Hurrying through Camden high-street, trying to beat the tube before rush-hour, a young man caught me off guard with a -
"Happy New Year Miss!"
"Happy New Year." I repeated back to him.
Through the corner of my eye I could see what he was holding in his hands, willing myself not to look I gave an awkward smile, eager to get to the tube station. I knew exactly what he wanted.
“You like good music?’
He raised his arm right to my eye-line, stopping me from getting past without having to further interact. There it was, a neat pile of plastic pockets with CD’s in them in the palm of his hand. He looked at me expectantly. I let out a sigh.
“I’m sorry... have a nice evening. Good luck.”
He swiftly lowered his hands and continued to disturb others making their way into the tube station.
Why doesn’t he just create a SoundCloud? I thought.
Has he never heard of YouTube?
Who even buys random CD’s off anyone on the streets these days?
This guy may have been incredibly talented, he could've been the artist of the century but the way I saw this poor guy in Camden is the way a lot of people view record labels; out of touch and outdated!
In the past, if you were a new artist, being backed by a record label was the ultimate goal. Landing a record deal meant unmatched access to other artists, producers, studio space, distribution networks and a full-on marketing and PR team dedicated to the artists success. Not too long ago, getting the attention of a label very well meant standing on street corners, selling bootleg CD’s and doing small performances in the hopes of being discovered by an A&R, radio host, D.J. or an established artist willing to take a chance on an unheard voice.
However, the rise of social media, changes in technology and streaming services has changed the power dynamic between artists, labels and consumers. Artists are recognising their worth and aren't so keen to hand over their power to larger labels. Consumers are using streaming services such as Apple Music, Spotify & Tidal. This is especially empowering for black artists and the urban music scene.
Appropriately marketing black and urban talent has historically been a struggle for record labels. In the U.K specifically, labels have been guilty of attempting to mould urban artists into acts palatable for a whiter more ‘mainstream’ audience as opposed to focusing on the relationships that these up-and-comers have organically created for themselves. Realising this, many artists have opted to go independent; connecting with their fan-base through social media, utilising streaming services such as Soundcloud and Spotify and being heard on home-grown platforms like GRM Daily, Linkup TV and SBTV, who are known for putting promising new talent on a music lover’s radar.
The rise of meme culture and social media has further changed the relationship between record labels and artists. Prime examples of this are social media celebrities such as Micheal Dapaah being signed by Island Records for the comedy hit song ‘Man’s Not Hot’ and Cardi B being signed by Atlantic Records, ultimately propelling her to superstardom. Both artists have been used in high-profile marketing campaigns such as 'Big Shaq' (Michael Dapaah) in Nike's ‘Nothing beats a Londoner’ campaign, Lynx and TrainLine, whilst Cardi B has collaborated with Marc Jacobs, Fashion Nova and Beats by Dre to name a few.
2018 saw internet sensations such as Loz’ “I Shaku on the Beat Aswell”, Osh’s “My Ye is different to your Ye’ Ferdy’s “ Why you Coming Fast?” and even Micheal Modern's “ Fraud Bae”, all at one point being rumoured to have been offered record deals. Regardless of whether these viral moments manifested into actual record deals or not, labels eagerness to sign non-musicians because of hashtags and retweets and engagement has left many musicians scratching their heads. You have to wonder...if a 14-year-old girl with behavioural issues and no prior musical aspirations like Bhad Bhabie can land deals with Atlantic, is a label really the best place to develop artistry? Or are labels good for something else entirely?
Loz - ZeZe Freestyle #IShakuOnTheBeatAsWell | (Source: Link Up TV)
Artist; Osh (centre-seated) with his team & Columbia Records team (Source: Columbia Records Instagram Account)
Adding to the disillusion, are label horror stories. Reports of artists not being paid appropriately, creative freedoms restricted, being sidelined for more popular artists and the controversial 360 deals are all reasons why early career artists are attracted to the prospect of working independently. There are many examples of independent artists who have reached high levels of success such as Jorja Smith, Chance the Rapper, Wiley and AJ Tracey to name but a few. It is now clear that being signed to a label is not the marker or even essential to success.
Recently, American rapper and entrepreneur Soulja Boy went viral, as he appeared on hit American Radio show The Breakfast Club and proclaimed that he was “the first artist on social media” and that [Crank Dat] was the first song to sell 10 million copies digitally and 100% of the money went to [him] and that now artists need to have social media to have an impact. And he is right. In the digital era the amount of streaming platforms we have are only going to multiply, it won’t be long before CD’s are treated the same way vinyl records are, a novelty or collector’s item. The reality is that you can have millions of people listen to your music without a record label.
Viral Meme art of US artist Soulja Boy created by @colton_valentine_ | Meme concept created by Kinde LDN
But is signing to a label entirely pointless? Not necessarily. Stefflon Don has had worldwide success since her hit' Hurtin Me', which can very much be attributed to the support she has received from her label. It should also be noted however that Stef’s record deal is particularly unique, as she signed her own label V-IV London to Universal Music, giving herself full creative control. Ella Mai had been working in the industry for a while and even auditioned for X factor before signing with DJ Mustard, but once again, this isn't a traditional label-artist relationship as DJ Mustard is an artist in his own right so is probably more sympathetic to the artists' journey than a bigger commercial label could ever be. Even Stormzy, although technically an independent rapper leveraged the connections that record labels have, brokering a distribution deal through his label #MERKY with Warner's Atlantic records contributing to the success of his number 1 debut album, ‘Gang Signs and Prayer.’
Stormzy & Manager; Tobe Onwuka & Atlantic Records team (Source: HitsDailyDouble)
Record labels are an invaluable source of knowledge and still work as gate-keepers within the industry. However, they need to update the way they treat new talent. More and more artists are recognising their worth and utilising social media to reach a wider audience or signing to smaller more independent labels to maintain their creative freedom. Streaming numbers are only rising and it’s not absurd to think that in a few years, physical copies may no longer be widely sold, just like records are no longer widely sold, meaning that artist will need to rely less and less on labels to forge relationships with their audiences. The role of bigger labels has become somewhat obsolete for artists at the very beginning stages of their careers as artists are still exploring their musical identity; however, what labels have proven to be great for is creating powerful branding for artists, with musicians now fronting marketing campaigns that were once reserved for models and actors.
Signing to a label may be an organic step for an artist who has already created a following for themselves, proving to have very lucrative careers ahead of them. Labels are still the experts at honing and streamlining the artists image, which in turn results in a stronger engagement to their artist's music which then results in more streams and downloads which results in success!
Like the man on Camden high street, they just need to keep up with the times!