Black Collar Workers



thinkerSeems my post about Earache’s 360 deal with Gama Bomb has set off quite a controversy. It inspired The Blogronaut (aka Sacha Dunable) to write a lengthy missive about why he thinks 360 deals aren’t worth it for musicians. That article in turn inspired The Austerity Program’s Justin Foley to leave a doozy of a response in the comments. At the heart of the matter, it seems, is whether record labels really have any value to bands now that “getting the record in stores” isn’t an issue, and if they do have value, what it is. Justin’s comment is damn brilliant and more or less exactly how I would’ve responded, so I’ll just re-post the whole thing here and offer a brief addition afterwards. Here goes:

Labels will continue to offer a few things.

First, they’ll act as tastemakers. Given the lower barriers for entry [i.e. cheap recording rigs / Garageband. -Ed.], more and more people are saying “fuck it, I want to be in a band”. Even with the ease of sharing and finding out about new music, the signal to noise ratio is low enough that bands need help connecting with their intended audience. When people know that they like the music a label puts out, they’ll naturally pay attention to a new affiliated act.

Second, while it’s easier to market and record music, it is still more expensive and time consuming to do it right rather than just do it. Labels should develop the marketing expertise to know where to spend money on a particular act. Maybe your money isn’t best spent on a Metalsucks banner ad, maybe it is. How do you know? (Note: the “you” here isn’t directed at the post’s author.)

As for recording, there are still plenty of bands who are aware of the ease and lower cost of DAW based prosumer recording and yet spend money to have someone record it for them in a real studio with high quality equipment. True, most of those who listen may not care much. But the level of permanence and satisfaction of a higher quality recording is worth the expense to the band and at least some of those who listen to their music.

Which leads us to product – some folks still want a physical copy of the band’s music. Although it’s tiny in absolute volume, there has been a significant percentage increase in vinyl sales over the past two or three years. The relationships, expertise and money that a label has will be worth it for some bands to partner up to get their product made and distributed.

The margins and business model for running a record label are tighter than they ever have been, but smart labels will figure out how to provide the stuff I’ve mentioned here and not get caught up in trying to preserve the way that things have been. I suspect you’re probably right about the merch cut business model – it’s just not going to be worth it for bands. But there are still enough real steps between the people who play music and the people who listen to music that those who facilitate the recorded product should be able to make some money if they do it well.

One thing that’s very good about this turn of events, though – given how high the expectations are for a label to deliver in the face of obsolescence, labels that are shitty to their bands will have a much harder time surviving. A few dumb bands will sign away into jackass deals that fuck them out of existence, but when the dust settles, those labels that treat their bands fairly and release good music will probably survive. The others will be hard pressed.

= Justin

I’d like to emphasize one thing from Justin’s comment that he only touches on briefly. What a label can offer, beyond just the expertise of how and where to spend promotional money, are relationships. One phone call can get a band an opening slot on a sweet tour. One email can land them a piece in Decibel Magazine (or, hey… this site). These are just examples… there are many, many more. These are doors that truly independent bands, especially new ones, are going to have a really, really hard time kicking down on their own. Not to say it can’t be done, and there are certainly bands who make all those same connections after years and years of hard work. But there’s a lot to be said for what can be done for a new band by leveraging these relationships that have taken the record label personnel (or agent, or manager, or whoever) years and years to build themselves.

And not for nothin’, lots of folks in bands just don’t have the business acumen or TIME to worry about that shit and negotiate those kinds of deals favorably for themselves; and they shouldn’t necessarily be expected to either, because after all their job is to write and perform kick-ass music. If making music is going to be your career, there’s most certainly value in having industry types handle your business affairs. While Cormorant’s Arthur von Nagel may be able to handle all of the band’s business affairs himself (MUCH respect there, btw), as Cormorant’s popularity continues to grow and the band is out on the road more and more there will come a point where it just won’t be feasible.

As the sale of recorded music becomes a smaller and smaller piece of the overall pie there’s no doubt that the role of the record label will shift in this regard, but there’s always going to be a need for a supporting industry. The idea that every band can be completely independent and that any truly good band can make it on their own is utopian and unrealistic.


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