“I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros.” 

-Prince

For many of us, music engulfs us; it is playing in the background while driving, shopping, or exercising. But how much do we really know about the music that surrounds us, how it’s created, how it moves from an idea to a product, or the different people involved? 

The name ‘music industry’ can be quite deceiving. The huge amounts of money involved (aka the business) often gets in the way of the music, bringing about a toxic culture. Musicians often do not realize that what they are signing up for, is an agreement for a lifetime of exploitation under the facade of well-deserved wealth.

Simply put, ‘record labels’ are companies that strive to manufacture, promote and distribute the work of an artist associated with it. 

Additionally, various departments within the record label serve various purposes, which include being on a constant lookout for new talent, targeting the right demographics for marketing, handling streaming platforms, generating the right aesthetic, and building a social media presence.

When it comes to the contract, artists sign to a record label and agree that a part of the royalties will be taken by the record label. In exchange, artists are provided with networking opportunities and marketing campaigns. 

No matter what the nature of the contract is, the goal of the record label is to increase the profitability of an artist.

That being said, the history of music has proven otherwise. Record labels are infamous for capitalizing on the artist’s work, thereby shattering all the walls of ethics. There’s an ill-famed deal type that’s been floating around for a while called the 360 deal. This permits the record labels to participate in all aspects of an artist’s career, like touring, merchandising, etc.

So, now, the labels are making money off of pretty much every action an artist takes that involves getting income.

Furthermore, the bane of ‘album advances’ is perhaps the biggest loophole in the whole system. You have surely noticed the musicians with gold chains, flash cars, and swanky shoes in all of their videos. They look like they have it all together. However, behind the scenes, that’s the record label’s money that they’re spending.

A lot of money is required to contribute to the success of an artist. State-of-the-art recording equipment, writers, producers, advertising. Moreover, the outward appearance of a lavish lifestyle works wonders in attracting viewers. The record label lends money to the artist for the ‘improvement’ of the production quality. Notwithstanding the fact that the artist is already signed for a dismally low fraction of the final revenue, the artist now has an additional debt to clear.

But these kinds of injustices are not just limited to independent artists. Recently, we interviewed a cover artist (who chose to remain unnamed) who shares a similar unfortunate experience. She came forward exposing the unfair deeds of popular distributing companies. She emphasized the ease with which a third party can issue a takedown for a published song cover despite owning the relevant license. The powerlessness of the creator and the distributor is demonstrated in their inability to intervene.

Owing to all these factors, it is no surprise that an artist’s creative as well as professional growth is vastly stunted. Oftentimes, the content to be created is restricted as per the label’s demands. If not for direct demands, artists are compelled to produce mainstream, below-average commercial content so as to maintain their materialistic value. In 1986, Columbia Records said goodbye to Johnny Cash when they decided that the country legend was not bringing in enough money for the label. Similarly, Prince was deprived of the freedom to be able to release his music whenever he wanted. 

The artists and bands signing the record deals are not only financially exploited but the atrocities start even before their music goes out to the audience.

“Ever wondered why the most popular singers are not always the best or even good?”

Major labels in the quest for blinding and obscene levels of success are willing to kill 99 creative souls in order to find the 1 artist who can give them that. The major record labels are famously known for encouraging genericized music. Since their major goal is to make profits on their investment (the artist), ideally they’ll want a huge section of the population to relate to you and your sound. This means that your sound cannot be vastly different from anything that is on the Billboard top 100 right now. This is also a reason why the Billboard top 100 gets more and more generic sounds. So if you’re getting signed to a major label, you probably sound similar to someone who’s currently top of the charts, who can maximize their return on investment. Labels spend so much money employing this mass marketing method that they are afraid of trying anything new. This makes the artist feel crippled and almost as if he’s sold his soul in aspirations of a lavish lifestyle. 

Just when you thought this could not get any worse, most artists and bands signed to a record label do not even get to release their music. Statistically, 99% of those actually signed to a record label each year do not get to release their first album. This can be for many reasons, their A&R’s getting fired, labels getting acquired, or unceremoniously shut down. Sometimes, labels are trying to sign you to make sure you never release your music. 

Yes, it happens!

Suppose you are an up-and-coming artist/band with a lot of clicks on social media (YouTube), and the rival labels are on the verge of signing you. You get signed to the other label would mean a direct competition to their rising shiny pop star. To them, the shiny pop star represents untold billions in revenue. So they are willing to outbid their competition to get you a deal and put you on the backburner. This gives them plenty of time for their shiny pop star to get a stranglehold on the marketplace. As horrible as may it sound, it definitely happens. Artists see their dreams die right in front of their eyes. This is evident in the case of Amanda Palmer when she was signed with Roadrunner Records and was put on the backburner for unspecified reasons.

Now, one might wonder why we needed record labels in the first place. The era in which the major labels consolidated their position in the industry was the pre-internet era. The music industry was essentially the record industry, in that records and radio were the venues through which people learned of music and principally experienced it. They were joined by MTV and videos in the 80s and 90s, but the principal relationship people had with music was as sound recordings. Recording was a rare and expensive enterprise and required considerable investment.

The whole industry back then depended on sales and sales depended on exposure. The major record labels have their system already established. They have recording studios, the ability to buy up the radio, teams established to market you and give you the biggest probability of success. And in most cases, they give you the best opportunity to reach superstar status. The artists may see it as being a slave to the label (rightly so) but from the label’s perspective that’s just the price you pay for getting access to this system which sets them up for success.

If it were still the pre-internet era, we would not dare to imagine the industry without them. But times have changed and the boom of the internet has flipped the industry upside down and a future with independent artists and labels seems possible.

But,

There’s a lot of shade thrown by people in the music industry about how terrible the free sharing of music is, how it’s the equivalent of theft, etc. And this cut short the stream of revenue that made the most profits – Record Sales. It is a leaky system, riddled with inefficiencies but a lot of people make a living through it. Record store owners, buyers, employees, ad agencies, designers, club owners, label reps, A&R, producers, recording studios, publicists, lawyers, journalists, program directors, distributors, tour managers, booking agents, band managers, and all the ancillary services they required: banking, shipping, printing, photography, travel agencies. Every facet of the industry was tailored to this need. Even though the Major labels pocket most profits unfairly a whole system was disrupted.

Amidst it all, it’s a very exciting time to be a fan and a musician. We’re seeing more bands and hearing more music than ever before. There are more gigs, more songs available than ever before, bands are being treated with more respect, and are more in control of their careers and destinies.

“Music went from being rare and expensive… to being free worldwide.”

In contrast to back in the day, recording equipment and technology has simplified and is readily available. Now one can release a single track or an album within the comforts of his/her bedroom. Instead of spending hours on finding contacts to distribute your music all across the world, every artist now has free, instant access to the world at its fingertips.

The importance of this development cannot be emphasized enough. Previously, the top-down paradigm allowed the local industry to dictate what music was available in isolated or remote markets, markets isolated by location or language. It was inconceivable that an artist/band in one part of the world can reach the lesser developed markets and develop direct relationships with the fans. Fans directly being in contact with their favorite artists is the most amazing development in all of this. The artists and bands could see themselves playing to full houses in developed places such as the UK, US and also in places such as Greece, Turkey, or China (which are isolated from the western culture).

In short, the Internet has made it much easier to conduct the day-to-day business of being in a band and has increased efficiency. Everything from scheduling rehearsals to selling merchandise to raising funds to make a record is a new simplicity that the pre-internet era couldn’t even imagine. The new system where music is shared informally and the bands have a direct relationship to the fans was built by the bands and the fans in the manner of the old underground. It skips all the intermediary steps.

The Internet has facilitated the most direct and efficient, compact relationship between the artist and the audience. And we do not mourn the loss of the schools of inefficiencies that died in the process. We suppose some people are out of work but it is a small sacrifice for the greater good. It won’t be right to conclude without reiterating how terrific the current music environment is. Bands/artists are getting more exposure, there is more music available than ever before and most importantly artists/bands are the ones in control of their destinies which is the biggest takeaway. Though we’re leaving out a lot – publishing, stolen credits, sampling, fair use, inspiration – We suspect there will be a healthy discussion afterward and think that such discussions are necessary and overdue. We think these discussions are necessary because the Internet is not a perfect system, there are inefficiencies and we should strive to eradicate those to create a system that is fair to everyone involved.

Kirti Palve, Rathish Kumar