In this episode, we’re discussing a question I often get: Are record labels still relevant? The music industry has changed dramatically in the last ten years and artists have more possibilities than ever before to self-release music. But does that mean labels aren’t relevant anymore? Let’s find out!
Record labels used to be the ultimate gate-keepers
Back when CDs were still a thing and the digitalization of the music industry hadn’t gained momentum yet, record labels were the ultimate gate-keepers. Without a label, you didn’t even have a chance to enter the market and get your products onto the shelves of record stores.
There have been some exceptions, of course. The DIY attitude of some brave underground artists and collectives in various genres (from hardcore punk to Detroit and Berlin techno) managed to sneak small vinyl (and later CD) pressings into niche-stores and “hacked” the record label distribution system. Yet, this was the exception rather than the rule.
But why were record labels so important back then? Well, they not only controlled the distribution chain to end consumers, they also had the means to pay for studio recordings, promotion, and tours. Back then, all of the things were totally different. You couldn’t make a record on a laptop, there was no way to promote your music yourself directly to an audience on social media, and self-organizing a tour was much more complicated in the pre-internet era. But compared to that, are record labels still relevant today?
Things have changed in the era of digital music production and consumption
These days, record labels have mostly lost their function as gatekeepers. Artists can self-produce, -release, and -promote their music and some of them have had more success with it than many major-label starlets before.
The empowered artist of today doesn’t need to be on a label to be successful. Period. But does that make record labels less relevant? I don’t think so. Their function as gate-keepers might have vanished (and that’s a good thing!) but other factors have become more important.
Overall, I believe that the role of record labels has changed. They’re still important today but in a different way.
5 reasons why record labels are still important today
Even if it’s possible to build an amazing music career without any backing by a record label, I believe that there are good reasons why labels are still relevant.
1. Labels provide orientation in an abundance of new releases
The first and most important function of record labels these days is to provide orientation. We’re being flooded with mediocre self-released music that hits the streaming platforms and social networks and it’s getting harder and harder to find real gems.
Good record labels carefully select the artists they work with and help them become the best version of themselves. They’re offering honest feedback during the production process, hire the right people for mixing and/or mastering, pay talented graphic designers for the right visual look, etc.
All in all, record labels are bullshit-filters rather than gate-keepers. A good label is still a trusted source of great music that helps define a certain genre. There’s a reason why you almost always get a “no” when you try to get signed to a label. They have to be extremely careful not to hurt their brand or disappoint their audience. This brings us to the next reason why labels are still relevant.
2. A great label is a brand that people trust, and so they trust you
The big advantage of getting signed to a record label instead of starting your own imprint is that you immediately get in front of the right audience. Good labels have established a loyal following of “true fans” that trust in their abilities to pick the right artists. In consequence, they automatically trust your talent and the quality of your music. Prove them right and you might quickly grow your own tribe of true fans.
Since the gate-keeper function of record labels is redundant these days, it’s more important than ever for them to make sure their brand is on point. Signing new talent is only one part of the equation. Running a well-branded label these days involves ongoing content creation, clearly-recognizable artwork, authentic PR and communication, and even things like high-quality merchandise. All of this helps strengthen the bond between a record label and its loyal following.
My next reason why record labels are still relevant has to do with the limits of today’s “do-it-yourself” artists.
3. Self-releasing artists often put too much weight on their shoulders
You can’t be good at every aspect of your artist career. Moreover, if you try to do everything on your own, you might end up exhausted, overworked, and unsatisfied. And guess what suffers most in this case: Your music.
It sounds easy to self-produce and release your music, but once you start to dive deeper into specific areas from mastering your tune to distribution to PR and marketing, it becomes overwhelming for most artists. You might find yourself crying “all I wanted was to create music and now I have to deal with all of that other stuff as well”.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of the do-it-yourself attitude. But even with the best time-management techniques, you won’t be able to do everything on your own. At least not at the desired level of quality. A good record label handles many of these aspects like a well-oiled machine. This brings us to the next reason why labels are still relevant.
4. Good record labels offer a well-functioning network of specialists
One of the biggest benefits of working with an established label is that you get access to their network of experienced professionals. Usually, record labels have a team of mixing and mastering engineers that they work with as well as PR specialists and graphic designers.
Apart from that, don’t underestimate the benefits of getting to know the other artists on the label. This might be a chance for interesting collaborations as well as remix opportunities. Growing your network this way can pay off massively in the long run.
The people running the label might become your mentors and support you over the course of your artist career. This leads us to the last reason why labels are still important today.
5. A great label helps you grow beyond your limits
Self-releasing, on the one hand, helps you build important skills that make you appeal to music industry professionals. On the other hand, you might play it a bit safe and never truly leave your comfort zone because you don’t have to.
A great label owner or A&R manager knows exactly what your true potential is and will push you beyond your self-imposed limits. That’s a great chance to grow as an artist and leave your comfort zone. There’s a reason why famous label owners like Daniel Miller of Mute Records get mentioned a lot in biographies of big artists. They have helped them massively and one could argue, that without visionary label owners, some careers would have taken a different route.
As an artist, you sometimes need someone who truly believes in you and expresses this openly. Self-doubt is a constant companion of us as creatives and we can’t always fight that demon on our own. Then there are other times where you might need someone to bring you down on your feet again when you’re getting too ignorant or stubborn.
Having a great relationship of trust with the people running your record label is a way of protecting yourself from yourself. They will tell you when you’re becoming your own worst enemy. But they will also help you find your path and become the best version of yourself as an artist.
Conclusion: The relevance of record labels in the digital age
I believe that record labels aren’t a relic of the past. More than ever before, we need filters that provide orientation in an ever more saturated world of distraction. A great record label is a strong brand that helps its artists grow. They carefully select the people they work with and make sure they never disappoint their true fans.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start your own label. But do it for a reason. Do it because you want to build a brand and collaborate with great talents and provide a platform for their art. Starting a record label shouldn’t be only about your own music.
All in all, we’re living in a great area where the gate-keeping function of labels doesn’t play a role anymore. Artists are at eye-level with labels and we should try to collaborate as equal partners and grow together in today’s music industry.
Putting it into action: Using the new role of labels to your advantage
Now that we’ve discussed the importance of record labels these days, let’s find out how you can make the best out of the situation and benefit from their new role.
1. Ask yourself what you expect from your relationship with a label
- Sketch out the ideal partnership between you and a label. What can you offer them, what do you expect in return?
- How would your relationship look like on a human level?
2. Start compiling a list of labels that you feel would be a good fit for your music and artist personality
- Go back to our episode on how to find the right label and start with the process of building relationships.
- Map out which labels would be a great fit for you in the current stage of your career but also have some future labels in mind once your artist career has gained some momentum.
3. In case you want to start your own label, map out what it should stand for
- Go back to the episode on starting a record label to kick things off
- What type of brand should your ideal label represent?
- Who are the true fans of this label and what characterizes them?
- What type of artists do you plan to sign to this label and how are you planning to find them?
Alright, that’s it for this episode. Now I’d love to hear from you: What do you think about the role of labels today? Are they still relevant or is it all about self-releasing music?
Let me know in the comments, I read everything.