What happens when artists decide they’re done with big labels? A lot of things (and they’re all pretty awesome.)
Last month, we talked about 50 Cent’s decision to break ties with his long-time label Shady/Interscope in favor of putting out future music independently. The story wasn’t anomalous. Artists parting ways with their big labels to run their own show isn’t a new occurrence, but it is certainly happening with greatly increased frequency – and more outspoken defense – in the last few years.
So why are so many heavy hitters leaving their label homes after sometimes decades of a seemingly harmonious relationship? As with most things in the music industry, it comes down to issues of control and ownership. This is how the equation usually works: labels give artists support in terms of development, recording, marketing, touring, and distribution (so, like, everything) and in return, the label gets to make money off of them and have varying degrees of control over aspects of their career and rights to their music (if this sounds vague, it’s because the specifics vary wildly. Sorry. It’s not a science.)
But what happens when an artist has been around long enough that they no longer feel they need the support of a major label? What happens when they feel, for any number of reasons, that they are giving more than they’re getting? Factor in that the introduction of the internet has given artists the ability to connect with fans and share/sell music with an ease and accessibility that was previously inconceivable – why do established artists stay with big labels at all?
The answer: more of them aren’t. Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with being on a label. In fact, finding a label that gets you and with whom you have a positive, mutually beneficial relationship is probably the single greatest advantage and comfort you can have as an artist. A lot of bands, despite knowing they could feasibly manage their entire careers and put out their music on their own, simply don’t want to deal with it. And ya know, respect. Seriously. But increasingly, more artists are interested in taking more control over their music (not to mention their brand) – and this is how they’re going about it:
Starting their own label
After the 2004 release of Pressure Chief, Cake left Columbia to found their own label, Upbeat Records. Their statement about the move pretty much summed up the sentiments of other artists – Jack White, Wilco, Oasis – in terms of their own reasons for peacing out from the big label world to start their own thing:
“The music business is sort of in collapse right now, so it struck us that we didn’t want to be tied to the sinking ship. Also, our culture was so markedly different than the culture that we found ourselves having to interact with at a major label.”
Oh, and also labels take a lot of money and retain a hell of a lot of control over a band’s music. So maybe Radiohead spoke for a lot of artists too when they explained their not-so-friendly departure from EMI:
“What we wanted was some control over our [master recordings] and how it was used in the future by them. That seemed reasonable to us, and we cared about it a great deal. Mr. Hands was not interested. So, neither were we.”
Foregoing any label at all
Of course, you could opt to not have a record label (your own or anyone else’s) behind your release at all. This is a strategy rarely employed by more successful artists – they generally need more in terms of marketing and distribution than they could (or would want to) manage on their own. But considering the easy expansive reach of the internet, what’s to keep a band from dropping an album on their own site, saying “Here you go, world!”, selling downloads, keeping all the money, and retaining total control over the rights to their music? Nothing, to be honest. Radiohead does it.
And that’s really the key to giving the middle finger to labels – you pretty much have to be on Radiohead’s level – both in terms of experience, know-how, and audience – to make completely label-less album releases work for you. Gaining those things, for better or worse, usually requires years – decades even – in the industry, during which time, being under the guidance of a strong, well-established label is still an artist’s best bet for learning how to professionally craft and release an album.
Ultimately, that’s why we see hugely successful artists severing decades-long label relationships; they didn’t want to sacrifice success for control, but as soon as they had the weight and savvy to stand on their own without sacrificing too much professional standing, they struck out. For any music lover, it’s pretty amazing for a few reasons:
1) Look, we’re not saying that all big labels are evil (we would never. They hear everything) but there is hardly a creative person or music lover in the world who doesn’t get a little jolt of excitement when we see someone give a jolly “fuck you” to the notion that anyone should get to own their music other than them. It’s pretty satisfying.
2) From a more intellectual standpoint (let’s all pretend we’re mature adults now), artists having totally successful careers while either mostly or entirely circumventing the major labels is causing those labels to take a look at themselves, how they’re functioning, and how to stay relevant in an industry that seems poised to evolve past them – and fast.
Which brings us to the third option of modern artist/label relationships…
Hiring labels to work for them
When 50 Cent announced the end of his ties to Shady/Interscope, the label took the moment to publicize a change of their own: they are now home to an “artist services” division which, in short, allows artists who are not officially signed to the label to pick and choose individual services – like marketing, PR, production, etc. – that were previously only available their signed artists.
Again, we’ll go in the Way Back Machine to last month and revisit why this idea is extra rad for everyone:
“Well, not only does it mean that independent artists have more options and access to the best tools to launch their careers to the next level, but they get to do it outside the confines of a traditional recording contract. In the old arrangement, artists would frequently struggle with their labels when it came to making creative and professional decisions; that was the headache you had to endure if you wanted the strength of a big label behind you. In a system where labels are opening up individual bits and pieces of their services for hire to anyone willing to pay for them, it keeps the artist squarely in the driver’s seat of their own careers – which, more and more, is where artists want to be.
Artists aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from this kind of relationship. Labels, while still wielding an inarguable amount of strength within the music industry, aren’t blind to the fact that the internet and social media are giving artists the potential to build entire careers on their own. After years of frustration with the relative rarity of scoring a big recording contract, artists have overwhelmingly embraced the opportunity to develop their careers on their own. And a lot of them are succeeding. By opening up their services to these artists, artists get the help they need to elevate their work, and record labels find a way to stay relevant in an industry climate that is increasingly looking to cut them out of the process.”
Lenny Kravitz, who was signed to Virgin Records for over 20 years before launching his own Roxie Records, just announced that he’s availing himself of help on the release of his next album from Kobalt Label Services, a company that operates like the aforementioned new division of Shady/Interscope. With the release of “Strut” (I cannot with that name, by the way), Kravitz is more or less embodying the journey from major label artists to…whatever super famous music people are turning into when they choose some mighty powerful combination of releasing music on their own labels accentuated and bolstered by the inclusion of outside services with big guns. He’s that. And we’re guessing he won’t be (even nearly) the last.