What does the record label of the future look like?
Chance the Rapper made history this month, becoming the first artist to win a Grammy Award despite not being signed to a record label. On the album for which he won Best New Artist – Coloring Book – he raps about, among other things, how much he hates record labels.
Also making news this month was Warner Music Group’s joining of a seemingly new club – labels who have closed out a financial year with $1bn in profits generated from streaming services. (Universal Music Group was the inaugural member in 2015; Sony joined in 2016.)
In this light, it is perhaps easy to paint a blanket view of record labels as the enemy, stifling creativity and gleefully absorbing the lion’s share of royalties.
The fact is that most record labels – just like artists and rightsholders – are having to adapt to an ever-changing industry landscape, endeavouring to find new creative ways to discover, nurture, and promote their artists in the age of Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud, Facebook, viral videos and memes. As musicians and rightsholders have (or have not) adjusted to dwindling royalties coupled with a greater proliferation of tools enabling them to manage their own careers, so have record labels revamped, re-cast, and reconsidered how they can stay ahead of a game they never started.
So, who is doing what, and who is succeeding?
Non-traditional ways of marketing music
“Just a few years ago, it seemed like the “big four” record companies that control the lion’s share of music sales (Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, EMI Group, and Warner Music Group) were woefully ill-equipped to deal with the new methods of marketing, streaming, and selling that have arisen since the decline of physical media,” writes Patrick Lyons for HoteNewHipHop.
However, he points out that Interscope (which is part of UMG) has been exploring “non-traditional ways” of marketing music, playing with a potent and successful combination of creating short content that features a particular song, embedding songs into internet memes, and exercising “careful consideration of Billboard’s chart calculation methods,” which now include radio, physical, streaming and digital.
Tapping into the power of social media
Altantic Records UK encourages its artists to “use all social channels,” marketing director Hannah Neaves told Marketing Week. The label “develops bespoke marketing campaigns for each act, often tapping into the power of social media,” embracing – rather than conceding to – the always-on demands of consumers.
The challenge is to counter the sheer volume of content on offer, which means labels and artists sometimes have to scream to be heard. The key to this is content, Bill Wilson, VP of digital strategy and business development at the Music Business Association, told the NY:Lon conference. Labels, he said, need to optimise their visual assets, including liner notes, photos, videos and partner content.
The guerrilla filmmaker
Wilson also called for labels and artists to invest in low-cost filmmaking staff. As Music Ally reported, Wilson said: “Establishing and understanding the role of the guerrilla filmmaker, that social-media person, the person who’s on the street filming, is a critical part of music transforming into a full-blown media business.”
Industry analyst Mark Mulligan agreed, suggesting that streaming services and labels consider the visual aspects of a smartphone. “We’ve got an incredibly visually-led world,” he said. “What Musical.ly does, what Dubsmash does, is they make visual experiences tailor-made for the devices we carry in our pockets. People now expect lean-forward, interactive music experiences.”
So, what does the record label of the future look like?
For some, the record label of the future is already here. But for many others, here is what we know: the learning curve, the need for experimentation, and the constant churn of adaptation are showing no signs of abating.