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Truth in Labeling

by Paul Rapp on October 17, 2012


The mantra for musicians is “Screw the record labels.” Anachronisms, thieves, buffoons. Who needs them? Do it all yourself, you can make three times the money with one-tenth the sales. And it’s sustainable, and oh-so satisfying.

I make this point all the time. Lots of us do. But is the mantra always true?

Trent Reznor and Radiohead are both pioneers of the DIY anti-label world. They’ve both self-released monumental works, and have been incredibly successful at it. Now they’re both on major labels again. What gives?

Well, of course, like any mantra, “Screw the record labels” isn’t always true. In Reznor’s and Radiohead’s case, it was a matter of convenience and economics. The major labels have been around, in one form or another, for about a century, and they’ve got the institutional structure and experience to do some things very well. Reznor recently explained that he was gigging in some European city, went to a tiny record store, and saw all these posters for a Radiohead show six months in the future. He realized that, at least for now, all of his web-savvy and fan-friendliness was simply incapable of getting him that: posters up prominently in the little record shops of the world. So it made sense, practically and economically, to team up with a big global record company in order to reach a bigger global audience. And I’m sure Reznor drove a hard bargain and got a good deal.

So, maybe being on a major label is good sometimes. Particularly if you’ve already got millions of fans, and would like to get millions more. What about non-major labels? Screw them, too?

Well, no. The best indies are curators for sub-genres. A major trend in “popular music” over the last 20 years has been splintering and disaggregation of audiences. In the mid-’60s everyone listened to Top 40 radio, where you could hear Herb Alpert, Bubble Puppy and Otis Redding played one after another. Nowadays you can have a Norwegian black-metal band touring the world with hundreds of thousands of devoted followers, people who would practically die for the band, and outside of that following? Totally unknown. Indie labels tend to focus on one type of music, and put out the best they can find within a given genre. A label imprimatur gives an artist instant legitimacy; fans know that a new artist on a genre-based label is at least worth checking out, and often worth buying sight-unheard. And for many artists, this variant on “You can judge a person by the company they keep” can be huge.

I mean, just look around here. Phantogram signed to Barsuk, the scrappy Seattle label that specializes in literate outlier artists like Death Cab For Cutie, Ra Ra Riot and Rilo Kiley. Sean Rowe is on Anti-, where he rubs elbows with kindred spirits like Tom Waits, Wilco and Calexico. The late, great death-metal band Skinless were on Relapse Records, alongside such lovely artistes as Dying Fetus, Cephalic Carnage and Regurgitate. International Albany label Equal Vision Records is a coveted destination of punk-metal bands and their fans.

Being on an affinity label has incredible benefits for some artists: In a world where everybody’s recording and sticking everything online, being on the right label serves up the artist on a platter to targeted fans. The label will also know how to market and position the artist, and (increasingly importantly) how to get an artist’s songs to music supervisors for TV, movie, and advertising placements and the like. The Skinless guys told me once how Relapse Records was the first stop for WWE wrestlers looking for theme songs. If a TV show needs rugged Americana, Anti- Records will have it (songs from Sean Rowe’s new album are already popping up on some network shows).

But it’s a bargain, handing the keys over to an indie label. The artist isn’t driving anymore, but at least the job is entrusted to somebody who presumably knows how to get where the artist wants to go, and maybe even arrive there with some dignity intact. There is also the not-inconsiderable matter of giving away a nice chunk of the money coming in. If the label is straight (and that’s always a big if), it’ll probably be worth it.

Ultimately, it’s all a crapshoot; it always has been and always will be. The critical issue should be what’s best long-term for the artist, what can create a sustainable career, something that can last beyond the first album, and something that will provide another shot if that first album misses. When you keep it all in-house, you control it. But it’s a big damn world out there, and sometimes it’s nice to have a little help.


Paul Rapp is an art and entertainment attorney who is about to go to Scott Cole’s Monterey General Store for lunch.