Dear Independent Artist: Record Labels are Evolving and Not Going Extinct You Will Need Them
THE DEATH OF PHYSICAL FORMATS AS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE "DECLINE" OF LABELS
With the proliferation of technology we have seen a sharp change in the way music is consumed, while it may have taken "forever" (circa 1860- circa 2011) for our ancestors to go through the motions of physical formats - Electronically Cut Records, Vinyl, Cassette ( DAT, DCC), and the many evolutions of the CD before what is obtainable today. Truth be told they loved it, I may have been opportuned to only witness the cassette to CD transition but there's a collection of Vinyls in pristine conditions whose ownership have been attributed to my grand uncles. My generation was delicately positioned between purchasing CD's to "patronizing" file sharing sites like Napster and the malware distributing Limewire,the basis upon which digital purchase and streaming sprang up faster than the infamous beanstalk.
The unprecedented level of development that has taken place in the music industry may be difficult to catalogue but here are a few watershed moments;
The decline of the blog era and that of magazines and websites breaking new artists from the underground.The sudden realization that some artists could amass a fan base and secretly sign to a label who would only announce the signing later in order not to "tarnish" the underground status that served as a pull for an artist. A phenomenon Djbooth aptly describes as Mindie artists.Flowing from 2 above, labels became more interested in making profits and began channeling funds into fabricating and forcing songs and collaborations while underfunding A&R and development departments because why waste money discovering acts when SoundCloud could do that for you and, why waste money developing acts when they could learn the harsh realities through respective underground hustles.Exclusive packages like the one between Chance and Apple Music swung the tide and artists realized that the game had changed, it was now the battle to get spotlights on the major platforms (Apple Music, SoundCloud, Spotify and Tidal). The playlist system which latched onto the already successful algorithm dictated curation done by Netflix, Facebook and Instagram was born. Songs could now be made to suit tastemakers and almost guaranteed placement on a playlist followed.
Labels were now practically only searching for artists who had the following and fanbase to guarantee streams. The early careers of folks like J Cole and Wale had shown that acts with a loyal fanbase were a sure bet for success, as against the previously held method of getting the acts popular by chasing a hot single.
THE REALITY TODAY
The reality today is that major labels rarely sign unknown acts. Do your research and discover that from Valee to Black Youngsta and Lil Uzi Vert or even Wizkid, all recent Major label signings are artists who already amassed a following, huge enough to fill a decently sized indoor sports hall and have only inked deals that mirror Chance's deal with Apple Music. What has happened is, artist development is now a phase an artist has to go through with absolute independence or with the guidance of an independent label. Upon this and certain achievements, a major label comes calling and a deal is struck to outsource marketing and distribution only, with full artistic direction retained by the independent label and the artist. It may seem common place now, but Cole and Kendrick signed these type of deals years ago.
Bearing in mind that acts like Oddisee, Marlon Craft and Brother Ali are the last vestiges of what it truly means to be independent in this ever confusing world of labels. "Mindie" deals are becoming the norm and one cannot help but examine the current trend of "independent artists" - artists who do not have access to the calling cards of Interscope and Atlantic Records; artists that fund every studio session and beat purchase independently and ultimately remove the middle man - barring Streaming sites, Bandcamp and Tunecore - from transactions between them and their fans.
The reality we face is that special deals will only become more ubiquitous and it is proper to envisage a future where artist discovery is based on signing acts owing to their numbers across social media and streaming sites in order for labels to get a piece of the action. In essence major labels will become a platform like Pride Rock for showing the "chosen ones".
THE NIGERIAN VERSION
Label development of talent in Nigeria is next to inexistent, as Onemotolani opined last year. We would be better placed handing development contracts to young artists instead of what is obtainable today. The impact of the special deals in Nigeria I envisage will be minimal, as it will only be a variant of what we see today. The only remaining riddles to be solved is how the deal will be structured, owing to the ridiculously terrible copyright and royalty system in operation.
The anticipated downside is that artists who make popular music will definitely outweigh niche artists when we eventually look back on who is getting signed, then again, this is only a prognosis.
Today in Nigeria, the streaming market share is split between Apple Music, Boomplayer, MTN Music Plus, SoundCloud and Tidal, with Spotify yet to make an official entry into the market. Considering the market techniques of Music Plus, SoundCloud, Tidal and Boomplayer, it appears that special deals - if any - would primarily be offered by Apple Music for the time being.
Currently Sony Music one of the big 3 Labels has began testing the waters with tailored deals for some of Nigerian acts most notably, Davido, Wizkid and Ycee. Davido in particular was very vocal about how he had to renegotiate a deal with Sony Music that granted him creative control in Africa - after repeated claims that they tried to change his sound - different from that which will be obtainable abroad. We are familiar with Ycee’s short-lived distribution deal with Sony Music Entertainment which was terminated on February 4th 2018. Teckno’s deal with Columbia Records (a subsidiary of Sony Music) was tailored to be for strictly distribution and bringing his music to a different audience.
The take home lesson from all this is that the major labels are on the lookout for established acts and probably have templates of structured deals waiting to be handed to artists, immediately they show up on their radar. It goes without saying that the future of major label signing will mostly be associated with distribution and marketing, particularly outside the country - owing to the shameful sales and royalty systems obtainable in Nigeria. There's also something to be said for the influence these labels may have over radio plays and general exposure as a trickle down effect.
To the Nigerian independent artist, it behoves on you to hone your craft and learn about the business aspects of the industry. Be prepared for when the majors come calling because the dynamics will be different from what you are used to currently. Whereas other artists may be getting deals to release a certain number of albums, Nigerian artists as we have seen can only attract distribution and "exposure" deals.
In conclusion, while technology is slowly phasing out overwhelming label power, labels won't become obscure anytime soon. Artistes will still need their distribution networks, financial support, media power and influence. Unlike print media, labels understand and are actively reworking their models. In fact, the new Universal Music Group Nigeria reportedly doesn't operate as an outright record label. They reportedly offer exposure, promotion and financial backing for set projects. While that might be down to the crooked structure of Nigerian media, it shows that labels now understand the concept of reworking their ideals to suit terrains and trying times.
As such, artistes should also understand how powerful they will be for a long time. What labels can do, only a few artistes can attempt. Those artistes are however mostly from rich backgrounds will affords them certain possibilities. The lack of label backing is why a significant amount of Nigerian artists making waves are of privileged backgrounds - they have the money to record and push their art. For the rest of us, which is like 80% of the population, we need record labels to have any chance at succeeding.
By Nico for Urban Central, Tweets @WordsbyAG
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