By Bruce Houghton
“The difference between major and indie labels now has less to do with aesthetics than with the way bands conceive of their careers,” writes New Yorker columnist Sasha Frere-Jones in a piece that looks at the future of both indie and major record labels using the rise of Arcade Fire as her primary lens.
Major vs. Indie = Hits vs. Control
“Many artists still look to majors for that one golden check… pop smashes are what major labels do best; they can still produce records that permeate every night club, taxi, bodega, and drugstore,” Frere admits. But he’s also correctly skeptical that a business model that nets even millions of 99 cent purchases is sustainable: “the profits brought in by a Beyoncé may no longer pay for smaller prestige acts on her label, Sony Music – they probably just pay the bills.”
Is The Hits Model Sustainable?
In fact, Frere-Jones is probably being optimistic. The profits of the major labels are still buoyed by catalog sales as much or more than digital era hits. Label heads know all this, of course, and have answered with an artist rights land grab – publishing, merchandising and the all encompassing 360 deal.
“Major labels have another disadvantage,” according to Frere-Jones. “A slow pileup of mergers has made it almost impossible to remember which act is on which label. Independent labels can develop personalities as vivid as those of their artists, and in a few cases mean as much to their audience.” But how many people ever bought music solely because of the label that its on. And did corporatization kill label loyalty or did the ability to preview music before you buy it. Sub Pop, Fueled By Raman and Blue Note are no longer the gatekeepers; the fans themselves are.
What do record labels do now? Start by asking the fans instead of the suits and bean counters.