We’ll be blunt: anyone who tells you that labels are dead is talking out of their trumpet. But anyone who tells you that an artist can’t succeed without a label is just as big a fibber. The truth of the matter is that the ability for artists to thrive outside the traditional labels system in 2019 – the existence of that alternative path – is what will fuel the next big evolution of labels (good ones, anyway) in terms of how they’re structured, what they do for artists, and how those deals are structured. It’s a positive process, albeit one with some necessary tensions along the way.

Part of that process will require labels to justify their value to artists and explain how they’re evolving to support them. That’s not a new phenomenon: the IFPI’s ‘Investing in Music’ reports in 2014 and 2016 were examples of the global body making the case for its members. Now US body the RIAA has commissioned a report from consulting firm Musonomics – Same Heart. New Beat. How Record Labels Amplify Talent in the Modern Music Marketplace – which falls into similar territory.

The report offers a handy primer on some of the key ‘then and now’ changes to how labels operate: from the emergence of big data in the A&R process to always-on marketing campaigns; more-flexible artist-services deals; and the shift from physical to digital distribution.

There’s the odd note of defensiveness. “Even for artists with a talented manager and support team, a label that has released hundreds of thousands of songs has a very different aggregate information base and relationship network that can’t be replicated by someone working with a handful of artists,” for example. We know several large management companies who take a very different view, and who are actively hiring and restructuring their companies to explore that.

Again, though, it’s a vast oversimplification to boil this down to ‘you NEED a label’ or ‘you DON’T need a label’: if anything, the trend is towards managers developing artists for longer and thus playing a more label-like role, and then when the time’s right, exploring their options in terms of how to work with a label in a range of ways. While the Musonomics occasionally seems to be beaming out a message of ‘Managers! You can’t do it on your own’, actually the meat of this study does a more nuanced job of breaking down the teams and services within labels that managers may want to tap in to.

In any case, there’s lots to chew over in the report – down to little nuggets like “Childish Gambino’s deal with RCA covers a specific length of time rather than a traditional deal based on number of album cycles” – logical in an age where artists are able to drop tracks and EPs based on their creative cycle, rather than a particular marketing plan. Its 35 pages are worth settling down with in full.

One last caveat: this report (unavoidably) represents a moment in time. With Spotify and Apple Music directly licensing some artists, and with the former also launching a tool for direct uploads, there is more disruption afoot. “This report shows why artists of all stripes seek to collaborate with a label instead of taking any of a multitude of other paths available, and why the most listened-to artists are backed by labels,” wrote RIAA boss Mitch Glazier in a blog post about the report.

Might that change over the next couple of years as the DSPs’ artist-direct strategies evolve? And in turn, how will that bring further changes to how the labels themselves evolve? Musonomics’ report offers plenty of food for thought as the industry starts to grapple with those questions, at least.

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