Do we need record labels any more?

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8 November
15:05
November
2016

Someone like Chance The Rapper, who has made it in the music industry without a label or a manager, is an anomaly at the moment. But who knows what is going to happen in the future? At the moment, he is the only person you can point to who has genuinely broken through completely and utterly independently.

Up until the early 2000s, labels could justify their existence by the fact that you couldn't get your record out into the market without a record company. They owned the means of distribution and the means of manufacturing. They also owned the route to market via the media. So you couldn't really get anything out there without a label. And you couldn't actually record anything as it was so expensive to record anything professional – so you needed somebody else's money. Today you can do all of that on your own, without leaving your bedroom.

But because so many people do make their own music, that is why you still need record labels. Because most of that is rubbish. Not everybody can be talented. Everybody can record and put their music up on SoundCloud, but not everybody can be good. What record labels do is provide the filter – the ultimate filter. There are filters all the way through the music business and managers are probably the filter that comes before the record labels. There are all these filters and the big record labels are the final filters.

"At the moment, Chance the Rapper is the only person you can point to who has genuinely broken through completely and utterly independently"

The next service they provide is, amid this morass of 40m tracks on Spotify, being able to use marketing techniques to highlight their products which, because it has been filtered, it is more likely that it is something that you like – if they are doing their job right. One of the functions of record labels is to make certain things stand out, having selected them.

If you are into electronic music, you would probably listen to anything on Warp, but you'd not listen to anything on Polydor as its roster is so diverse. I don't think most labels mean anything to the consumer. But they mean things to the media. If you are a writer and know a label is going through a good patch and has signed really good artists, then you will be more likely to listen to their music when it comes into your inbox than music from a label that is going through a shit patch. It means something to the media and it means something to the business – like retailers. It is a business-to-business thing for labels at the moment – apart from niche labels. The consumer likes to think they know what they like; but the fact is that what they like is 90% on major labels. 

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