Record labels, huh? What are they good for in 2018?


If Music Ally had a pound for every time we’d heard someone predicting The Death Of The Label, we’d have enough money by now to buy at least two of the majors.

It’s 2018, and labels still aren’t dead. Instead, the good ones have evolved with the times and technologies – and that’s particularly the case in the independent sector.

A panel at AIM’s Indie-Con conference in London today explored the question of what a label can do for artists in the modern music industry. It included Emily Moxon from Brownswood Recordings; Nigel Adams from Full Time Hobby; Abdullah Al-Wali from Warp Records; Kate Hendry from Absolute Label Services; Matthew Rogers from Unified Music Group; and Victor Zaraya from Razor & Tie. The moderator was A2IM’s Richard Burgess.

“The team is everything,” said Zaraya, talking about the experience and relationships a label brings. “If you’re on your own, you have no one to bounce ideas off. You may end up going down the wrong path. Collaboration is the key to success.”

“When artists say ‘I can do everything myself’, yeah it’s true. But you’re going to need people, specialists in their field, to help you,” agreed Moxon. “Artists need to be wary of getting so involved in logistics and practicalities of their campaign that they lose the time for being creative, and it interferes with the process of getting into the studio and recording music.”

Hendry talked about the need for “that one person in the building” connecting the dots between marketing, distribution, playlist pitching and other tasks. “It’s hard for an artist or even a manager to do that on their own.”

Al-Wali said A&R is the lifeblood of any good label. “A&R can happen in lots of different ways. Ultimately if you’re an artist… everyone’s got their own insecurities and fears about their art or whether it’s the right thing to be doing. It’s super-important to have someone you trust who you can call, WhatsApp whatever, and get their opinion,” he said. “For me, A&R is super-important.”

Rogers gave Unified Music Group’s view, talking about the notion of community. “You grow an artist, you grow a label… when we sign an artist into our family, into our label, we’re amplifying that band into our community and expanding that,” he said.

Adams continued the theme of community: bands on Full Time Hobby get to know one another, mention each other on social media, go on tour together and generally “help each other out”.

Meanwhile, Moxon and Zaraya both agreed that a label can also be a ‘validating process’ for an artist when talking to bookers, streaming services and other industry entities. “You’re not just coming in on your own,” said Zaraya.

The panel also touched on the subject of how labels work with streaming services on things like playlisting. “There’s 500,000 tracks being delivered a month. It’s insane. Our role as indie labels and curators is to help the artists find the right place within the DSPs,” said Rogers.

“You’ve got to understand the playlists that you’re aiming for. You might have a playlist that has a huge subscriber count but low plays, or one with lower subscribers but huge engagement… a label can take you through the jigsaw puzzle of DSPs… It’s another artform that you’ve got to master as an indie label.” A distributor can get your track “in the door” he suggested, but a label can pitch it in properly.

Al-Wali agreed, but added a note of caution. “We have to be careful to not just rely on them for the career of our artists. if you’re not building your own platform through your mailing list, a pixel on your website to capture the data… you’re losing a lot of value for your artists. We see the most conversion through the mailing lists: selling tickets or vinyl, much more than an advertisement on Facebook,” he said.

Hendry pointed out that Facebook ads, too, fall into the skillset of a good label in 2018. “There’s some really deep, deep data and knowledge that’s required to do that kind of job. That’s a part of the product and marketing team that’s very buzzy at the moment: streaming and advertising go very well together, but you need someone to guide that for you,” she said.

Adams: “If that’s all you focus on, that’s dangerous… There’s lots of things we’ve always been doing that, if you lose sight of them, streaming isn’t going to lead on to anything. Email databases, they’re so important. And for a while there people lost track of that. People were moving away, connecting with each other by instant messaging to Instagram or whatever.. But email? I really, really value that. If you cherish that group of people and build that database, potentially you’ve got fans for life.”

Moxon said that more niche, genre-based labels can focus on their own curation activity, which doesn’t just mean building own-brand playlists with their own tracks. In fact, labels like Ninja Tune and independent artists have playlists which they add other labels’ tracks to regularly.

“A lot of the playlists built by humans on the basis of their tastes, and not built by algorithms, you can be in those playlists for a lot longer. We’ve had a song that’s in one of Bonobo’s playlists on Spotify: it’s been on there for a year and a half because he likes it. Sometimes that can be more fruitful than just trying to get on Fresh Friday.”

Burgess asked the panelists about the importance for indie labels of maintaining credibility with the streaming services. “The less that you take to them the better, so they trust you,” said Rogers. “They’re the relationships you can’t buy… We do quality over quantity.” But that can include early access: the first person outside the band and label to hear one track from a Unified artist’s recent new album was the global head of rock at Spotify, for example.

Adams said that the culture of a label and its artists is another important thing. “Talking to bands about what artists or authors they like: just helping them to build a culture around what they do,” he said. “If you’ve got a strategy for developing a culture around that band, and you’ve got an A&R strategy, that’s got to be the base… And just giving them a creative space is the most important thing a label can do for a band.”

“Nothing can be cookie-cut,” added Hendry, and Moxon agreed: “It feels like a very exciting time for the music industry because all the rules have been ripped up. Every campaign you’re sitting down and looking at the artist, but also feeling the direction that the wind is blowing in, and how they fit with the prevailing culture of the moment. And setting your plan from there,” she said.

The conversation continued with the wider significance of labels. “The label was at one part in history the be-all and end-all. But now it’s one part of the story,” said Adams. “You’ve got to see yourself within a global picture of live, of merchandise, of record label. And in the same way, the artist shouldn’t rely for everything on the label.”

Rogers suggested that 2018 is a hyper-competitive period in terms of A&R. “There’s no rules now in terms of how you put a deal together, and you can’t expect that your other label over there who’s competing for an artist is putting the same kind of deal together for that artist.”

Al-Wali suggested that the relationships may have to be more frugal sometimes, but: “The idea’s the most important thing, and that doesn’t always have to cost a lot… It can be a bit risky when artists just want labels to spend money. Spending money doesn’t [necessarily] mean success.”

The panel were asked about what might be stopping artists wanting to work with a label – for example being ‘locked in’ – and how these fears can be addressed.

Hendry agreed that it’s a common conversation. “It’s a fear and it’s probably always going to be there: ‘I’m going to get locked in. What am I going to do?'” she said. “You don’t have to be locked in… it’s a case-by-case situation. It’s all about us being able to accommodate them in the deal structure.”

Moxon: “I think record labels have got more flexible: obviously they’ve had to respond to the fact that it’s a competitive space… I think it’s really important for the independent record label community to be fair in our business dealings, and I think independent record labels often get lumped in with major record-company deals in the way those are structured. I think it’s important that we explain how we are different… always be straightforward, and account to people on time.”

“For every Frank Ocean there’s 5,000, 50,000 artists that are trying to do it themselves. There are success stories and there are going to continue to be success stories,” added Rogers. “But how much is the cost of doing business for you as an artist. How much are you prepared to give up in return for the support of an artist? Frank Ocean had the power of Universal prior to going it alone… It’s something you engage with to do business as an artist.”

“But you can choose your partners wisely,” counselled Zaraya. He said that another fear of artists is that they’ll be stuck in a deal 10 years down the road with a label that doesn’t care about them. But release-guarantee and rights-reversion clauses in contracts can be important here.

“It’s considered to be a competitive advantage within the independent industry that we treat artists fairly,” concluded Burgess. So the important thing is for them to keep doing that, including keeping abreast of what those artists perceive as fairness in their dealings.

Stuart Dredge

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