Has the Death of the Music Label Started? Depends on What Kind of Label You Mean

Lynne Kiesling

This week is Music Week at KP; we’ll have content on the economics, politics, aesthetics, and culture of music. In part what inspires this week’s focus is some recent new music purchases I’ve made and some of their characteristics. These features indicate some pretty substantial changes in the economics of music creation and distribution. I’m not the first person to note the dramatic effect of technological change on the costs of creation and distribution, or the long-tail nature of the distributed, decentralized aspects of these changes to this new model. But what I lack in first-dibs I hope to make up for in other dimensions …

Last week I went on a binge and bought 8 new CDs, in different formats from different distributors:

  • 6 physical CDs from Insound.com
  • 1 physical CD direct from the artists
  • 1 download CD from iTunes

The 6 CDs I ordered are:

Sadly, my timing’s not good, and the last two (Tapes ‘n Tapes and ILYBICD) are on backorder because of post-South-by-Southwest Festival buzz.

The one I downloaded from iTunes is Spoon – Gimme Fiction.

These 7 CDs have been on my “to listen” list for some time. The 8th one is very new to me, and in another post I’ll have more to say on the economics of how I found this band, and why it’s so important for the direction that music creation and distribution is going.

The 8th CD is from a band called Mute Math.

Other than the obvious aesthetic connections (those jangly Brit-pop-ish sensibilities) among these recordings, I am deeply intrigued by the variety of their labels, by which I mean the entity that holds the legal copyright on the content:

So what’s so interesting about this, beyond the usual long tail, artists can directly distribute to their fans, etc. aspects that we’ve been discussing for a couple of years? Look at the variety of labels among the 8: 2 are self-released, but the other 6 are on labels (although according to WRCT 88.3 FM Pittsburgh, Tapes ‘n Tapes is the only artist on the Ibid label). Ibid is, at least at this point, a one-artist label, and the others are of varying sizes and vintages. Look at Merge, for example, which was founded in Chapel Hill in 1989 and whose artists include Teenage Fanclub, Dinosaur Jr., the Buzzcocks, and other pretty-established indie bands as well as other bands with which I am unfamiliar. Secretly Canadian has a smaller and less-well-known roster. Polyvinyl has also been around a while (and is a local label here in Chicago), since 1995, and also has some well-known bands.

Punch line: the long tail observation applies to record labels too, not just to artists. In the 80s and before, independent and alternative labels had trouble surviving unless they were part of a larger label (I.R.S. Records, remember them?). That often meant that the label’s fate lived or died based on larger corporate strategy (I.R.S. Records, remember them?). These independent labels are better able to survive and thrive for the same distributed, decentralized, and long-tail reasons that two of my eight artists were able to self-release. And this is good news for those small labels, which can focus on a self-defined niche, for artists, who can reach potential fans through multiple channels, and for consumers/fans.

When I started writing this post it was going to be about the death of the big record label. I think it still is about the death of the big record label, but not about the concept of a record label. For many artists (3/4 of my indie sample here), a label relationship has value added, and the other two might decide to sign with a label in the future. But these are not the labels of our past; the label business model is part of the evolution of the industry.

3 thoughts on “Has the Death of the Music Label Started? Depends on What Kind of Label You Mean

  1. Andrew,

    Notwithstanding the tone of your last sentence, thanks for the clarification. I looked and looked for further info on Ibid Records, and could come up with none, so I made the logical inference. In the process, I thought I’d provide a link to one of my favorite radio stations, since WRCT popped up so high in my Google search on the band.

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