The record label, that round paper label in the middle of each record, has existed in one form or another since records first became flat (some believe the Earth will follow suit). Up until fairly recently, the record label would feature a distinctive design, particular to each record company. The name and logo of the record company were the prominent features, while the name of the artist, song and album were the small print.
For an artist, “being on a label” literally meant that their name would be somewhere on a company’s record label design, which is how the expression came to be.
The early days of disk records were rather different, in economic terms, to what we take for granted nowadays. Money was much tighter – as an example, a technical publication of the 1930s about domestic plumbing in the USA advised, “if you cannot afford the expense of purchasing a hammer, just bang it in with a rock wrapped in cloth!”
There have been times, in fact up until the late 1950s, when musical instruments of professional quality were prohibitively expensive and the cost of a recording was entirely beyond anything a working person could afford. Those were the times when, if you were not on one of the few record labels in existence, you simply didn’t get to record your music.
Only a very small handful of artists would ever make it onto a record label. These artists were chosen by the “experts” working for the record companies, based on projected sales for the particular style of music and the image and abilities of the artist. You had to be very good at what you did and especially in popular music, you also had to look good.
On the artistic side of things, there were composers and performers. The record label A&R (Artists & Repertoire) people would select which songs of which composer a performer would have to record, and would hire an arranger, producer, engineer and graphics designer to put together the product in a way that was expected to sell reasonably well. The entire process involved several people, highly specialized equipment, industrial manufacturing facilities and talented artists, which rendered getting a record to market extremely expensive. The record label experts would ensure that there was a certain consistency in the quality, with which the label would be associated by the buying public. The recording studio, mastering facility, graphics studio and sometimes even he pressing plant were usually owned by the record company, so the artist would be pretty much tied to the facilities and human resources of the particular record company they had signed a contract with.
The final product, just as with any other consumer goods, had to sell well to justify all the effort and expense that went into its manufacture.
As such, most labels were not interested in taking risks; they preferred the tried and tested recipes for success. This resulted in a decent standard of quality being maintained throughout, but there was plenty of good music being left out, whenever the experts encountered anything they were not too sure about.
The times slowly changed. Hammers became much more affordable and along with them, so did guitars, recording equipment and even record manufacturing. Beginning around the 1950s not only were more people able to afford musical instruments of decent quality, but by the late 1970s they were also able to afford doing a decent recording on their own.
Some were even able to afford recording equipment and build up independent studios. More and more people were starting record labels, but at the same time, the design of the record labels on the vinyl records was changing, with the logo of the record label becoming the small-print and the artist’s name and their chosen artwork becoming the prominent feature. Eventually, the logo (and concept) of the record label started becoming so small and insignificant, with quality standards reaching rock bottom, that by today, the record company is often entirely missing from the label, with more and more artists choosing to self-release their music.
Artists like the idea of having the freedom to choose which studios they want to record in, who they want to hire as a producer, engineer or designer, and even where they want the album to be mastered.
Many have welcomed this development as the democratization of the music industry. Certainly, a lot of new music has been able to see commercial release this way, which may have otherwise never been discovered and appreciated.
The experts of yesteryear were not always right, after all.
(Let us not forget the “expert” at Decca Records who famously turned down the Beatles, because he didn’t believe they would sell!) [Supposedly that was Dick Rowe, although Rowe always denied this – Ed.] A higher degree of diversity in the selection of music that is to be released is also a good thing, in my view, and that started with the emergence of small independent record labels. [To name a few examples: Philles, Coral, Chess, Atlantic, King, Imperial, Satellite (later Stax/Volt) and others – Ed.]
However, as with a cheap hammer, a cheap guitar and a cheap recording device will not make a good recording, no matter how innovative the music may be. While I do believe that an artist being able to make a cheap recording may be their only chance to be heard by those in a position to offer them a professional recording and record label contract, I do not believe that cheap recordings are worthy of commercial release; their existence should be limited to demos (simple recordings to demonstrate the basic idea and vibe), passed on to the right people, who can then take over the rest of the way towards a commercial release.
Yet the market is being flooded with more and more unlistenably cheap recordings. (To clarify: “cheap” in the sense of their production, sound quality and musical worth, not their actual price.) This started with record labels lowering their standards, then got worse with self-releasing artists who lacked the experience to judge what constitutes a recording worthy of commercial release, and eventually the same kind of cheap recordings also started being released by some record companies who should know better, but don’t. In other words, mistakes became much more affordable and socially accepted.
This went hand in hand with record labels refusing to take over the costs for recording, mixing and mastering, a trend that started in the late 1990s/early 2000s. The artists were often expected to pay for the production out of their own pockets and the labels only took on the marketing side of things, with the artist usually only receiving a certain number of physical copies as a compensation, and of course “the exposure.” Well, exposure can’t buy you food, but it may help you get started with the things that can make some money: gigs and merch sales. Many artists, in fear of a lifetime of dead-end jobs, are happy to accept such deals, but unfortunately rarely ever manage to escape such a fate this way.
The most recent development in devaluing music are the attempts to delete the artist from the picture altogether and generate automated music, performed by computer software. This bizarre example may be something of a YouTube classic:
Why bother with real people when we can have computers doing what we want? If we could also automate marketing, shipping and customer care, we wouldn’t even need to pay any staff for the record label! Alternatively, specialized software now promises that you can record something using a cheap violin, and the computer will somehow replace the sound with samples from recordings of good violins. Saves you the expense of having to part with your hard earned for that Strad…well, at least for those who have never heard a Strad in real life!
But why stop with just replacing the instruments? It takes a lot of hard work to learn how to play the violin on a professional level. So why not just use software that will play the violin part directly from the score?
Or perhaps use artificial intelligence to also compose the violin part, based on the musical preferences of a particular target audience, with such data easily purchasable through popular streaming services. How about automatic mixing and mastering as an online service? Where will all this lead?
Perhaps to an automatic pop star generator algorithm, using neural networks to analyze the data mined from all the online platforms and automatically generate virtual pop stars, invent their names, render their faces, compose, perform and record their music, automatically create social media profiles for them and upload the music to the download/streaming services. Guaranteed output, 3,000 albums per minute. Don’t laugh, a lot of this already exists and the rest is on the way! [Science fiction writer William Gibson foresaw this in his 1996 novel, Idoru, and our Wayne Robins addressed it in his Grimes review in Issue 107 – Ed.]
While many of us may cringe at the thought, a new generation is growing up without having ever experienced a real violin performed by real human violinist in a real orchestra with real concert hall acoustics, and will lack the reference points to understand why we have insisted on maintaining “the real thing,” despite the impracticalities, over centuries! There are very good reasons why the brass section in an orchestra still lacks any form of Bluetooth wireless interface and why orchestras insist on performing the same “medieval” instruments, which still operate without requiring an electrical supply, other than the finely tuned nervous system of the performer!
With all that said, in practice, despite all the changes in world economics and technology, very little has changed in the process of creating a record for commercial release. We do still need a certain level of quality for a product to be marketable and in terms of sound recording, this is still expensive and time-consuming. We still need talented artists and experts who have the experience to know how things should be done. Despite the illusion of democratization, very few people are able to record properly and very few people have access to the experts that can assist with turning a record idea into a successful release. While almost anyone can record their innovative ideas, even using their phone, only a very small percentage of all the innovative music out there ever makes it as a proper high-quality release. The ones that make it are still mostly on one of the very few record labels that are concerned with putting out records of consistently high quality.
Postscript: I remember a few years ago, I was taken to a basement record store with a special offer: Buy 10 records for one dollar! But you had to pick 10. I went in thinking that if I even found one interesting record, I’d just get nine random other ones just to qualify for the offer. But I was sure I’d be bound to find 10 interesting records in that gigantic basement. In fact, I was prepared to hire a U-Haul if need be! There must have been well over a million records in there. However, unbelievable as it may sound, after several hours of searching through this vast collection of scrap plastic, I wasn’t able to even find a single record worth carrying back home, even if I’d get it for free. I left, mind blown and empty-handed!
That’s because, although they might be expensive to begin with, many records released nowadays will remain unsold for a few years and eventually get recycled into bathroom tiles. Experiences like the one in the aforementioned basement left me with the impression that the democratization of the industry has essentially created a lot of bad records nobody will ever listen to, along with very few real treasures. So the new real challenge for the record collector seems to be finding that needle in the haystack.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.