Jon Pareles of The New York Times just wrote an article about SXSW and the major theme amongst artists is the lack of need for a record label in order to have a successful career. SXSW is an annual music conference held in March in Austin, Texas. It's a chance for unsigned bands to get noticed and signed artists to increase their fan base. During the day there are workshops run by leaders in the music industry, and at night all the music clubs host multiple bands. Apparently this year, major label representatives were not in great attendance as they have been in past years, which is interesting since the convention has been designed largely as a showcase for bands to get signed.
I’ve been predicting the end of record labels for the last few years as they have repeatedly refused to move with the times (for the most part). I think there are many benefits for a musician not being signed to a label. I’ve seen first hand, from my experience at major labels, where they will sign up and coming artists but when an instant hit doesn’t happen, they’re tossed aside and ultimately dropped. That used to be the kiss of death for a band or artist because the thought was if they can't make it on a major, they can't make it (I certainly don't agree with that). The labels missed the key element which is artist development – having a long term commitment to work them and build their fan base.
Not being on a label means artists have a lot more control over their own careers (not just financially as the label who takes a huge cut is eliminated) and can virtually dictate exactly how they want their album presented to the public. It costs very little, once an album is recorded, to package and sell it. There are a host of companies online that will do it for a really good price.
The internet also offers a greater chance of their music being heard. Over the last few years, the trend has been leaning towards music buyers listening online as well as downloading albums/singles (versus buying the actual CD). There are a plethora of sites such as Myspace, Facebook, and Yahoo Music for example, where you can find pretty much any sort of music you like. Downloading sites such as iTunes and Limewire offer inexpensive rates to purchase music.
Other ways artists can increase their exposure without a major label is to have their song placed in a commercial (I’ve discovered some great artists that way). Blogging has also become a huge promotional tool.
Despite the lack of need for a record label these days, I will maintain that in order to streamline an artists' promotion campaign, having a publicist and radio promotion person on hand is still needed. The internet may be the way of the future but until print and regular radio disappear, they are still very viable and necessary outlets that will help an artist gain exposure.
It’s interesting to see some major acts deserting their labels (Radiohead, The Eagles, Nine Inch Nails etc.) to go it on their own. Hats off to producer Daniel Lanois who has set up an online store for his Redfloor Records.
All that said, I still have mixed feelings about the end of the record labels. I’m a bit sentimental and I think back to the days when they were all about the music. Artists were signed and there was a long term commitment to promoting their MUSIC. But these days, they are so focused on the flavor of the month and the image of the artist is what is promoted, not the music. I see the changes happening as a positive in the sense that it allows artists — who a label might not otherwise touch if they didn’t see multiple dollar signs — a chance to get heard.