In this day and age, an artist’s brand is more important than ever to create greater opportunities for new revenue streams. Brands are happily doling out checks to bring artists on board to perform at festivals, be ambassadors and most recently “creative directors.” Over the past several years, with the decline of the record business, I have read dozens of articles about whether brands are the new record labels. (Check out some of these articles from 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2012.) I say no. However, it is very interesting that there is little to no discussion about the record label as a brand.
When I first began working at Universal Music Group (UMG), social media was just bubbling with MySpace, and was about to boil over with Facebook and Twitter. I soon stepped into the role of developing UMG’s social media strategy. One thing that I was told, and had to keep in mind while creating the framework, is that we were not a brand. Our artists are brands, but we are not. Since then, I have heard similar statements about record labels and have had the same reaction every time: Why not?
For me, the two record labels that became the biggest brands and still resonate today are Motown and Def Jam. Motown is its own genre of music, and Def Jam is synonymous with hip hop. There are many labels that have attempted to maintain their once-beloved brands and stay relevant with new artists but have fallen short. Long ago, in a land far, far away where you could walk into a store that only sold music, you could browse through shelves and shelves of vinyl, cassette tapes, and CDs. If you did not know an artist, you could glance at the record label logo and be more inclined to trust the record label and buy the record or single because you liked the previous one or two artists they released. Record labels were music curators (alongside our favorite employee at the record stores). Now the fans seem to dictate whom the record labels sign.
Although the label has deteriorated as a trusted curator and record stores have closed in droves, music streaming services have struggled with the curation and recommendation piece of the puzzle as well. Most recently, Jimmy Iovine spoke about his forthcoming streaming service, Daisy, “There is a sea of music, an ocean of music and absolutely no curation for it.” Between brands creating content around artists, streaming services refining their algorithms, and radio still playing the same song, do record labels have a voice? There is no real affinity for one record label over another (aside from the more notable hip hop collectives today). The artist brand has become bigger, faster, and stronger than the record label brand, which has put us in the position in which we now find ourselves. The labels relinquished value when putting resources solely into the artist and stopped devoting any to themselves. And by value, I’m talking about building a lifestyle around the record label and creating an organic brand that resonates with music fans. If labels had strong brands, artists would gravitate towards them for what they stand for and what they mean to the culture. Now many artists are taking the DIY approach. Ask your friend if she knows what record label Adele is signed to.
We are now down to the three majors: Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment. Who influences you the most when it comes to discovering new music?