The Rise Of Independence And How It Represents A New And Exciting Era For Music
The rise of the internet has fundamentally changed the music industry. As statements go, that one is about as irrefutable and self-evident as ‘cake is nice’ or ‘kittens are crunchy’.
One persistent school of thought is that the internet has so radically changed the music industry, that the whole record label business model can now be consigned to history. Labels are beginning to be seen as some quaint but arcane historical relic – like gas-powered street-lights or dying of cholera. So many think we can simply do without them.
This isn’t true. If anything, we need some record labels now more than ever.
But lets back up for a second. It would be churlish to suggest that everything was hunky-dory in the industry that existed in the 90′s, before broadband made streaming and downloading a viable proposition without tying up the phone for 12 straight hours.
The industry, particularly for metal bands on the periphery of some labels interests, locked its musicians into a two-year cycle of write, record, tour, repeat. This cycle was just enough for bands to break even, if they were lucky. So it was hardly surprising that so many careers were characterised by a slow descent into mediocrity. Once vibrant bands reduced to churning out album after album of forgettable, often regrettable shadows of their former glory.As the old model has not completely died yet, bands in this situation still exist. I don’t need to name names. You know who they are.
Although more recently, another development had strengthened the argument that labels are going the way of the dodo and the giant sloth: Crowd-funding.
I’m a big fan of crowd-funding. In the right circumstances, it can not only liberate a band by allowing it to connect directly with its fans, but also make projects viable that labels might not even have been interested in. One of my favourite releases of the year so far, Earthtone9‘s IV, was crowd-funded, and I was a more than happy contributor to that campaign.
But crowd-funding is no silver bullet. A quick look through the active campaigns on Pledgemusic or Kickstarter show that for every runaway success (like Protest The Hero raising literally hundreds of thousands in less than a week) there are numerous bands struggling to reach even 50% of their target.
I definitely believe that crowd-funding is part of the answer to the record label question. But, unless the goals of a campaign are incredibly modest, it can only help bands that have an established and loyal fan-base that is prepared to pay for new music before even a single note has been recorded.
There is another somewhat brutal truth to be dealt with. Every band has to start somewhere, and even the biggest bands of today began their careers playing shows to a handful of disinterested punters minutes after the venue doors open. But the simple fact is that once you step down to bands without a national profile, an alarming proportion of them simply aren’t very good.
Of course, there are various strains of ‘not very good’, and the most common is simply the personal preferences of the listeners. Even if a band is putting out the best power metal on the planet, I’d still rather drive cocktail sticks under my fingernails than listen to it. But they may well find more sympathetic ears than mine.
Other bands can suffer from weak links, like guitarists who act like they are Eddie Van Halen, but play like Eddie The Eagle. Or they have the playing chops, but fall down on the songwriting. These are, ultimately, curable issues – either through the nuclear option of line-up changes, or some good old-fashioned hard practice.
These issues can be compounded by the fact the technological developments of recent years mean that bands can record to a fairly respectable quality in their own bedrooms. Without the financial commitments that used to go with hiring a studio for that cherished first demo, bands can now thrust themselves into the public eye much sooner than they would have even ten years ago.
So the net result is that there is now far more new music available than any one individual can realistically listen to. Even for a fully confirmed new music junkie like me, there are only so many hours I can spend each week ferreting out my next fix, especially if I want to give each release the time and attention it deserves. Every album I review, for example, gets a minimum of five plays before I can commit my thoughts on it to print.
So this is where independent record labels come into their own. As much as I celebrate the DIY ethic, a good label acts as a sort of quality control. The very best labels are staffed by passionate and, above all, patient people willing to sift through 100+ demos to find the one or two they’re willing to associate their names with, then work with the bands to help them truly fulfill their potential.
For someone, like me, with a full-time job, bills, a mortgage, band practice and some form of social life, they provide an invaluable service. They command my utmost respect, and I will do everything I can to support them.
Finding labels run by individuals whose tastes are very similar to your own is something of a holy grail. Over the years, I’ve found four, in particular, that have immeasurably enriched my existence with music I may very well not have heard without their involvement.
I’m fortunate enough to have found a reasonably well-paid job, so I now buy everything these labels release as a point of principle. Supporting the label, I have come to believe, is every bit as important as supporting the band.
It seems only right, at this juncture, to briefly name-check these labels:
Basick Records - This one is probably pretty obvious to those that know me. Be it the melodic energy of Circles, the crushing brutality of Dissipate or the glitchy brainmelt of The Algorithm, the Basick roster is almost freakishly in lock-step with my tastes. Plus, they are lovely people. Supporting them is a delight.
Ipecac Records - - My passion for Ipecac is the longest standing of the four. The label was started by Mike Patton as a platform for his collection of post-Faith No More projects, and to give a boost to similar minded musicians. It was my completionist mentality that led to Oceanic by Isis falling into my ears without any warning of just how fucking majestic it was. That was a memorable evening. And apart from that, Ipecac introduced me to reggae-rock instrumentalists Dub Trio and Belgian jazz supremos Flat Earth Society. Listening to Ipecac bands dramatically broadened my musical horizons.
Shelsmusic - - Watching Mahumodo destroy Winchester’s tiny Railway Inn was a stand-out gig from a memorable time. I was heartbroken when they split, but that sadness was soon mollified by the emergence of *Shels. Disinformasiya spoke to main man Medhi, and gave a quick run-down of the Shelsmusic bands not too long ago, so I’ll leave him to do the talking on this one.
Pelagic Records - - In between creating some of the most beautiful, intelligent music available right now and setting off on herculean touring schedules, The Ocean’s Robin Staps has quietly gone about building a small but perfectly formed roster of bands for his label. God knows how he finds the time. Particular stand-outs are Aussie bruisers Lo! (whose second album I recently reviewed here) and French prog-metallers Hypno5e, but the entire slate is solid, high-quality metal.
So there we go. There are actually five labels I follow religiously, but the fifth is exclusively reggae – so I don’t think you lot will be all that interested in that one.
Of course, I could have stumbled across any of these bands through serendipity, but passionate, clued-up indie labels take on the heavy lifting so the likes of us don’t have to. And I, for one, salute them for it. Sure, bands can try and make it all on their own, and some do very well for themselves – but, given the choice, I’d definitely want these guys in my corner if I had some written some tunes I wanted to share with the world.
If things go really well for the bands on these labels and others like them, then they may simply get too big for the label to devote the time and resources they would then require – which is where crowd-funding kicks in. Major record labels may well be dying, shrinking and consolidating, but we could well be entering a golden age for the passionate independent. So my only advice to you is to find one that cares deeply about the same types of music as you, and go and show them some love.