Home / R.I.P. Record Labels: The End Of A Musical Era?

R.I.P. Record Labels: The End Of A Musical Era?

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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.

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About Lisa Gilman

  • Nicely done Lisa. Sounds like you know your stuff too. So why hasn’t someone snatched you up?


  • charlie

    Nice article, but two things come to mind: First, I don’t think record labels per se will be gone, just the relevance and need for big ones. I think your point that major labels were not well represented at SXSW this year is a sign of things to come. Also, Radiohead originally went DIY, then signed with a smaller independent label (XL Recordings) that still got them wide distribution of their latest record (In Rainbows). But I also agree with many of your other points, such as the need for artists to still, despite the digital age, use traditional promotions like radio and publicists. Using the old and the new ways of promoting your music in the right way will work for everybody in the end.

  • hhhmmm…it is the question…All I can say is that the record company as we know it is changing the way they do business.

    the whole deal is that by being indy and doing it yurself, the money will not be as huge as it could be. If it is, you become that major…but there is a lot that must be done to generate that wide public notariety. then how does an indy grab all that money and hang onto it? Not easy.

    The artist development department has sure fallen out of the major label confines and has fallen onto the artist itself. An indy band has to have it so much more together nowadays than in days before. the bar has sure been raised to even be considered by a label.

    The computer? Downloading is not the answer. One of these days people will figure out that music via the computer doesn’t sound too good. A glorified transistor radio basically. Audiophile needs to make a comeback. Very fustrating for the artist as the computer downloads limits their sonic creativity. Remember in the 70s going out and buying a Japanese pressing of your favorite albums?

    However the computer is good for distribution and sales for the indy artist. But, just try to, as an indy artist, gain airplay on a zillion stations across the nation. try to, as an indy to ship tens of thousands of product everywhere across the planet. You got to do it fast. No waiting. If your shipment shows up a month late. Too bad. Your time is gone. They all become returns.

    In this business, time does not wait for you. You get played on the radio in a market. But are not in the stores. Still the most effective point of sale for music. But if the dots are not connected (radio, performance, retail and media promotion) the artist loses out.

    Until indy is capable of such, the major will remain. Or the concept of ‘rock star’ as we know it is gone. the majors are restructuring right now. Let’s hope they figure it out.

    Along with figuring it out, a better communication betwen artist and ideas and communicating them with producers is needed. Seemed to work with Nirvana.

    anyway, blah, blah, blaH,
    DM/NewSoul Records

  • Oh, just to add, NIN, Radiohead, etc. dropping the major thing? Well, they can afford to do that now. How did they get that way? The majors….

    New indy bands cannot afford to do that. The whole money thing…Say an indy gets some venture capital. Well, then the indy is playing the major game.

    Indy, major, indy, major…it is all the same in a way…

    ugh! what to do. Just make great, creative music with substance. It is all about getting the art of the word and craft across to the masses.

    I’ll shut up now,

  • oooppppsss, one more word of hope. In today’s current market, white Stripes, the Shins, Vampire Weekend are examples of indy attitude working with a major (because they have to in order to progress)and keeping their artistic integrity and creativity and message.

    It has to be that way in order for the industry to work on any level.

    OK,OK,OK… rock on!!!!


  • Douglas,

    I had no idea that you had a label. You are still in Seattle right? Just wonderin’…


  • And of course, you need to define being successful. Sure some bands can live off “modest sales” but not forever. Major labels can still get you the exposure only few artists/bands ever dream of, and even being a one-hit wonder is more fame than 90% of all artists combined get.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Is all of this really news to anyone?

    -The internet has made it possible for any schmuck to have a chance at making it “Big”.

    -Labels used to be about talent…Blah,Blah,Blah

    Come on… Music has a business model. If you want to make the ends meet, retain creativity & copyrights then go DIY. If you want to make shallow & heartless music along with a ton o’ cash then go Major.

    One of these days people will figure out that music via the computer doesn’t sound too good. A glorified transistor radio basically. Audiophile needs to make a comeback.

    Talk about clueless… Man if you do own a label & your projecting that kind of bullsh!t propaganda then your artists must be kicking themselves!

    First off, any kind of high-end audio recording(SACD or DVD-A…R.I.P.) had to be done with a computer. Second,CD mastering is done with a computer. Third, formats like flac,ape & ogg vorbis give people the opportunity to compress their music files without giving up any audio quality(pieces of information are not lost…Hence why they call these formats lossless). More & More “Mp3” players that are coming out can play these types of files. The term “Audiophile” implies that the music lover is always looking for the best way to listen to audio. You cannot rule out the digital landscape… Companies like SONY are trying to revert back to analog-digitally but 95% of the mass consumer that likes the Major label releases don’t give two sh!ts about audio quality/integrity! This is why SACD & DVD-Audio went the way of the dinosaur…

  • Talk about clueless… Man if you do own a label…blah, blah, blah

    lemme guess, in your last life you were a diplomat?

  • as to whether downloading is the answer or not, it may not be for me, but the trend is certainly going in that direction.

    and, sad as it may be, nobody really cares about sound quality anymore (again, don’t include either me or brian in that list). who’s the number two seller of music behind only walmart? itunes. kids have grown up with computers and ipods and don’t care about “good” sound.

    and the whole major label/radio/distrubution channel thing is still in a major state of flux. when radio via the internet finally breaks free, that’ll be the last nail in the coffin of regular radio.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Me? A diplomat?? Come on, Mark, more like an instigator.. And that’s in this life,who cares about any other:)

    I’ve had enough with this five year old conversation about computers & music or the convergence away from Major labels. The people who don’t understand the brilliance in this technology will get left behind just like the people who didn’t want CD then DVD!

    As for Internet radio, it has already nailed FM’s coffin shut. It’s a burnin’ bridge Mark,just give it time…

    Hello PANDORA!!

  • hhhmmm…oh yes, modest income…

    but it all comes down to this. Generally, in my book, the music is a social statement designed to get the message out to everyone and sway the direction of peoples thinking on issues, etc. Music is sure good for opening eyes on reality. that is what artists do. Before the Dead Kennedy’s ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ an active section of society had no idea who Pol Pot was. then the punx go out and scream in masses about that. thers hear…Anyway, just an example.

    Then, the ambience of Brian Eno can do things for the mindscape that is a part in personal expression for the individual. Etc.. art/human condition theory stuff…

    Not always. A broken hearted love song for instance. Yet you want that story out because there are people on every corner of the planet who have the same story and can identify.

    As for the arguement that the audiophile aspect of sound is gone. Kids grew up on computers. They will never know. Oh god, what a lame arguement. The dumbing down of society. Devo was right. De-evolution.

    Sure, many aspects of computerization are used in making music. High fidelity music. But it is the fianl processing that affects it all. Kids will figure it out. The current compressed sound of music does get annoying. It is only natural for anyone to think, ‘it can sound better’, especially those who hear the studio work then hear the final analysis. The industry is already figuring this out. there are ungodly expensive products available for the computer playback that have the abilbity to restore the sound to studio standards.

    Making a modest living. That is good. You are making a living. However, how badly does the artist’s message and by how many to be heard is desired?

    You can get your 15 minutes of fame. But, you better be there to grab it and to have life beyond that 15 minutes. Importantly, you better be good and saying something.

    Question. SubPop. A major indy label. Are you major or an indy? Well, if people like your thing and you start taking off, one is becoming a major thing. A sell out? Get off that trip. The ‘selling out’ theory only applies if you if you are actually changing your whole social statement. The old arguement of being controlled by producers…what really happens is that the lesser experienced artist is working in the studio with someone with ideas that blow the artist’s mind. So the artist goes ‘that is cool, we can do that’. The trick is finding the producer and artist on exactly the same word on the same page with the same story developing. Each party using its own creativity to enhance the others creativity. Indy or major, that is the only way it works.

    A sell out? Well if people are lining up to buy all the tickets, I guess you sold out.

    It comes down to the almighty dollar as a reward and gauge of one’s popularity and message. If a dollar slips away, the artist is the first to complain!!! What a sell out! A lot of dollars slip away as an indy…

    Oh yes, I do run an indy label. But ideally, if something of my product line does show the ability to gain popularity, I will have to take on aspects of major to keep up and keep growing. Good! I do have ‘major’ gears in the machine of NewSoul Records for sake of advancing, keeping up with growth spurts, etc. BUT, thanks to the efforts of the indy process, some very interesting things have happened on a large audience scale. Oh god, when a right wing talk show jumped on one the songs I released…How did that happen? It just does in this business. The trick is to be prepared.. Anyway, indy or major, that is the deal with the art of being in the public eye. It can happen quick. Well it takes years to do that.

    The indy. The artist has to work his butt off to make enuf money just to record, press, go out and play, etc. etc. So, instead of getting a huge monetary advance from a label (to be paid back) the artist is essentially ‘advancing himself’ and must pay himself back to get out of the poor house. You pretty much have to do that anyway to get to the level of being on a major. Very rarely do artists get picked up by being seen in a coffee shop or whatever. Sometimes. Nowadays, that coffee shop has become MySpace or something. You still have to be good and saying something.

    Well, actually. the whole business needs restructuring. Indy? Major? Where do you actually draw the line? Columbia Records, major. NewSoul Records, indy. A lot of space in between, getting from one to the other.

    And, funny thing, generally it takes the progression of an artist to go from indy to major to get the most artistic creativity out of the artist. What would you rather hear? the Rolling Stones first scrappy demo tape or Exile On Main Street on Japanese vinyl pressing?

    Ideally, and it has always happened in the industry, is when an indy starts showing life, use the major to subsidize that indy. Buttplug/Sony Records. Whatever.

    It is a fact of life. To make the biggest statement, money gets involved. But it starts off with the groundswell of no money. It starts off with dirt, seed and water. If it grows, you have to pick the fruits and vegetables that come of it and feed the people. Or else it drops to the ground and rots.

    The indy is required. So is the major. One could not live without the other. God? Devil? A sick, co-dependent relationship. Oh man, not that arguement…

    Anyway. Right now the industry as a whole has to restucture. The independent has to get off some stupid rightous ideas and so do the majors. And you know, there are people on both ends of the scale who are actually on the exact same page and word. It is all really the same deal. How far do you want to take it?

    Processed crap of the majors has very little life. Same with indy. A lot of indy is just processed crap. We’ll let the public figure that out. It is a matter of giving the public a chance to figure it out. There is so much stuff out there. What? You expect the public to go to the library and read every stinking book on the shelf? Not possible. But some books get read more than others. some great books don’t, but usually are on influence on writing the book that does. Or are a rip off of the book that makes it.

    Anyway. Start indy. Become major if your art is finding success. Success won’t come if you cannot keep up with it.

    Indy artists? Quit being anal and rightous and stupid. Majors? Quit being money grubbing Nazi’s. The majors know that the biggest money is in the true artistic statement. Pink Floyd is way bigger money than ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’.

    so, what is the arguement? It sounds like a bunch of rightous shit to me. Just fix it and back to working together on the same idea…

    Rock On!!!!
    DM/NewSoul Records

  • hhhmmm… XM radio vs. Airwaves. It is all still airwaves. What is the dif? The are basically all an outlet for music.

    The computer vs. CD. They are just two different forms of record players.

    The industry, both indy and major, must learn how to utilize changes. That is all.

    Did the industry die when FM stereo came in? Oh my, AM was the lifeblood.

    Nope, it all just became bigger. Same thing happening now. It is all going to become bigger than before. I am not too worried in the long run.

    The industry as a whole just has to figure it out. Indy, major. Nobody has it figured out. except for the root of creation of the art. Keep that around and things will be alright.


  • As for the arguement that the audiophile aspect of sound is gone. Kids grew up on computers. They will never know. Oh god, what a lame arguement. The dumbing down of society. Devo was right. De-evolution.

    douglas, i’m not making any sort of argument, just pointing out reality. people have chosen convenience over quality, just a fact.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Man.. This guy does ramble on about nothing, Huh?

    Sure, many aspects of computerization are used in making music. High fidelity music. But it is the [final] processing that affects it all. Kids will figure it out. The current compressed sound of music does get annoying.

    WTF?? Final processing of what? Maybe if your listening to the useless Top 40 Rap & Pop then it’s not the actual recording process but the lame sampling & vocal processors that you’re referring to. The only time that the sound gets compressed is when you transfer wav to Mp3(or WMA lossy). Recording a band to CD(analog to digital) is lossy but not in the same manner. The argument would be whether or not you can actually hear all of those higher analog wave peaks in the first place before they were reduced to digital.

    You’re damn right that the kids will figure it out. They’ll figure out that computers are the means to better audio quality & with people empowering them with accurate knowledge,they will catch on & demand better quality from those Major Label dumb a$$es.

    Ultimately, Mark’s statement is a fact,not an argument. It’s got nothing to do with sattelite radio. Internet radio is free & has far more stations[urls] then FM,Sirius & XM combined because it all depends on your outlet[Winamp,365,etc..]Plus you can listen to foreign programming. I prefer Pandora because you are,essentially, the DJ.

    SO, No, this isn’t righteous sh!t we’re shootin…
    It’s the truth!

  • Major label dumb asses. OK, someone is always going to be major in some way. It is just that new technology is creating new ways to sell the sound. Who can and how to tap that market is the deal.

    Independent will remain independent. Great, the indy has more access to public sale. But the indy remains just one of a zillion out there. How do you get yourself heard? a band is just another thing on the shelf. Now the shelf is electronic. What is the difference?

    The major’s job is to get you out there and sold. An indy can be downloaded a hundred times. A future major can get you downloaded 50,000,000 times.

    The computer. Does everyone have one? Does everyone have a credit card? No. You cannot spend cash on a computer. A lot of factors play into the future of everything.

    things are changing. yet it is all the same. There will always be major and indy. who will be and what will be, that is the question. let the smoke clear…


  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Whoa, man…You’re thinking patterns are obsolete!

    No one cares about cash anymore & if you aren’t proficient with computers nowadays then you are not the one making major business decisions. Now, if the indy/DIY venue has the public’s attention,like you say, then that will change the business model.

    a band is just another thing on the shelf. Now the shelf is electronic. What is the difference?

    Do you really have to ask this question… I mean, REALLY!?

    The difference?? Easy accessibility & convenience. There is no longer a need for a brick & mortar store to order that “hard to find” CD.There are atleast 10-20 eStores in comparison to your 3-4 overhead draining outlets. I don’t have to rely on your outdated & overrated system to find the music that I like. An “unheard of” band can get 3x the listners without big business’ marketing strategy or their “cake”. spending money on authoring & pressing CD’s are on the way out.Even if you wanted to press 1000 cd’s on your own…Those machines have come down in price tenfold. The days & need for a hardcopy of your material are becoming extinct when you can share music on flash drives & hard drives…

    ‘Nuff Said??

  • Problem, the whole statement “no one cares about cash anymore”. What!!???

    Nobody? Are you the rep of the 300,000,000 people in the USA alone? Actually, nobody in your world equals a majority of the outer world.

    Guess what? There are a lot of people in credit card debt, therefore have no access and rely on cash.

    An unheard of band can get 3x the listners”. Fine. 3x is still not enuf. 10,000x is a better number. And you can get the listeners, but who pays the airply royalty off the computer? that aspect is currently being fine tuned by the industry to answer that question…

    My theory and analysis of the current situation sure does include the computer. what you talkin’ about man? It ain’t one or the other…

    Society is never going to shut itself inside to a screen (like you, it seems) as a total existance. that is not possible. The brick and mortar store will always exist. Making CDs is getting cheaper? Yup. If WalMart gets their way, the industry retail price standard is going down. So, it is just a matter of being able to create, enhance, keep up with and tap possibilities. that is just business.


  • And, there are a lot of people out there that pretty much don’t do the credit card thing. Even (quite a percentage, actually) the ‘well to do’.

    Part of the job of the music industry is to ‘create a scene’. The computer culture cannot create a scene like a congregation of live people.

    Going to a concert via computer does not cut the cake. TV didn’t reduce the number of tickets sold to a football game. It only sold more.

    record stores are a hub of scene. Example, here in Seattle, it has always been the indy (and chain stores) that were a major part of the generation of say, the grunge scene of music. The clubs and bands and everything else are elements as well. But the store has a lot to do with fan participation at any open hour. Not just when your band happens to be playing…Gears in the machine. The computer world is merely another cog. But a congregation of live humans is what generates the whole deal. Computers are basically dead humans (communication vis computer sure alters the concept of personality).

    Anyway, that is what is up. Part of the picture, at least…


  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Dude, change doesn’t happen in a month or even a year…

    There are a lot of people in credit card debt, therefore have no access and rely on cash.

    CC debt doesn’t take away from debit cards or the people who use prepaid credit cards. You can’t hardly do anything nowadays without some sort of plastic. But, that wasn’t my point…

    You are obviously stuck in your retro moment & don’t see the huge change that is taking place before your very eyes.
    You say computers are a dead human-like form of communication with a this strange twist on personality. Yet, we are discussing this matter on the internet & millions of people use YouTube & other like-minded sites to promote their personalities via web video. Talk about a connection with the whole world nevermind Seattle! Bands have already been using this technology to stay in touch with their fans. Sure, nothing beats a live concert but what if I can’t make it to the UK for David Gilmour… I can still catch the concert on the internet. Just wait for “Internet 2” when you’ll be able to stream 1080p without any lag whatsoever! Sh!t, by that time we’ll probably have 1280p,who knows?

    Oh well, I’m done with this glorified ping-pong session… I’m not a teacher or a politician! I’m not trying to convince anyone. Just relaying the facts.


  • Egbert Sousé

    “Man.. This guy does ramble on about nothing, Huh?”

    Did you think you had a monopoly on that?

    “No one cares about cash anymore”

    When did the memo go out about that? Must have missed it, but then I own a home and have bills to pay

  • The bottom line is that no, I don’t think the music consumer world is going to become 100% available by computer only.

    The disc problably will remain (cheers for artists releasing vinyl!). One cannot DJ creatively via computer. Manufacturers of disc players, turntables, etc. will remain. Stores to buy discs and players will remain. Otherwise, music consumerism will be no fun. Or have any substance.

    The computer is merely a tool to enhance notariety. Someone will always be major. Who stays, who goes? How they operate and get the big money? We’ll see.

    Internet radio? Start paying ASCAP and BMI fees. Getting played on the computer does not pay anyone! Indy or major. Who is the pirate on that deal?

    The internet is a good instrument for the majors to see who has potential. It is all a step in having the indy artist deal with the artist’s development.

    Yes, the computer does have an impact. Will it take over? No. Just part of the process of selling plastic wares.


  • hhhmmm…and you know, one angle that the computer download world cannot really keep up with (nor should it try) is the product that came out before the computer world got involved.

    However, the computer serves a purpose in obtaining those hard to get items. http://www.spiralvinyl.com (i think that is the proper address) is a fav of mine. Like the old camera mail order attached to a retail outlet, the computer world opens availability of discs of vinyl and digital nature to a world of audience. The old vinyl still serves it’s purpose in influence and education to our upcoming musicians.

    Anyway, I’m sure many of you out there have found online sources. But, I thought I would bring it up for sake of yapping away on this thread…

    rock on,

  • And the funny thing is that the vinyl disc is making a comeback. The sales of newly printed discs are way up %-agewise.

    The CD will be the 8-track of the future? Possibly. Downloading will never be able to keep up with the audio superiority of vinyl. And being able to hold 144 square inches of art in your hand instead of having to stare at a light bulb (what one actually does when viewing a computer screen or television) is sure nice.

    Anyway, let the smoke clear…


  • Storm