I spent three decades running major labels — here’s why I left it behind
Less than two years after a very public battle with her former label, Polydor, over their refusal to release her album over the course of almost seven years, British singer-songwriter, Raye, recently hit the top of the UK singles chart with her latest release, “Escapism.” It was a huge achievement for someone who was fundamentally let down by her label, and the latest in a series of victories for independent artists.
Artists like Raye, Jorga Smith, Stormzy and Skepta have proven that today’s artists can have significant success outside of a restrictive label deal. They can even negotiate a more equitable licensing agreement with a major. These successes are reflective of a fundamental power shift in the music industry from labels to artists.
If anybody should know about that change, it’s me. After all, I’ve spent the last three decades within the label system in the UK, and I’ve had an up-close-and-personal view of the transformation that has taken place.
When I was co-president of Columbia Records UK, we were the №1 label in the country, having broken several domestic artists to over one million UK sales and returned huge success for the likes of Daft Punk, Mark Ronson and Calvin Harris — we were on fire. With that track record, you would expect any artist to want to sign a deal with you, but we started to see a surprising turn among young, emerging artists: they simply didn‘t want to sign their rights away. They were starting to look at artists like Skepta and Stormzy, who had built their careers independently and in the main, retained their rights. They saw these artists enjoy complete creative freedom, far greater financial return, and major labels scrambling to close more equitable deals on the basis of their success — all without having to sacrifice their rights in perpetuity.
Fast forward a few years and the interest in independence has only increased — massively and rapidly. Sit in any conference room of young artists, managers and producers and you’ll hear the message loud and clear: artists are less interested in signing restrictive rights deals, and even less interested in handing over control of their music to an industry that has become increasingly reactive, rather than proactive.
Legacy major label deals fit the realities of a bygone era. Labels are no longer the one-stop-shop of artist development, distribution, international promotion and funding that once guarded entry into the music industry.
Hundreds of companies make music distribution more accessible every day, and support from international markets can no longer be an expectation for the majority of globally signed artists, as markets become more domestically focused.
Labels have also seemingly stepped away from the long haul of artist development, leaving artists and their managers to largely build their business and fanbase on their own, before attracting the attention of a label. Unsurprisingly, after a few years of self-development, artists become protective over their rights, fanbase, identity, and creative control, and less open to the influence of a partner who hasn’t been there from the start.
All that’s left is the label’s checkbook.
Don’t get me wrong: labels are incredibly effective when they really get behind an artist or record. They have experienced resources, deep relationships (and deeper pockets), and are experts at amplifying domestic success into a global phenomenon.
However, this just isn’t the reality for 98% of artists who sign to a major label. In exchange for everything a label could offer, artists invariably give up the rights to their work and income, only to be caught in a vortex of spiraling debt and creative servitude.
Little wonder I was so excited when I first came across beatBread. It was like finding the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle: a simple solution that could free artists from the chains of restrictive deals, driven by complex machine learning and exhaustive data analysis. I knew beatBread had the chance to be an industry game changer — a change that I wanted to be a part of.
beatBread is founded on the principle of artist empowerment — enabling independence, choice of partners and the ability to retain the rights to their work. It allows artists to take an advance on future streaming income, whilst leaving them in complete control over music rights, partners, and how the money is spent.
Most importantly, it reflects what creatives are thinking today: artists don’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, give up ownership and control to advance their careers. The proposition is so simple, but the positive impact it could have for artists around the world is immense.
So, I joined them.
There is a growing appetite for the financial freedom that beatBread facilitates. We’ve already seen artists use their advance to buy themselves out of major label deals, and established artists, whose options the majors are no longer prepared to pick up, leave labels and find their independence — sometimes for the first time in their careers.
Hundreds of thousands of emerging artists now have the means to go their own way — an option I imagine a young David Bowie or Prince would be drawn to. It’s hard to imagine how those progressive trailblazers would have found their way in today’s music industry, navigating skip rates and the short-term ROI expectations of most labels. Independence and self-governance would have undoubtedly been an invaluable opportunity.
This is a new era of music. Artists are in the power seat and have the ability to achieve success, while retaining complete control over their music — and it’s not with a major.
By Mark Terry, Head of Europe at beatBread
What is beatBread?
beatBread is a pioneering music funding platform with a mission to empower artists so that they can own their art and control their careers. We give more independent and unsigned artists access to funding and more choice to select the promotion, marketing, and production partners that best fit their unique needs.
Founded in 2020, beatBread brings together a team with deep experience in music, finance, artificial intelligence and machine learning to create new opportunities for artists and their managers. beatBread provides financial advances that are repaid through a limited share of revenues from streaming and airplay, over a period of the artist’s choosing.