When I was a teenager, rock mags were my world. In small town Manitoba the only thing rock n roll was the radio…and rock magazines…and me. In an advertisement I saw then (I think it was for guitar strings), there was a picture of a futuristic museum and there were two people looking at an exhibit. This exhibit was of the now extinct “Rock Musician”. There was a guy holding a guitar behind glass and of course it was a well known guitarist of the day, the name of which name escapes me now. But I looked at this ad and I thought in my teenage mind: “Man. That would suck if rock was a thing of the past, if it ever died, or disappeared.” It was indeed an alien concept to me back then.
Now, I’m much older and I think of the all the changes that have happened to music since then. Of course everyone’s mind goes to the internet, Napster, etc. and yes, these are some of the changes that I am speaking of. I want to talk about something of rock music that has been on my mind a lot lately. I want to write about the record labels that were responsible for helping to shape my childhood. I have always been the type of person that needs to de-mystify things. I took an interest in music early on. Soon it became boring and so I turned my mind to the things that happen behind the curtain and record labels were the ultimate in this regard.
I wanted to know everything: How do they work? How does a band get paid? What is publishing? What is a royalty? How do different contracts work? How are they structured? I wanted to know all of it. I read many books on the subject and I de-mystified as much as I could for myself.
When the internet iceberg hit the music industry, I was one of many who all of a sudden felt like the world had ended and I remembered the ad I saw in the rock magazine of my youth. It was jarring to think that it really was possible for rock to become…extinct. But with the revolution that was happening around me (digital downloading replacing all distribution of music, streaming replacing all forms of downloading), it became apparent that the internet was something liquid.
When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us. Alexander Graham Bell
The internet is always updating itself and replacing old models every week. It’s exciting and maddening both at the same time. Just when I think I’ve figured it out, the damn thing updates and my mode of thinking needs to change to accommodate the “new thing”, be it an app, or a trend, or a new piece of software that completely changes the game.
But what of record labels? How are they handling these changes?
Record labels have always been about business. I have always been interested when, over the years, one giant label ate a bunch of smaller labels. Watching as behemoth corporations absorbed little business was always fun. I was in awe of such goings-on in the music business. Often times I was like: “wow, they signed Metallica and now look them…wonder what James Hetfield thinks about this…whoa”
The one thing I know to be true in all the years I’ve watched all of this go on is this: The independent record labels will always be the only ones limber enough to make some cool shit happen in the music industry. The big corporate labels are far too big to move very quickly when it comes to all things. But the indies? Boom!
When I figured that piece out I always made it a priority to keep my eyes on independent labels.
I have taken a look around at what independent labels are up to these days. Some are doing cool things. I am on the lookout for ideas that will help the situation we find ourselves in. I’m happy to see what they are doing. Not everyone is thinking forward, but the ones who are? They’re inspirational.
One label produces an annual Block Party that pops up around the U.S. every summer. That’s very cool. There are also a group of many labels that have joined forces and created a retail outlet and recording studio in their major city. These are the kinds of things that I love to hear about. I love hearing about independents that are so small that they revel in how small they are. I read about one label that works out of their apartment. There are labels that double as event production companies and lifestyle brand & merchandiser as well. Diversification: good idea, always. There is another label that throws it’s own parties year round and writes a great music blog. The coolest idea I’ve seen so far has been a label that has started it’s own film company.
Since I’ve been working with Ohjusteatit.ca covering bands in Toronto, I’ve marvelled at how most musicians have become hobbyists. I had this strange idea once upon a time that bands were all together in this mess. But, bands are not the game changers in any of this. Not that I’ve seen anyways. That distinction goes to independent record labels. Bands will always do what they have always done – create music. It’s up to the indie labels to take that music and promote and release it.
There are some good labels and there are some “meh” labels. But from what I have seen, just by taking a little look around this last week, it’s gonna be a long way off ‘til we’re all just a memory of an extinct civilization that once had these mythic creatures known as Rock Bands that created the most mythic sounds. If we keep thinking forward toward the future of music, and if we keep creating new ways to keep music alive, much like the labels i’ve mentioned here, dammit…dammit, the kids are gonna be alright.