Musicians online without record labels
Record labels have long been synonymous with the process of releasing music, these large entities with the reach to share music to people in places unreachable to musicians.
A label’s logo once created a brand of trust and excitement for those who held the album in their hands, but now, with the aid of the internet, we are seeing musicians move further from the labels that established them. Musicians self-releasing music is no new concept. Bands handcrafting record sleeves dates back decades, but it can now happen with ease on the internet. Available are a string of sites to facilitate this and help build a simple, but direct relationship between music creators and their fan base. “We realised we were in a position where being part of the processes and politics of being on a label was becoming detrimental to the progress of our band,” explains Daniel Copeman, multi-instrumentalist for Esben and the Witch. Releasing their latest album via Bandcamp they join artists, such as Amanda Palmer and Thom Yorke, taking things into their own hands.
It was late last year that Yorke, singer of Radiohead, forewent the labels by releasing his latest album through the BitTorrent Bundle service, as an experiment to see whether it could hand control of internet commerce back to music creators. For £3.75, the ‘In Rainbows’ singer received 90% of all profits with the rest going to BitTorrent for hosting the album. As of writing the album has been downloaded over four million times. Nevertheless, artists like Yorke could go multi-platinum selling USBs of music in apples in Brixton market à la Hype Williams. Its success doesn’t answer whether all musicians can benefit from freeing themselves from labels, by using said services.
“Indie labels and artists, alike, can all benefit by retaining a bit more control.”
“BitTorrent Bundle is designed to do exactly that,” explains Austin Briggs, Content Strategist at BitTorrent, “benefit musicians by allowing them to control their own online sales.” The relationship being formed between musicians and these sites is not bound by old business models and is defined by musicians themselves. They decide the content and choose the price, leaving them to reap a larger reward. “Indie labels and artists, alike,” he says, “can all benefit by retaining a bit more control of their distribution and sales, and the user data associated with those exchange. We believe removing barriers between creators and fans is the way we achieve that goal.”
The tools at the hands of labels, once kept under lock and key, have been freed by the progression of the internet. There is a great deal that can be achieved without labels as Jarri Van der Haegen, founder and editor of Disco Naïveté, a Belgium-based, award-nominated music blog, says. “Blogs, and the internet in general for that matter, are a good place to start your story as an artist. Pave your own path, grow your own fan base, and get people to know you and your music. Basically get your name out there.” Fan bases can be found and formed online, and communication with anyone can be attained without musicians needing monetary backing to start that conversation.
This direct relationship is essential in getting audiences to support musicians if they are to achieve a level of success. The self-releasing of music online enhances the building of this relationship far better than any other service can, argues Fiona McGuigan, a consultant for The Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) who campaigns for the protection of UK musicians’ rights. “The most important relationship being between the artist and the fan, we think that everyone should exist to facilitate that.
“I think it’s mostly the only way to get started isn’t it? The majority of artists have to release music [themselves] to get started, to create a fan base, in fact we must be the only industry to have a ridiculous number of tools dedicated to independent businesses at no or very low cost,” she says. Nevertheless, there are still limitations in going it alone online without a label. Even though labels no longer perform a gatekeeping-function, argues Van der Haegen, “The internet can, however, never replace the opportunities and dangers a label can give you.” And this is something agreed on by the industry itself and all those involved, from the FAC to BitTorrent.
“It’s very, very hard for new, young artists to establish themselves in todays musical landscape, distribution platforms might be there and easily accessible, but marketing, promotion and strategic planning isn’t obvious or free,” says a spokesperson from Mute, a British-based independent record label. “It’s easier for a new artist to release now, but harder than it’s ever been to be successful.”
“Most musicians start bands, they don’t start businesses.”
Success can be achieved without a label; the issue is that it involves a vast undertaking of time, and knowledge of the industry, to ensure it. “Most musicians start bands, they don’t start businesses,” says Mat Flynn, a lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) teaching music business and professional development, and even started his own label. “And so most musician’s primary focus should be on being musicians. And making a band successful is difficult enough, making a business successful is equally difficult. Making them successful together is very time consuming.”
Esben and the Witch started on a label before later deciding to self-release, giving them much more autonomy of choice. As such, Copeman is wary of sounding defeatist when discussing whether self-releasing is a viable option for up-and-coming artists. “I can only say that from our experience we could not have done it without the original platform and support we were given. I would say, though, that right now, at this moment in time, it has never been more possible,” and he has a point. The internet continues to fashion more choice and control for musicians, allowing for a freedom that isn’t restricted by industry. The music industry is no longer a place where labels are the epicentres of where everything happens. For musicians to be successful there are thousands of unique options.
“The future of the online music industry is not a world without record labels. It’s a world without gatekeepers,” says Briggs, “where everyone gets the same opportunity to succeed.”