The New Wild West of The Music Industry and How Artists Are Taking Their Power Back
By: Michaela D. Jordan
“She thinks she knows what she’s doing with marketing but she really doesn’t,” a boomer record label CEO said down the phone to me about a highly respected artist on his roster.
I was confused and livid. This artist had gained millions of followers, organically, for her band with her social media marketing savvy. She had created brand changes for every album and single, conceptualizing photoshoots, social media scheduling and curating her fan interaction. She and I had spent hours working together combing through her band’s website and building it on our own. We had created our own digital branding materials; all under this musician’s artistic and enlightened eye.
This was not the music industry I had wanted to get into.
My first experience with a record label, however, was overwhelmingly positive and shaped how I do my own business. Ropeadope Records was and is a haven for creatives. Even as an intern I was treated as an equal with the good fortune of working side-by-side with CEO Louis Marks and VP Fabian Brown. Grammy winners would come into the small, repurposed train station that was Ropeadope headquarters and introduce themselves like they were visiting a friend. I was warned by Louis, as I set my sights on Los Angeles and my music industry goals, that other record labels weren’t like Ropeadope; that the music industry was uncertain and changing rapidly.
Undeterred, I moved forward; packing my life into a shipping container and heading West.
It wasn’t long after working for the boomer label that I realized the current structure of the music industry was not sustainable. Even well run labels like Ropeadope were struggling due to a few reasons.
To understand how a few key facets turned the industry on its head you need to first understand the history of the industry and why it is structured the way it is.
The original system the music industry created was based off of a need to create an assembly line to get artists, and their music, to fans. In the early days of the industry releasing an album that would gain any sort of traction would go something like this: a talent scout hired by the record label would go to certain clubs and shows or get passed a demo, usually mailed in, and find acts that they liked. They would then take these acts to the executives of the label who would decide whether or not to invest in the band based on the personal tastes of the executives and what was deemed marketable. What influenced the marketability came from radio stations and, later, television. The executives of these media companies would meet with the executives of record labels. In some cases all of these media outlets were run by the same conglomerate, even further isolating bands trying to break into certain TV and radio stations.
If the band was deemed worthy (read: marketable) they were given an advance, that was to be paid off by record sales and tour revenue, and sent into a recording studio partnered with or owned by the record label. There were definitely instances that a band would go into a studio themselves, a lot of times to cut a demo to send to these labels. But, in the time of analog, and even early digital, a recording studio was expensive as the equipment was a huge investment on the part of the studio.
From here the band, their management, A&R rep and others from the label would be involved in editing and tailoring the songs for radio appeal. The general rule was 3 minutes and 30 seconds, nothing too strange or out there and appealing to the “youth”. Why appeal to teens? Because of the nostalgia factor. Teens not only set the trends of every era but, if they fell in love with a band in high school, they would always have fond memories of the band and keep buying their albums for decades.
Once the record was tailored to fit the specifications of these executives it was sent to radio usually with a bribe of some kind. Even after the days of payola laws being enacted, there was still a huge amount of quid pro quo. Who can forget the scene in Some Kind of Monster where James Hetfield is forced to record radio spots so that the singles from Death Magnetic can be played?
There were similar connections being built with the press. The record labels who invested all of this time polishing these artists had the right contacts at the right magazines keeping the circle of artists featured in major publications small.
And so the cycle went, the radio and magazines played and promoted the artists that the major labels sent over and, since it was the only music people were being exposed to, those were the records that sold. This machine of manufacturing success worked incredibly well for decades. It allowed us to hear the music of incredible artists and, though carefully controlled, evolve as music listeners.
Enter downloading and streaming.
Most of us remember the early days of downloading and streaming music. Grey legal areas and tons of computer viruses made it seem like it wasn’t meant to last which the music industry as a whole happily believed. They were losing a lot of money after all, people were able to listen to music for free (if you remember Napster as I do) lawsuit after lawsuit was filed, shutting down one company as another popped up. Beyond the loss of money, this allowed artists to begin the baby steps of cutting out the middleman.
Artists no longer had to go through the song and dance of courting a record label and tailoring their songs to fit a radio slot. They could play a ton of local shows with their band, make enough money to get in a small studio, record a demo and upload it to the internet as a perpetual marketing machine not dependent on who was paying who to spin a song on the radio but based on the integrity of the music itself. It became cool to not listen to the radio and be the first to discover a new band.
As the years rolled by, streaming became more legitimized and musicians, not needing a label to distribute for them, could get their music directly into the hands of eager fans who would share by word of mouth and through early versions of social media.
Social media was the next nail in the coffin of the traditional record label.
Older executives, not hip to internet trends, couldn’t keep up with the fast paced culture of social media. However, young artists who had grown up using these platforms knew exactly how to connect directly to fans in a way that labels, radio and press were scrambling to keep up with. The intimate connection to fans guaranteed something even more powerful than the nostalgia factor: personal investment. A simple like and comment from an artist you admire would have you telling your friends about it for years, and always listening to their newest track since you now had a personal connection to them without having to buy a VIP ticket or get into an elite party.
What was also shifting was how rapidly trends were forming. For example, it used to be that a new fashion trend, coined by a certain artist and curated by their PR team, would be months in the making with the influence of multiple people (think Madonna in the 80s). The idea would happen, then a stylist would come in and execute, then a photographer to shoot, then sending the photos off to the newest interview spot. Until, finally, many weeks later, the photo would hit the hands of the fans who would then take up the trend themselves. It was yet another reinforcement of connection to the artist manufactured by their record label to sell their product, (which was the artist or the music depending on who you ask).
With the introduction of social media to the mix, an artist can snap a photo of themselves in a look that they created all on their own and have it sent directly to their fans in a matter of minutes. This not only shortens the time frame but keeps larger media companies constantly guessing and attempting to predict something as fickle and unique as human taste.
In a digital environment everyone has a niche perfectly suited to them. Gone are the days of hunting down obscure bands and publications hoping you will find something that resonates with your out of the box thinking. You simply have to visit your favorite hashtag.
The third and most important factor to the death of the old school label is the availability of music creation software.
Earlier in this article I outlined the recording process. If you have any sort of interest in music you know that this kind of recording structure is very rarely the case anymore. All an artist has to do is open their laptop and hit record to create distribution quality music. The music world was shook when Kanye West revealed he did a lot of his recording on his iPhone, Chance The Rapper and countless others have recorded in their bedrooms on a MacBook. No executives. No A&R. No hired songwriters. Just pure creative process.
By the logic of the decades old system which the music industry was running, these projects should have failed. They should have been tossed aside in favor of more polished and manufactured sounds. But, music fans were hungry for more. I went to a talk by renowned producer and songwriter Linda Perry where she compared the pop writing process to making copies. Everyone was imitating everyone over and over and it caused a decrease in the quality of music. So when someone with something new and fresh and good hits the scene fans eat it up.
Dirty Honey Promo Shot c/o: Daniel Prakopcyk
So we saw bands like Dirty Honey, who made quality music, different from what was being cranked out, and killed their social media game. Fans came running and they became the first unsigned band to have a number one hit. Bands began circumventing a traditional label and management structure because between social media, a macbook and direct to consumer streaming a lot of the services that a label offered weren’t necessary anymore.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t advantages to having a label. There is the clout, connections and expertise all conveniently in one package that is definitely appealing. But, after seeing what Taylor Swift has been going through with trying to regain the rights to her own music artists are becoming more and more wary of selling away a portion of their own creation. Many artists feel that a record deal isn’t worth the price of the rights to their own music among other things when DIY success is so readily available.
So what are the options for an artist in the new wild west of music? What if you aren’t savvy in digital marketing or recording? The answer is a la carte outsourcing of services. Hop on any music industry networking group and you’ll find producers, marketers, managers etc. All available to be hired at a rate the artist can afford.
I myself took what I had learned from my time working for record labels and as an artist myself and created my own record label alternative, Golden Poppy Artist Services. I charge the artist a flat rate per service chosen by the artist based on what they can afford during every phase of their career. My company and others like it not only allow artists to retain control over their music and what is done with it, they empower them to make their own decisions based on what they feel is right. The days of closed door marketing meetings deciding the fate of the person creating everything that the decisions hinge on are fading fast. As artists continue to have more power and control the dynamic is shifting from one of the artist being a product to the artist being an individual who is the forefront of a team of people all working under one mission: to put out damn good music.
Michaela D. Jordan is the founder of Golden Poppy Artist Services, she has been creating music for 14 years and does so under her current project The Sea Tease. She is based on Los Angeles.