This summer, major record labels have taken some hard and very public hits (no pun intended). With Frank Ocean’s rejection of Def Jam to release Blonde on his independent label Boys Don’t Cry and Chance The Rapper’s self-release of the acclaimed Colouring Book, there’s a growing case to suggest major labels are becoming obsolete. Does anyone really need labels anymore, other than the labels themselves?
Major record labels have long held a reputation as corporate, exploitative and faceless black holes of creativity. Gone are the days when the word COLUMBIA would be stamped across vinyl larger than an artist’s name, but long, binding contracts (if you’re one of the lucky ones) loaded with devious album options, huge artist debts and low royalties still make the major record industry feel like a horrible, but unfortunately necessary, evil. To take an extreme example; who would work for label giant Sony, when they deny Kesha an end to her contract and force her to work with her alleged rapist and abuser?
Major record labels have long held a reputation as corporate, exploitative and faceless black holes of creativity.
Releasing music through a small label (or even yourself) and thus escaping the monolithic might of the major label industry has always been enticing. In the UK, the punk rock era announced the arrival of independent record labels as a significant player. An aspiring artist would be offered greater freedom, bespoke service and higher royalties, in exchange for a team of about seven people in a loft somewhere and a marketing strategy based (at most) on posters in the pub. And yet, the creativity championed by these early independent labels is reflected not only by the commercial success of early indie artists, but by the cult status and hushed reverence names like Factory Records and Creation still inspire. Despite being run from a small flat in Didsbury for most of its independent life, aided by the ever-paternal John Peel, Factory managed to introduce Joy Division to the world, whilst Rough Trade retained The Smiths in spite of the longing glances of the major labels.
In America, hip-hop was built on the freedom afforded by independent releases, and this continues to be championed today. Chance The Rapper, one of 2016’s most in-demand artists, backs the musical freedom and daring activism that can exist when an artist has a large stake in their own music. In an interview with Hot97, Chance credits the ‘consistent narrative’ and ownership that releasing his own records allows him to maintain both musically and politically. Following the success of 2013’s mixtape Acid Rap most would have expected Chance to sign to a major label and rake in the big money. Instead he collaborated with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment on the exuberant and independently released Surf, whilst being voted Chicago’s youth of the year 2014 for his both his art and activism (including the #SaveChicago anti-gun violence campaign). In the same way, Ocean’s escape from his unhappy marriage to Def Jam means he will never again be told his music is too ‘old R&B’.
However, if you’re not Frank Ocean, and as long as studios charge for recording time, artists will always need money.
Those artists grappling with the major labels have recently been awarded another weapon: the Internet. The traditional distribution infrastructure and advertising revenue that accompanies a major label contract are pretty much irrelevant when artists can release music online only, and be marketed infinitely quickly by social media. Unlike Adele, who shifts physical albums, artists like Ocean don’t need the label system at all, they have an ardent fan base who a reached primarily online. Chance The Rapper can rely so heavily on this that he releases all his music free and streaming only, relying on touring, merch and exclusives for income. Non-superstars can also work around the traditional labels system, releasing free mixtapes and online-only content, gradually building underground followings. Take milo and his small collective/label (now dissolved), the LA based Hellfyre Club; his nerdy, sensitive rap gained a following over a period of years through free EP releases on Bandcamp and Soundcloud – something you doubt would have happened on a major label.
However, if you’re not Frank Ocean, and as long as studios charge for recording time, artists will always need money. There’s a reason why, despite the negatives, so many aspiring artists ache for the day when they are picked up by a major label. Ignoring for a moment the appeal of threadbare sofas and slim budgets at indie labels, the reach, infrastructure and capital commanded by large corporations can be a positive thing. Many independent labels are in fact subsidiaries of major labels, whilst Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ self-released The Heist in fact employed Warner Records as a distributor in order to raise the huge sales it enjoyed.
So it would seem the major label still holds the upper hand.
However, eroded over decades by independent labels and undermined by the democracy of the internet, in the last few years a new foe has reared its head: streaming services. Both Coloring Book and Frank Ocean’s Endless and Blonde were first released as Apple Music exclusives. Although the money involved is unconfirmed, in this case the streaming service itself acts as a label, offering a budget for a project in exchange for exclusive streaming rights for a limited time. This allows for greater artist control, no album options and fewer formulaic radio-motivated singles. The terror that streaming services inspire in the major labels was confirmed by Universal Music Group’s decision to ban streaming exclusives – will their superstar acts, like Drake, need to sign a new deal when comparable money is being offered by Apple?
The impact on fans of the probable tug of war between labels and streaming services is unclear. The greater creativity and freedom on offer is undermined slightly by the idea that streaming services could create a paywall behind which to hide hit content. Further, can artists like Chance really claim to be independent when Apple Music has a larger revenue than all the major labels combined? However, for the first time the shift of power is beginning to slide away from the major corporations towards artists, and that is undeniably a good thing.