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Who needs the labels anyway?

Who needs the labels anyway?

Who needs the labels anyway?
April 04
20:42 2018
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A few weeks ago we wrote a piece about the pressures facing artists hoping to earn money from their recorded music.

In short, due to the twin forces of an abundance of recorded music and low royalty payments from streaming services, returns to artists have fallen precipitously over the past decade and a half.

At a recent ‘ Movement of Music‘ panel hosted at Google’s offices in Michigan, however, a cabal of industry insiders took the opportunity to frame this digital disruption as an opportunity for penniless bards:

The direction of the music industry no longer requires a major record label to validate “hot” new music artists. Nowadays, music technology is on the verge of replacing the record labels…digital marketing is “rewriting” the rules of the music industry for artists to win. The panel talked about how branding, music, and advertising go hand-in-hand with the rapidly increasing use of technology.

To summarise, thanks to the wonders of the internet artists can now become their own mini-start ups – finding a wide audience without the help of the big bad labels.

Yet is this realistic or achievable for the aspiring artist?

First, it is important to note the competition artists are up against. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, using data from Discogs, estimated the amount of physical music releases this year will be seven times that of 1960:

Note how the WSJ’s article does not include digital-only releases, the most likely means of distributing music for amateurs. That suggests this figure is far higher when we take into account all music released.

So how does the Movement for Music panel suggest an amateur artist finds an audience, without a deep-pocketed label, in this ocean of music? By:

[pairing] with branding experts, distribution companies and agencies for marketing strategies…

Unfortunately, they failed to note that all three of these means requires capital of both the cultural and financial variety.

Anecdotally, we all can reel off a list of of pop icons with privileged backgrounds. Who can forget that the Strokes initially met at Swiss boarding school Le Rosey?

Even so, one would imagine in the era of lower recording costs and free internet distribution that the middle-class grip over music would be somewhat softened.

A UK-wide survey of the creative industries, conducted in late 2015 by Goldsmiths University on behalf of Crate London, although not exclusively focused on the music industry, suggests not.

From the press release:

The survey…found that an overwhelming majority of respondents working in the arts (76%) had at least one parent working in a managerial or professional (i.e. ‘middle class’) job whilst they were growing up and that over half had at least one parent with a degree whilst growing up.

Further to this, 88 per cent of respondents said that they had worked for free at some point in their careers, suggesting that the need to work is a hindrance in developing a music career.

In light of these findings, the panel’s notion that amateur musicians can fulfill the time-intensive role of a label by finding their own collaborators, whilst also working, writing, recording and having a semblance of a life, does not quite hold water.

Of course, collaborating with “branding experts, distribution companies and agencies” also requires financial outlays. Depending on the level of expertise, a good radio plugger, for instance, will cost £1000 to £2000 per single with no guarantee of radio play.

Similarly, working with a PR firm to help build a Facebook or Instagram audience requires not only upfront fees for their spin-doctoring, but recurring advertising costs just to push your music to the social-media masses.

Then there is the fact that these potential ‘collaborators’, and the arts industry in general, tend to be geographically concentrated in urban and affluent areas. Tough luck if you’re hoping to network with industry bigwigs in town and you live several hours away.

Given it takes 610,465 Spotify streams to earn the US minimum wage, we admire that the Movement for Music panel found something positive to say to long-suffering musicians. Unfortunately, unless you can afford to not work whilst spending money, none of it rings particularly true.


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