By Milan Kordestani
As little as 10 years ago, getting a deal with a major record label was the ultimate dream for a hopeful artist. While the hype still resonates, the landscape of today’s music industry has largely centered on the decline of the prestige and dominance of powerhouse labels. The trend of smaller boutique labels and independent artists rising to prominence in today’s music scene, without the help of major labels, begs the question: What is the real value of a record label in today’s music business?
In the past, major labels were responsible for developing, distributing and marketing artists. Without them, artists would have very few avenues to succeed unless they wanted to handle all of the technical, marketing and business aspects on their own. For a starting artist, that was practically impossible. These were insurmountable challenges for anyone who did not already have a significant foothold in the industry or have a lot of cash to invest in their career.
But today, the game has changed, and record labels don’t have the impact they used to. We’re often told that “Bold managers are the greatest threat to record labels.” Why? Because developing, distributing and marketing music have all become tasks that no longer always require a huge team or an interconnected network. Instead, the right manager can oversee the business operations, outsource production and negotiate distribution. With so much creative and marketing centered on social media, managers and artists can handle all aspects of creative and community management.
Still, record labels play an important role in artist development, fostering a body of work and individual growth while maintaining a focus on profitability and data-driven results. Many musicians fail out of the industry because they lack proper guidance in finding a niche, opportunities to make money or the right path for them. Musical patronage — which is essentially what record labels provide — still has value in today’s evolving music industry.
From my perspective as the co-founder of an independent record label, we’re in a musical period similar to the Italian Renaissance. Sure, pop music is constantly evolving both sonically and lyrically, but, just like the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, we are also living through an era when the very way music is created, consumed and shared has changed dramatically.
Comparing the Renaissance to today’s music landscape elucidates that record labels, big and small, are essentially profit-seeking patrons of the arts. During the Italian Renaissance, the Catholic Church and many of its Popes were patrons in the history of humanity — funding art, construction, industry, trade and more. Similarly, the Italian Renaissance saw an increase in “angel investors,” families with massive wealth and specific tastes: the Medicis, the Sforzas, the Borgheses or the Barberinis.
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We can reimagine the major record labels of today acting in a similar fashion as the Catholic Church during the Italian Renaissance: commissioning great works on easy-to-sell themes that are popular with the masses. This means that major record labels can still help relatively unknown artists become household names and get much larger paychecks in a short amount of time, sometimes at the expense of an artist’s preferred terms. In short, they help artists who really want to commercialize themselves as quickly as possible, just as the Catholic Church did for Michelangelo or Raphael.
Beyond selling a fast-tracked dream to artist success, major record labels have their own captive audience. There is a true value to that kind of rapid exposure, which is why major record labels don’t need to be completely eliminated from the equation as a patron of musical talent. But their singularity and necessity have been greatly reduced as alternative paths to success become available.
Some of today’s best labels are more niche precisely because this allows them to provide tailored resources to every artist under the label. With many of today’s rising artists wanting to retain as much control over their music as possible, it’s important that smaller labels recognize this. Niche labels today can fill the same space as the individual patrons and famous families of the 15th century Renaissance, who commissioned a wider variety of non-religious themes and allowed for more artistic freedom. When smaller labels craft a more personalized feel to develop a direct connection with their artists, they offer artists the prioritization they want, while also getting the early capital investment and important connections needed to expedite their career.
The Renaissance was a period of such artistic flourishing that there was plenty of room for a variety of patrons, from the Catholic Church and its Popes to Italy’s most politically powerful families. Both patron classes sponsored artists, and in the same way, it’s worth acknowledging that independent labels and major labels are just playing very different games. Major labels might tend to prioritize their return over an artist’s longevity, just as the Church did with Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or da Vinci’s Last Supper. Rather than functioning as a partner investing in long-term careers, or benevolent patron of the arts, major labels prefer to bet on later-stage artists who are on the verge of a hit that the label can sink its teeth into owning.
We are truly in the midst of a musical renaissance, where we are not only experimenting sonically but also democratizing the way music is produced, marketed and distributed. Offering artists greater control over their music, brand and career trajectory are important in today’s business environment when it comes to independent or boutique record labels. If there’s anything the Italian Renaissance can teach us, it’s that there’s room enough for the behemoth labels and the smaller niche outfits — as long as there’s no shortage of talented musicians capable of building and monetizing large audiences.
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