Coronavirus Is Making Record Labels Scrappier

Without tours or stores, indies like Fire Talk and Merge are finding creative ways to forge ahead.
May 27, 2020, 5:03pm
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Fire Talk Records' Trevor Peterson (Photo: Kate McGuffin)  

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an onslaught of terrible news for the music industry, impacting touring artists, road crew, venue workers, publicists, and recording studios alike. Even if the pandemic's impact on the recorded music industry has been a bit less straightforward, Independent record labels—and the people who run them—have also been subject to this turmoil. Unlike the world of live music, most labels are still able to operate under shelter-in-place orders; but the unique nature of the work they do, from signing new artists to producing the finished records you hold in your hands, puts them in the crosshairs of disruptions in just about every sector of the industry, which has left them, too, with an uncertain future.

With tours and festivals off the table indefinitely, labels have been forced to confront a number of tough questions simultaneously: How will their roster cope with a potentially disastrous loss of touring income, including record and merch sales made on the road? Will closures at record press plants and recording studios affect their 2020 release schedules? How devastating will the shutdown of brick-and-mortar record stores be for their bottom line? Labels of all sizes have no choice but to try to adapt accordingly.

"There's a lot of people who rely on new records for their livelihoods," says Fire Talk Records founder Trevor Peterson, whose roster includes Deeper, Pure X, Dehd, and more. It's not just this record label; it's independent retailers, distributors, and so forth." When venues and festivals began canceling events in March, the Brooklyn-based label had eight touring bands that saw their 2020 earnings dissolve overnight. "So much of what we do is based on our artists being out there on the road, touching people in a live setting," says Peterson.

And since touring is one of the primary ways that artists drive up interest in their new music, record labels are bracing themselves for a slow year. "It's one of those things where you can't really calculate what you've lost by stopping all of that momentum for our bands," says Jared Jones, co-founder of the indie rock label Winspear, which is based in Brooklyn and has released records from artists like Divino Niño, Major Murphy, and Barrie.

As the majors postpone high-profile albums like Lady Gaga's Chromatica, Dixie Chicks' Gaslighter, and Haim's Women In Music Pt. III, many independent labels are largely sticking to their release schedules—even as it becomes harder than ever for smaller artists to cut through the noise.

"Our schedule hasn't changed, but figuring out how to move forward with promoting music and doing an album campaign in the noise of the virus without the option to also promote that album on tour and in real life spaces has been the big challenge that we're up against," says Father/Daughter A&R representative Tyler Andere, who works with artists like Tasha, Diet Cig, and Esther Rose.

Though it's been a challenge pitching new artists to music journalists amid widespread layoffs in the media industry, labels are trying to roll with the disrupted media schedule instead of fighting against it. "We're thinking that when touring comes back, it'll give our albums a second burst of interest," says Peterson. "Some of these records might have a longer shelf life without touring happening right now."

Another concern is making sure pressing plants are able to deliver the physical product. The surge in vinyl production over the past decade has been known to cause delays in the past; but even in the pandemic, with pressing plants dealing with closures and catching up on their backlog, most of the label workers I spoke to said they're still managing to get their records on time. "We've been keeping in close contact with our pressing plant in Gotta Groove Records in Cleveland," says Jones. "They were shut down for a little bit during the stay-at-home orders, but they're back up and running in a safe capacity." Though Peterson has experienced a delay in overseas shipping, he noticed that for domestic orders, he's actually seeing a "quicker turnaround"—likely because a lot of people are holding off on placing orders in the first place, amid rumors of a slow-down.

Widespread record store closures are another issue keeping label owners up at night. "During tough times, arts are the first thing to go for people's spending habits," says Jones. We're expecting a big decrease in physical sales this year." Mike Caulo, a senior publicist for Merge Records, stresses the extent to which record stores sales and the touring are intertwined. "Independent record stories also depend on live shows happening," he says. "They'll have an artist's record and then sell out of their stock in the next week after an artist plays. With that gone, what can we do to ensure people are still going to these stores?" In March, Merge made a Google Doc highlighting all the record stores doing curbside pickup and online orders.

Signing artists is also a challenge when everyone is sheltering in place. Without the option of meeting musicians in person and seeing them play live—often a decisive factor in signing artists—many labels are pressing pause on talent discovery and focusing on their current rosters. "There's not the option to get that extra bit of connection in person," says Andere. "You have to do it over Zoom or over the phone. Until we have more clarity about what things are going to look like, I feel like we're being more conservative."

Still, larger indies like Merge aren't ruling it out. " I can't say we've signed anyone so far during this, but [founders] Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance are still listening and wanting to sign new artists," says Caulo.

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The crisis has forced people and institutions at every level of the industry to get creative, from artists setting up livestreams and Zoom-based music lessons to streaming services introducing donation features. Labels are coming up with new ways to support the artists on their roster, too: When festivals and venues started canceling events in early March, Father/Daughter immediately diverted their share of Bandcamp digital sales to their artists—something they plan to continue for the foreseeable future. And after Bandcamp started waiving its share of sales one day out of the month in a bid to help artists raise much-needed funds, Merge and Fire Talk decided to join in solidarity—waiving their own share of revenue on commission-free days.

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything, but introducing new ideas is absolutely necessary during this, and I think we're all learning to be a little more flexible than we usually are," says Caulo.

While independent record labels have always been scrappy, coronavirus is forcing labels to think outside the box, whether that means snapping socially distant press photos or pivoting music videos ideas to living-room productions.

"While the pandemic and no live music has had a pretty immediate and stark effect on us, it's also allowed me to think more creatively about how we release records in this pandemic," says Peterson. "We have to find the silver lining and plow forward."

As Andere sees it, it can sometimes feel like the music industry is returning to a DIY mindset. You're seeing artists be more vulnerable in this time, whether it's getting on live, or doing guitar lessons of their songs—things that are very community-oriented," he says.

Most of the label professionals I spoke to said that their first priority right now is getting money in the hands of artists—and helping raise awareness of how fans can support them at this time.

"If you're an avid show-goer and you spend X amount of dollars a month on tickets, you still have an income and feel comfortable doing that, filter some of where you would have spent on tickets over to buying a physical product," says Peterson. "And if you don't have a record player, buy T-shirts. "More than anything, just continue to listen to music and follow your favorite bands to let them know that you're there and you still appreciate their work."

This article originally appeared on VICE US.