The hardest thing for a record-label executive to grasp is this: nobody gives a damn about record labels. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon, either: with very few exceptions, records were never sold because of the label they were on. Nobody walked into Sam Goody's or Tower or wherever and asked "Hey, what's new on Atco?" or "Anything interesting come in from Epic?" Your one major exception might be Motown, which had both a distinctive sound and a very high hits-to-misses ratio, at least through the early 1970s, and even then you had to cover at least three important imprints Motown, Tamla and Gordy and a few lesser ones. Then again, in the days Motown was in its prime, people did at least pay attention to labels, to the extent that they knew that things were gonna change when someone moved to a new one. I assure you, I couldn't tell you when the Decemberists, to pick a current band I like well enough to buy their stuff, moved from Kill Rock Stars to Capitol, until I looked it up in Wikipedia.
The first sign that things weren't always going to be the way they used to be in the 1950s, with a handful of major labels controlling the market and a bunch of pesky independents fighting for airplay, came in 1963, when Allen Klein became Sam Cooke's manager. Cooke was making tons of money for RCA Victor, not so much for himself, and when contract time came around, Klein laid down the law: from this moment on, Cooke was recording for Tracey Records, to be distributed by RCA, and Tracey would own Cooke's gate revenues and future royalties, plus whatever back royalties Klein could pry out of RCA. Cooke was murdered the next year, but Tracey remains; in fact, when RCA got around to issuing a new Sam Cooke best-of CD in 1998, they included a track "Another Saturday Night" which was controlled by Tracey, and Abkco, the Klein umbrella company, ordered it off the premises. (BMG, then the owner of the RCA label, meekly complied, and reissued the disc with one less track.)
If Allen Klein seems like a hardass and at one point, he was the go-to hardass for both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones he had nothing on Dave Clark, who set up his own corporation, packaged the Dave Clark Five as its primary product, and licensed their recordings to EMI in Britain and Epic in the States, while retaining full ownership himself. Since the DC5 were demonstrably capable of making hits "Glad All Over" actually displaced the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" from #1 on the British charts the labels gave in.
In the years after that, artists and managers would only increase their clout. Labels consolidated, and the conglomerates thus created consolidated further: there are now only four worldwide labels Sony, Universal, Warner and EMI and the four threaten to become three at any moment. The old business model became less and less viable. One of the most visible breaks with the structure came when Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails contract with Interscope ran out and Reznor, having had problems with labels even before that don't mention the letters TVT in his presence decided he could go it alone. Which he's still doing.
Social media, first MySpace, then Facebook and (to a lesser extent) Twitter, now provide direct channels of communication between audience and artist; the need for a corporate go-between is these days mostly theoretical. Only once, however, have I seen anything like this. In the fall of 2001, this fell into my email box:
You probably haven't heard of her quite yet, but you will...
No one had ever before emailed me with a pitch like that, and I have no idea where she got my name. (It was addressed to me, not to a list, not even a list of "undisclosed recipients.") Curious, I did drop in on the site, and wound up buying her CD, Chasing Dreams. At the time, I described it as "contemporary piano music that breathes, rather than merely exhales." Two more discs followed, after which she temporarily dropped out of sight for reasons beyond her control. Maybe I'll hear from her again.
Then again, the old industry, vestigial as it may be, still presumably has something to offer. After Rebecca Black's one-shot "Friday" became a viral video hit, with over 160 million views on YouTube and #58 in Billboard, the teenager (she's 14 today) signed with L.A. publicist Debra Baum, who happens to have a record label of her own; Baum set her up with producer Charlton Pettus to record a five-track EP, presumably with no song titled "Saturday."
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Copyright © 2011 by Charles G. Hill