It's Not Me It's You: Why So Many Artists Want to Break-Up with Major Labels
Artists used to sign with an indie if they wanted to be cool and a major if they wanted to make money—but that's changing.
On April 14, Childish Gambino was pissed off. His label Glass Note—part of Universal Music Group and home to a bunch of MOR indie bands like Mumford and Sons and Two Door Cinema Club—had messed with the release of his latest video. It was the latest in a string of skirmishes between Gambino and the label and he took to Twitter with a simple complaint: he understood the internet, releasing music, and what his fans wanted better than his label. He wanted to be bought out of his contract.
Gambino is not the only one to air his dirty recording contracts in public. MIA threatened to leak Matangi and have a whole new record to release by the time Interscope pulled their finger out. Angel Haze went one step further—in December she tweeted "fuck you" to Island/Republic records and leaked her debut album Dirty Gold. Azealia Banks has “literally begged” to be dropped from Universal because they “don’t even know what they’re listening to or for”, and Sky Ferreira recently revealed that her time at EMI—where she recorded three albums, none of which were released—was characterised by "55-year-old guys telling me what people my age wanted to hear." It’s easy to negate one artist as a drama queen but when this kind of complaint is so prevalent, it's clear there's a problem– all of the artists are signed to majors and they’re unhappy with the lack of artistic control.
This frustration is not a new thing. Since the early days of rock’n’roll, major labels, once a small arm of household appliance companies or TV stations, have struggled to keep up with the dynamism of the music industry. For every groundbreaking performer of the 50s and 60s, there were hundreds of copycat bands, often performing the same songs, hoping to ride the coattails of a bigger artist's success. Major labels were steadfastly reluctant to embrace and invest in innovation, often preferring to wait for independents like Motown and Stax to sink or swim and then buy them up afterwards. They neglected technological innovation too; coming late to the game only when other start-ups—MySpace, iTunes, Soundcloud—had sourced alternatives.
Major labels' varicose bureaucracy has been tolerated for a long time; artists relied on their marketing clout and monopoly of large-scale distribution. But that has changed—independent artists can be just as, if not more, successful than those on major labels and have started to question whether majors offer enough to compensate artistic sacrifices.
A key issue is whether artists can market themselves better than their labels. Major labels help get artists on radio playlists, music channels, and TV shows—something that independent labels used to struggle to do. But today's musicians have a better read of their audience—they're able to release music responsively and immediately. If you look at the British singles charts, acts like SecondCity (currently number one), Mr. Probz (currently number four), and Kiesza (who released the third fastest selling single of 2014) have all scored hits by reacting quickly to positive reception in clubs and working with independent labels to organise a quick release. Major labels tend to stick to rigid release schedules—often prioritising the company's interests over the artist's—for example, delaying one artist's record so the label can focus on a higher priority project.
Major labels pour a lot of money into online marketing and PR, trying to help artists gain a fanbase before they're taken to radio. The problem is that they can be blindsided by the bottom line. Take Soundcloud, which was envisaged by its founders as “fixing one of the webs broken things”: easily sharing tracks. It's one of the better tools for discovering new artists; the service’s social networking algorithm helps unknown musicians clock-up hundreds of thousands of plays and Soundcloud links are shared on Twitter more than any another music service—beating Spotify by 30 million shares. It’s also the smoothest way for online bloggers and journalists to embed music they want you to listen to—it's not a replacement for streaming or purchasing a record.
Yet major labels are neglecting Soundcloud because, unlike Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube, it is not monetised by direct pay-per-listen profit. A label like Island Records, for example, has shyed away from Soundcloud in promoting new artists like Nina Nesbitt and Woodkid and bigger artists like The Weeknd and Angel Haze, instead opting for less shareable lyric videos, [audio only] videos, and Spotify exclusives. For new artists that are yet to build a strong audience, this is dangerous. Spotify’s suggestions for new music—you listened to DMX, here’s an album by Will Smith—don't work. Similarly, when did you last discover new music by a brand new artist on YouTube without an introduction from a friend or blog?
Soundcloud raised $60 million earlier this year and wants to cut deals with the majors allowing much more music on the, arguably, better service. Let’s hope the major labels don’t miss the boat this time around.
A lot of artists still bother with major labels because when they get it right – it works. Beyonce’s visual extravaganza—which, although innovative, was not a risk because duh, it’s fucking Beyonce—showcased what a major label budget can achieve. The album was the fastest-selling in iTunes history and demonstrated how, for the type of artist for whom high production values, lavish tours, and intensive marketing are crucial—major labels still do the job. No one is suggesting Olly Murs should sign to Ninja Tune.
But there is an increasingly large group of artists, particularly in hip-hop, electronic music and (what is ironically still called) indie, who are increasingly finding they can have more success with independents than majors.
The precedent has been set by Arctic Monkey's AM and Adele’s 21, an album loved by my Grandmother, but equally, played to death by my recently broken-up first-year housemate. 21 is the fourth best-selling album of all time; it concreted Adele into music history and increased XL’s bank balance from £3 million to £32 million in the space of twelve months. [Ed note: In North America, Columbia Records assisted with marketing for 21.]
As The Guardian pointed out in 2011, XL Recordings trust in Adele was also a big proponent in her success.
She was given the freedom to pick who she worked with, choose which tracks to release as singles and have a say on how her records were marketed. XL even trusted her to make the potentially damaging decision not to play music festivals. If Adele initially struggled to stand out from the crowd, it was her decision to sign with XL that eventually helped her stake out ground as a credible artist. Suffice to say, you probably would not see her cycling around a TV studio singing about Diet Coke.
This trust—letting artists work the way they want—has yielded more and more results since the success of Adele. London Grammar, who are also on an independent, put out their debut album last year and it reached Number Two on the chart—a success story they say would have been impossible on a major, where they wouldn't have been able to hone their songwriting over a long period. Jazz Summers, who is the co-founder of the band’s management company, has also said that not signing the act to a major label in the UK also helped boost their international credentials—giving them time to organically build an audience. The band soared up the charts in several European countries—breaking the top ten in Germany, Australia, Belgium, and France. The approach was vastly different to that of a major label, too—the album is not available on Spotify but they do have a bunch of releases on their Soundcloud page.
I spoke to David Dollimore, MD of Ministry Of Sound and asked him where he sees the music industry shifting.
Noisey: A lot of the biggest records of the last few years have been released on indies (Adele, Arctic Monkeys, London Grammar, Radiohead). How is power shifting between majors and indies at the moment?
David: Indies can react a lot quicker than a major—it's the speedboat and supertanker analogy, where the latter takes a mile to make a turn. Artists have got wise to the fact that signing a big record deal with a major doesn’t always mean you will make it—signing to an indie will usually mean you are first and foremost “their priority”. You have a bespoke team that is driving your project. Pressure will still be there to deliver standout music but you’re not on a big roster of artists all competing for your label’s attention.
How was your approach with London Grammar different to that of a major?
We put the right team around them and then, most importantly, gave the project time and worked closely on their development. Most artists when they sign a record deal aren’t clear who they are or what their sound is—it takes time to evolve and, specifically with LG, we allowed them the necessary freedom to develop. Ministry can offer new artists an “à la carte” list of options and the room to develop, we're not like other labels.
A bunch of artists on major labels have been unhappy with the way they’re treated. When does the label have to step in and tell an artist that what they’re doing is wrong?
You need to build both trust and a mutual respect between the label and artists. If either is missing then how is the project going to work? Ministry tries its utmost to advise its artists honestly, and then give them maximum support. I believe we get the balance right. Yes, it is almost inevitable that a disagreement will happen along the way but that's part of the journey you take. We want an artist to have a voice and something to say!
How important is Soundcloud?
We use SoundCloud as a "discovery" channel for our new artists and singles. We allow the band to put up edited versions of some of the tracks for promotion and discovery. Soundcloud is a problem, it's a free streaming service on mobile and no one gets paid! But we don't believe that these versions are being used as an alternative to buying or listening through a legitimate service like iTunes.
It's not just London Grammar that've found huge success on an independent. Other artists give foundation to an approach that benefits both the artist in terms of exposure, but also the label, in terms of sales—Route 94, who has a massive Soundcloud following, reached Number One with a single released on Rinse FM's imprint. We've already mentioned Kiesza, Mr Probz, and SecondCity. The independent sector has been bolstered by a string of recent success stories and the artists have proved—more so than at any other point in history—that not only do they understand what their fanbase want, they're increasingly able to deliver it themselves.
By holding back records, attempting to control the artist's marketing aesthetic, and not putting music in the right places, major labels are sometimes making a fickle audience lose interest in their acts. Artists used to sign with an indie if they wanted to be cool and a major if they wanted to make money. But that's been turned on its head in recent years and there are a new generation of artists for whom integrity, independence, and a healthy bank balance don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Ryan Bassil is an editor for Noisey UK. He's on Twitter — @RyanBassil