In Issue 117 J.I. talked about the origin of the term “record label,” and the evolution of record companies over the decades. Here, he has some additional and provocative perspective. – Ed.
There is a certain school of thought among some modern self-releasing artists, proposing that music is not made for money and that it is a higher ideal, exempt from market rules. As such, it is only the mere existence and public availability of the music that matters.
Quality, of the sound or of the actual music, is seen as a purely commercial consideration and therefore not worth losing much sleep over.
The biggest question, then, is: what are the reasons for making music available in the form of a commercial product? Once upon a time, it was part of a profession and everyone involved could have reasonable expectations of making a living from it. (Of course, not every record was a hit, or every gig a high-paying one.) Many former professions have nowadays been relegated to hobby status, but rarely does anyone go to such extreme lengths for their hobby. Hobby artists make art for themselves, their family and friends. They don’t usually mass-manufacture several hundred mediocre examples of their art, place them in retail stores, and proudly declare that it is not meant to be a commercial venture.
Some may simply fall victim to the romanticized ideal of the noble starving artist. This type of artist works hard, begs, borrows and steals, buys cheap equipment while living on a friend’s couch, tours in a van that even the scrapyard would reject, survives on dog food and beer, but manages to at least have an album out, which although costly to produce, doesn’t even stand a chance of breaking even. But, it is not all for nothing! Releasing albums and touring in such a manner at least generates what is known by groovy hipsters as “street credit” (often abbreviated to “street cred,” further explained in this educational video). This type of artist usually keeps on repeating this process at a loss until their untimely death at the symbolic age of 27, which is usually assumed to be related to drugs. More often than not, it is the dog food, but a drug overdose at 27 better serves to fulfill the stereotype of the misunderstood rock star. In fact, so many rock stars passed away at age 27 the term “the 27 Club” came into being.
Some real rock stars who actually did make money back in the day, perhaps really could afford drugs, and indeed died of an overdose of expensive substances. At least they were reportedly able to afford real food, excluding expired dog food as the cause of death.
The trend of scuffling to make a living became more prevalent in the punk era and among post-punkers with bands such as Black Flag (whose members are mostly still alive and way past 27), and the investigative reader can find out more than would be wise for anyone with a sensitive stomach by reading Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, subtitled Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981 - 1991.
Back to the topic of record labels.
The origins of the 27 Club go back to the days when big record labels would release albums with commercial intent, but the contracts with the artists would occasionally end sooner than predicted by the legal department when the likes of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain would expire, to significant public excitement and posthumous appreciation.
The marketing victim type of wannabe rock star will therefore see a record release as part of “living the life,” which is another way of expressing a deep desire to conform and fit in with a non-conformist image invented many decades ago and subsequently developed into the fine art of marketing by Malcolm McLaren (the manager of the Sex Pistols) with the sole aim of making more money.
Then we have what can be clinically diagnosed as the musician with severe narcissistic personality disorder. Sufferers believe that they are very special snowflakes, and deserving of public admiration for their greatness. Releasing a record for them is truly detached from any established profitability concept. The narcissist is often willing to lose…erm, sorry, I meant “invest,” large amounts of money to achieve the public admiration they feel they are naturally entitled to. The album covers will usually be adorned with the artist’s face, enigmatically pouting while blankly staring into the distance. The music is often atrocious and at the very least when the singing begins, the vast majority of the pitifully few listeners (all from the artist’s friends and family circle) will turn it off.
The sound is characterized by the instrument of the lead narcissist (usually the guitar) being approximately 18 dB louder in the mix than what would be considered appropriate by civilized beings with good taste and the mixing engineer may have to resort to horse tranquilizers to see the session through. Regardless of the budget, the recording will always be the cheapest they could get away with and none of the money used to make the record will go towards the much-needed singing lessons. Instead, most of the money will be spent on promo, paid raving reviews and maybe an appearance on a reality TV show, along with expensive hair styling, glamourous clothes and luxury hotels.
Despite all the money and effort, these artists are doomed to remain nobodies forever, but the whole process feeds their already-overinflated ego to such an extent that by the time they get to see the first test print of the album cover with their face on it, they become entirely detached from reality and believe that they are at least as significant as the deities around which major religions are based. It is all downhill from there, unfortunately, since they never actually build up an audience and their childhood friends all eventually run away, sick and tired of putting up with years of abuse from the artist.
It is important to note at this point that not all narcissists are talentless. The few talented exceptions usually get picked up by a record label and some have actually gotten quite famous. Big record labels often hire behavioral therapists to pose as A&R (artists and repertoire) staff, so they can safely handle the pathological aspects of such personalities while still keeping their projects profitable. For all hardcore narcissists, being picked up by a record label would be a dream come true. However, for many, their fragile egos cannot cope with rejection, so they will not pursue this on their own and will elect to self-release their albums to avoid unpleasant confrontations with reality, until a record label comes waving a contract. Even then, the self-respecting narcissist will play hard to get, driving a hard bargain to see how far they can push things and to ensure that the label gets a taste of what they will have to deal with going forward, ensuring (hoping) that they won’t get dropped later on, when their ego has already rocketed into orbit from excessive self-admiration. This is a self-preservation strategy, since the label backing out from the start could be seen as, “they were not serious enough,” whereas it would be much more difficult to not see getting dropped later on as rejection.
The next type of self-releasing artist we will examine is the naive obsessive-compulsive type, who has no idea how the music industry works, decides to self-release an album and develops an unhealthy obsession with it. The recording process will usually last several years and thanks to modern digital technology, will end up with 267 tracks of overdubs. Although painstaking efforts are made to ensure that each one of the 267 tracks individually sounds great, the combined result ends up sounding godawful, mainly because of their insistence on recording the cymbals separately from the rest of the drums and micing up each piano string individually, among other bad ideas. After a few years of trying to fix it in the mix, in the mastering or in the shrink wrap (to misquote Frank Zappa), the project is either entirely abandoned or a mediocre album is released, often featuring unattractive artwork, since by that point the motivation is long gone.
The obsessive-compulsive artist will then usually get a burger-flipping job or something similar and will overcome the obsessive phase, with the new job suddenly revealing how simple life can be sometimes. Every now and then, though, such artists will start obsessing about making the best burgers using 267 different ingredients and flipping them 267 times, but will soon end up being involuntarily removed from all that, and disgruntled by the fact that not only did nobody buy their album, but nobody wanted to eat their burgers either.
The rarest type of self-releaser, seldom encountered, is the serious experienced artist, who knows exactly what they want and how to get it. This type usually funds the recording through their touring income, and are aware enough to wait until they have scraped up an adequate album budget and until they have enough good music ready to record. They usually have previous unfavorable experience working with record labels and know exactly why they want to do it differently this time.
Such albums are usually extremely well made, and often sell fairly well. However, artists who possess the skill set needed to properly self-release an album often start their own independent record label and therefore no longer qualify as “self-releasing.”
This minority in the self-releasing ecosystem is the reason I am still very supportive of artists wishing to self-release their music, which has resulted in many excellent albums, which, due to the circumstances of their time, probably would not have turned out as well, or even been released at all, if the artist had not taken the bold step of self-releasing. But it does take an incredible amount of self-awareness, a balanced psychological makeup and a deep desire to learn and improve as an artist and in handling the business aspects of self-releasing music.
In all but a few rare cases, I believe the music industry as a whole would greatly benefit from a return to the roots of the record label concept. This is: an organization that aims to find new talent, nurture the artist, help them develop their artistic vision and provide them with the services of experienced experts along the way, in order to successfully translate their artistic vision into high-quality commercial product. The record label would market the product, therefore providing the artist and all the other professionals involved, from audio engineers and graphic designers to music arrangers and marketing gurus, with a comfortable living. This would enable everyone involved to focus on creating true masterpieces, like so many that were created back in the day when the record labels were still doing all of the above and took a long-term interest in the artists, rather than just pumping out temporary “hits,” soon to be forgotten again.
I would love to see more record labels return to this concept and consistently maintain a truly professional level of quality in their output. I still remember the best piece of advice I was ever given back in the day when I was still a student: “If you are not willing to invest in yourself, then why should anyone else invest in you?”
Put another way: if a record label is not willing to invest in high-quality productions, or even worse, if they don’t actually believe that their releases will sell well enough to justify properly investing in them (I have actually heard various comments to this effect coming from record label directors over the years), then why should anyone else actually buy anything that such a record label would put out?
On the other hand, the true masterpiece, the timeless classic, or a worthwhile album will provide a lasting value for everyone involved, from the artist to the record collector. The fact that so many vinyl record releases nowadays are just re-issues from the golden age of record labels – all the way down to the distinctive record label designs of the original item, clearly shows what the market is asking for: the seal of approval of a quality record label.
But, since even these reissues often fall short of expectations, the second-hand market for original pressings is still soaring. The way forward clearly involves bringing back that high level of professionalism and quality in new original releases. The incentive can only come from the buying public supporting such endeavors.
Do we stand a chance of turning what is currently a tiny niche market into the former glory of the recording industry?
Only through embracing the efforts of the few record labels presently testing the waters in this direction can we hope to convince the less-daring that this is the only way to keep our industry sustainable in the long run.
Disclaimer: Although some of the descriptions in this piece are inspired by the author’s own experiences working with self-releasing artists, I hereby state that any similarities with any real-life entities are entirely coincidental and unintended!
Header image: Pink Floyd, Obscured by Clouds, Harvest Records. Photos by Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.