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The Music Industry, Bad Analogies and a Revolution Part II: Record Labels
The Music Industry, Bad Analogies and a Revolution Part II: Record Labels
04/26/09 at 04:14 AM by goodarmcindy
This will be the second, and concluding, part of my blogs on the music industry. This blog will focus on the role of record labels in a changing industry. Again to make it clear I will mostly be focusing on what is deemed Ďrockí music and thus the rock music industry. Echoing my first post I will try and apply some political theory to this topic and horribly, horribly stretch out the analogy as long as I can. *
Everyone knows the major players in terms of record labels, and most people have an opinion on them, and it is rarely a good one. Major labels make your favourite band sell out, they have no souls, they chew bands up and spit them out, they have been the cause of more than one band break up yet they still manage to make huge profits.
So why am I suggesting that record labels need to change? Well, I believe it is quite clear that record labels need to do something different if they are to remain relevant. The traditional role of the record label is being replaced by vast networks of bands, online communities and consumers. Iíll explain, record labels pursue profit, that is their aim. Their main weapon in doing this is agenda setting. Record labels had the power to determine what was popular and what wasnít. This was accomplished by heavy media penetration and highly skilled PR people within the record label. Music was their business, and they made money off it. Lots of money.
If I were to apply a political theory to this I would use Gramsciís idea of a cultural discourse. He claimed that the bourgeoisie were able to exploit the proletariat because the bourgeoisie had the power to make them believe their exploitation was natural, and that there was no other option. This is hegemonic discourse, it is the most powerful using their power to exploit a group in society without the exploited realising what is happening.
So how does this apply to record labels? Well, imagine this: record labels have for years had the power to set the agenda, when we talk of music fads and bandwagons it is the record labels who create these. When one runs its course (see grunge, nu-metal, rap-metal) they are replaced by the next fad. Bands in the current most popular genre are signed to major labels and then discarded when that trend dies. Major labels set the agenda, make us spend our money, and then change the agenda when the money has stopped flowing so liberally and the cycle repeats.
But, as I have argued before, this process has changed, record labels are no longer hegemonic in this discourse setting, the power has been socialised thanks to the internet. While we still have fads they are now, somewhat, more controlled by the consumer. The consumer now has so much more choice, thanks to the internet, in terms of the music they have access to that the record labels donít have the power (as much as they used to anyway) to dictate what is listened to.
Typical record label jobs are becoming redundant. Take the job of the A&R scout. Their job is diminishing in importance, unearthing the new money spinner for record labels is as easy as looking at the MySpace music charts, or the Purevolume charts, or looking at who is being discussed on absolutepunk or any of the other hundreds of music related communities.
Typical roles of the record label are ceasing to be monopolised. No longer does major label backing act as the only road to success. Big bands are shirking record labels, smaller bands are setting up their own record labels, and websites like Amazon are allowing the distribution of small acts as freely as the distribution of the majors.
So what can record labels do? Well in my view there are a few major problems, one is their image in the eyes of the public, one is their reputation and stance over downloading music, and perhaps most simply one is the price they set for their products.
The reputation one is simple to solve really, and that is to stop being such bastards to their artists. For every major label success there are other bands who have been almost destroyed by the politics and demands of major label life (see the Starting Line). The allure of signing to a major record label has gone, because they no longer hold the only key to success as it seemd they used to. The game has changed, but they have yet to change with it.
Downloading music illegally is a major problem for record labels, and they do themselves absolutely no favours by throwing hissy fits and alienating everyone who buys music by trying to arrest and sue illegal downloaders. Take the Pirate Bay trial, do you think people who read about that thought: ĎGood work record labels, that is only fair what you did!í, or did they think ĎMajor labels suck, they have enough money as it is, why are they pissing off the people who allow them to live such a comfortable life?í. Itís pretty obvious that most people fell in the second camp. I think it is telling that Pirate Bay is still up and running and has seen an increase in membership since the trial.
Illegal downloading is taking money from the record labels, and there is no quicker way to anger them than that, but the current solution of trying to sue everyone is not working. The solution lies in being innovative and, while not supporting it, at least acknowledging that illegal downloading is a problem that it is unlikely they can find a solution to. There are ways around it, for example, when people buy a physical copy of the record link them to a site where they can download a lower quality copy of the album to tide them over until the CD arrives. Just something that shows some initiative, or far more simply, lower the price of CDs.
I find it really galling, as someone who buys a shedload of CDs, that newspapers can give away millions of CDs for free yet HMV, Zaavi and various other retailers (Amazon you are now involved in this - I have noticed your prices rising even before the credit crunch/moneygeddon) can charge me £12 and upwards for a single CD. I wonder why the biggest downloaders of music are teenagers, is it perhaps because they canít afford to build up a CD collection? I think that may have something to do with it.
But perhaps they have let the problem exist for too long and major record labels are dying out. Iím sure the credit crunch/moneygeddon isnít helping the situation, but they cannot use that as an excuse. Major record labels have brought about their own demise and perhaps that is the best thing for the music industry.
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