Breaking new artists is the lifeblood of labels, and independent labels are often the wildcatters of the industry, uncovering cutting-edge genres and artists and being the first to bring them to a wider audience.
A panel at AIM’s Indie-Con conference in London explored how this process is evolving in the streaming era, chaired by Sean Adams of Drowned in Sound – who also runs a label and management company.
“Everyone in the industry has a different version of what ‘breaking’ is. Some will say it’s getting acts on Spotify playlists, others will say it’s breaking an act worldwide. There are various levels of ‘breaking’,” said Claire Southwick of Primitive Management.
Caroline Simionescu-Marin of XL Recordings suggested that, because the acts she works with tend to be underground, ‘breaking’ for her can be as straightforward as getting a track on Radio 1.
In an age of rapid turnover of music on streaming services, are we talking more about breaking tracks rather than artists in 2017? This panel of independent-label representatives still think albums are important, in certain genres and spheres at least.
Michelle Kambasha of Secretly Group talked about how The War On Drugs and Angel Olsen, for example, were considered album acts from the off and that this shaped how they were developed and marketed. “In rock music, fans still value the album,” she said, while accepting that in genres like electronic music, the track can be paramount.
Simionescu-Marin gave the example of a video of Stormzy freestyling going viral as an example of something breaking on social media than can, in its success, force the hand of mainstream media.
“He was already the biggest thing in our world,” she said. But the success of the video meant that Capital FM started to play him, showing how something not consciously designed to break an act can, by the sheer force of its momentum, have exactly that effect.
Streaming loomed large. Bronya Francis of Warp Records explained how mood-based playlists on services like Spotify have been really important in getting a number of the label’s acts in front of a large audience. The trick, however, is building from that and getting other tracks by those acts on the radar of the subscribers to those playlists. In short, you might break a song on a playlist, but it will not follow that you break the act.
Related to that, gathering momentum on streaming services can see the services double down and really get behind an act if they see the data is heading in the right direction.
“When you have exceptional Spotify numbers, Spotify will do things with your acts,” said Simionescu-Marin, who added that a label also needs to be building a story around the act so they arrive to new audiences with a rich context underpinning them. “You can’t just drop things out of the sky anymore.”
Kambasha did warn, however, that success in one place – like 1m streams on Spotify – is not enough in and of itself; it needs to feed into and underscore the promotional activity happening concurrently at radio, on other platforms and in their live plot.
“You need to look at the campaign holistically,” she said. “It’s really great to get your tracks on breakfast playlists but at the same time that just isn’t enough – you need everything [in place].”
Unusual and unanticipated sources can also come into play and help elevate an act. Kambasha talked of how Sharon Van Etten’s appearance in The OA is helping to introduce her to a whole new audience ahead of her next album.
Meanwhile, Zena White of The Other Hand talked about the example of Charles Bradley who was building to a certain level before a documentary about his life – Soul Of America – massively accelerated things. “If you can get a documentary about your artist,” she said, “you’re onto a good thing.”
White also said having a tight connection with fans – and reacting to their ideas, such as taking the idea of a cat-centric remix album and running with it – was what helped propel Run The Jewels forward.
Simionescu-Marin concluded by saying that the most powerful marketing weapon is the artists themselves. She consciously seeks out acts who want to be hands-on in how they promote themselves, doing a lot of the heavy lifting on a creative level.
“The most useful thing is the artist’s vision,” she said. “You come up with all these crazy ideas and then go back to the artists and they say they don’t want to do any of that. The most important thing is having it come from them and we are there to help them facilitate that.”
“Personally, I don’t really want to work with artists who don’t have their own vision. I don’t want to come up with ideas as they know how to engage their fans best. If we come in and change it, it is quite obvious to their fanbase.”