The Rebirth of the Record Label?
Could labels resurface as curators in the age of streaming?
I really hated record labels for the longest time. I came-of-age in the mid-2000s; when LimeWire was still online and the iTunes Store was brand new. There weren’t many ways to legitimately get music online, which made piracy seem like a great option. And the only time you ever heard about a record label was when they sued young kids and/or grandparents for stealing their artists’ music.
I had no idea what record labels did and do for their artists. I had no concept of indie labels. And I certainly hadn’t considered the label as a curation device. As I learned more about them, I started following certain labels like I followed artists. If I wanted punk, I’d go to a Dischord band I’d never tired. If I wanted alt-rock I’d look at who was just added to Domino or Warp. When I got into trip hop and hip hop I fell head-first into Mo’Wax and Stones Throw.
Over the years, I’ve learned that a good label should be a collection of artists working in a similar style, city or region curated and cultivated by a staff of music-loving professionals. I’ve watched some killer documentaries and read some great books about the history of some of the best indie labels and music personnel. And of course, I’ve started supporting them financially when I can.
Now, we’re at the dawn of mass-market streaming and it’s looking like it will be a bad thing for indie labels. Artists get all the star power of the new system, while the platforms get most of the cash. So where does that leave Peanut Butter Wolf (Stones Throw) and Ian MacKaye(Dischord)? They may not be writing as much new music as they used to, but they’re still making a huge impact by signing and/or recording the artists they do. And how are we supposed to find those releases when they finally hit Spotify or Apple Music?
I realize not everyone follows specific labels. However, I know a little bit about UI/UX Design, and it seems like adding a page for each record company and a link on their copyright notice (at the bottom of each album page) would be easy enough. Will my mom use that feature? No. The DJs, critics and fanatics will though.
And what about those coveted “human curated playlists”? Why not give label staff the opportunity to curate and push out lists of recent released to their followers. Just like the old Compilation CD days? Remember those? The free disc you got with the Fall Out Boy one you bought that told you who Hawthorne Heights were.*
I think we were all burned by the major labels at the turn of the millennium, and it’s caused us to care less for the indie labels that bring us some of the most interesting stuff. And that needs to change. Especially as more indie bands get distribution and the scene becomes even larger. We’re going to need curators, like awesome indie labels, to help us find the best bands.
So hopefully, the streaming services will start paying attention to labels as creative entities like I did. After all, they do a lot more than sue high school students for using Kazaa these days.