The death of record labels?
Coldplay have released their new single.
It’s called Violet Hill, which is a much better title than their album, Viva La Vida.
The album art is pretty cool though.
Anyway, Coldplay are offering the single for free download at their website, leading many commentators to compare it to Radiohead’s In Rainbows strategy.
The general pattern of writing seems to go something like this…
“Blah blah blah free music blah blah blah. Death of record labels blah blah blah put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye blah blah blah it’s the end of the world as we know it.”
But no one seems to be thinking much about the next step.
If this truly is the end of record labels, then what happens next?
What the hell else is there?
Will music just be left at the mercy of the internet?
There is no doubting that the internet has changed the way we get our music.
It has allowed for a democratisation of music, where anyone with access to a computer can choose what music they want to listen to, whether it’s the biggest bands in the world or someone sitting in their bedroom fiddling around with GarageBand.
This has had a profound effect, not just on the industry but on bands themselves. And while the internet has already changed the way we consume music, it’s entirely possible that soon, the internet will begin to affect the music we are able to consume.
Many have been forecasting the death of the record label for years, and that call reached fever pitch last year with the online release of Radiohead’s latest album, In Rainbows. And certainly, many major acts have been abandoning their labels (Radiohead) or coming into direct conflict with them (Prince) over the best way to distribute, promote and create music. And while the focus has been on the havoc this will wreak on record labels, very little thought has been given to the effect it will have on the music industry as a whole.
What could quite conceivably happen, is that record labels will be forced to stick with their major acts – the ones that bring in the money – and will have less and less available funds for the discovery, development and promotion of new up and coming bands. This might not sound like such a major issue, since sites like MySpace have stepped in to this void, but what MySpace and others cannot provide is any form of development, nor any mass marketing. Simply put, no one will be able to afford to promote their music in a way that reaches the wider community.
And while music blogs will report on the next big thing, and MySpace will create some sort of fanbase, very few of these bands will ever command a place in the zeitgeist. And so no one will go to their gigs. And no one will buy their albums. There will be a small band of dedicated followers, but even if some bands receive wider media coverage, there is no way that they can make themselves known to the sort of audience that bands need in order to make a living from their music. It may well be that an unwanted by-product of major artists leaving their labels is that the diversity, quality and quantity of a label’s smaller acts is hugely diminished.
This prospect has hugely significant ramifications for music venues. If there are no bands that can command huge popular support, then the days of stadium tours are over. Hell, the days of arena tours are over. And while some may say that this is a good thing, and that gigs should always be smaller, more intimate affairs, to lose the experience of seeing bands as huge as U2 and Daft Punk will be tragic. Music’s power as a social force, as something that brings people together, will be completely destroyed when the international scene is dominated by acts that can only fill a 1500-capacity inner-city venue.
If this is the case, then it also has serious consequences for live music outside of the US and Britain. If there are no record labels to foot the bill, how is the lastest MySpace phenomenon going to tour places like mainland Europe, let alone Australia?
But perhaps the greatest effect will be on bands and artists themselves.
Already we are beginning to see that blog sensations and MySpace heroes are struggling to maintain their career beyond their breakthrough album. Whether it is because the hype has moved on, or because of modern society’s apparent Attention-Deficit Disorder, more and more bands are crashing back to anonymity as fast as they rose to fame.
So what ends up happening is that bands ride the hype machine for their breakthrough release, but then the follow-up falls on deaf ears because people are off with the next big thing. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that they will never have their big breakthrough album in the first place, because unless major labels are prepared to take a gamble on internet sensations and invest heavily in them, their only audiences are going to be their Top 8 Friends. Artists like Lily Allen, The View, Artic Monkeys, Kate Nash, The Cool Kids, Klaxons, MGMT, Vampire Weekend – all these bands had huge online following, but it wasn’t until major labels invested time and money in them that they became well known outside the most keen observers of the scene. Indeed, only a couple of these bands (Lily Allen, Arctic Monkeys, Klaxons) have made any impression at all in the general public’s consciousness. All the rest have huge hype and popularity, but no one (comparatively speaking) has heard of them.
Despite what has been said, record labels are not going quietly to their death. They will adopt better, more inventive modes of advertising, of promotion, and will have to figure out someway to deal with downloading. It’s not going anywhere, so the labels will have to change. But they will.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we are in for a profound change in the way music is advertised, created and consumed. But we had a profound change with the invention of the radio. Another with the invention of the 33 and the 45. Another with tapes. Another with CDs. Another with MTV. Another with downloads. And not only has music survived, but it has made music more interesting, more diverse, and has opened music up to larger and larger audiences.
It IS the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine.