and tastemakers are more important than ever. Their work should be applauded and supported if we want quality over quantity when it comes to music.