Are record labels obsolete? (Op-Ed)

What do Taylor Swift, Prince, The Beatles, Iggy Azaela, Jay-Z, and Chance the Rapper all have in common? They are big names in the great struggle of artists wanting to own their music. But the real question is: should artists even sign to a record label at all?

To understand this issue, we’ll have to go back in history.
Back in ye old days, for an artist or musician to survive, they had to be “endorsed” or work under a patron. These individuals were usually nobility who were wealthy enough to help fund a financially unstable creative.
The world then starts to globalize, technology advances, society modernizes, and musicians are still faced with a centuries-old problem. How to pursue their creative ventures while having a roof over their head and somewhat filled bellies. Here we’ll introduce record labels.

Some history

Basically, at the most superficial level, a record label is supposed to work as a sort of partner with artists. In essence, a record label handles the distribution and promotion of their signed artists’ music. In return, they make money by taking half (usually) of the ownership of the music. It’s a sweet deal for both artists and record labels because you have the creative who gets food on the table and doesn’t have to deal with the messy business of both distribution and promotion and you have the promoter who doesn’t have to deal with the frustrating process of creating. So why are so many artists opting to try and get total control of their music?

Record labels still need to keep up a brand, meaning that no matter how hard an artist works, they might never be able to release a song or album if it doesn’t align with the record label’s vision.

“Record contracts are just like – I’m gonna say the word – slavery,” Prince once said. “I would tell any young artists…don’t sign.”

That could be disheartening news to young musicians looking to “make it.” But here is where the interesting part comes in. Do new artists need a record label at all? The answer might just be no.

With the rise of streaming platforms such as Spotify and TikTok, anyone from just about anywhere can reach a wide audience. Therefore, the promotion that record labels offer becomes unneeded. Furthermore, the fact that anyone can record a video and post it to YouTube and Instagram means that not only have artists solved the problem of distribution, but it also means that they don’t need a record label at all.

A new world

But there’s a problem…

With such an opportunity, this means an oversaturation of music is readily available to the general public. Therefore, the chances of finding more garbage than the opposite becomes higher. One of the great things about record labels is that they vet artists before releasing their music out into the wild. But, now…

So, although, incredibly, budding artists can make their mark on their world, it will mean a lot of sifting through bad music to be able to get to them. The alternative isn’t much better either. Instead of doing the work to find those few good artists, we might just revert to listening to the “oldies.” Shutting out new artists altogether.

So, record labels are being pushed out, and it looks like we’ve made more work for ourselves in the process.


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