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The New Record Label Model: Not Here Yet (A Report from One WOMEX Panel)

Vinyl On October 30, Dmitri Vietze of DubMC and rock paper scissors, inc. was a panelist on W1OMEX's "The New Label Architecture Emerges” moderated by IODA’s Erik Gilbert. Other panelists were Ivan Duran of Stonetree Records (Belize; known for producing Andy Palacio and Aurelio Martinez); Hanna Gorjaczkowska of Crammed Discs (Belgium; known for artists from Zap Mama to Konono No. 1), and Mel Puljic of Mondo Mundo booking agency (U.S.; who also represents U.S. interests for labels including Wrasse, Mr. Bongo, and Sheer). Here Dmitri summarized the conversation from the panel.

Hanna emphasized that she felt that it was difficult to imagine how artists from certain places in Africa and Latin America would be able to do all the business functions that a label has traditionally provided, making connections within the industry for a successful career. Ivan emphasized how important it is for a label producer to help create a high quality recording. Mel said he could teach a smart independent unsigned artist everything they needed to know in a couple of hours so that they could manage their career without a label. He further emphasized that the primary profit machine of the U.S music industry right now is touring. Without a tour, he feels it makes no sense to release a record. He really de-emphasized the role of the label in the current era.

What I offered is that nobody really knows how the role of the label -- or whatever might take its place -- will be structured. The architecture is very fluid. I pointed out that whereas a label typically had a role to play in the past, now labels and other entities are trying a variety of roles. There is no single model. The variety of label "architectures" include: a studio-based label that records the album and then licenses the recording to another type of label; the type of label whose expertise is in marketing and distribution and that just looks for finished recordings; the label that just licenses individual tracks for compilations; labels that make 360 degree deals (taking a cut of all touring and merchandising sales); the artist driven label that only releases their own music (or maybe eventually releases their friend's recordings too); the label that only sells from the concert stage, their website, and CD Baby; the artistShare model, where the fans are asked to be the patrons and executive producers of an artist; the press-on-demand label, like Smithsonian; the label as non-profit (which can then subsidize recording production with grant writing). Then there are those hip hop artists who made a demo not for a label deal but to get a Fulbright scholarship; then they used their Fulbright to make a record, not to sell, but to grow their careers as DJ/producers. They hand sewed every set of liner notes, hand signed each one, and gave away their music online, asking other musicians to remix their music.

I pointed out that while many emphasize the role free downloads had on the demise of the recording industry as we know it, I believe that the technological shift that had greater impact was greater access to the tools of production. More and more artists are creating, pressing, and releasing recordings... and flooding the marketplace. What killed Tower Records (and killed the great CD sections at Border's and Barnes and Noble) was the cash flow problems they had by trying to stock a good chunk of new and catalog releases. And now with the mighty, giant, and "clean" digital distribution system in place, and few brick and mortar stores carrying eclectic music, the problem is different. iTunes and Amazon MP3 and eMusic, etc. can carry an endless supply of the long tail of music, but how do people discover it. Who do they trust to curate their musical experience? And with so many free options out there (some of them even legal), why pay for music?

I argue that it always goes back to basic business sense. Don't worry about what everyone else is doing or selling. What are YOU selling? What is your profit margin? How many albums or tickets do you need to sell to make the living you want to make? Many professional musicians -- like most self-employed people in any field -- find themselves needing to maintain a hybrid career. Some money comes from album sales, some from gigs, some from being a side-musican, some from playing a wedding, some from teaching private lessons or at a school, some from doing commercial voiceover work, some from written transcriptions, some from soundtrack work, some from studio production for other artists, and on and on.

But even focusing on your music, how do you create an experience that YOUR fans are willing to pay for? What else can you sell them that gives you a profit and adds value for them and makes them even stronger fans of yours and helps them market you to their friends? How do you develop 1000 true fans willing and able to support you? Does the guy who created a career writing songs for sailing on the ocean and booking endless high paying gigs on cruise ships care about label architecture? What is your cruise ship going to be? There is nothing wrong with making music for fun. But don't expect the money to follow without the intent to do so and a plan to get you there. The playing field is being leveled, but few have taken the business of music to the place needed to fully leverage the emerging tools and opportunities available to musicians.

Staff_benda_bilili CODA: After the panel was long over, we were all treated to an amazing conference closing performance by WOMEX award winners Staff Benda Bilili, the DR Congo band that happens to be on Crammed Discs, the label where panelist Hanna Gorjaczkowska works; the panelist who spoke of the importance of the role of a label in developing the careers of artists, especially from certain places in Africa. Here is a band of polio survivors from Kinshasa, many of whom get around in wheel chairs or with crutches. And while it is certainly possible to envision this band's energy springboarding them into an international spotlight on their own, it was hard not to credit Crammed Discs -- the role of the label -- for using their relationships and expertise to bring this band to light.

The remaining question is how the label-as-advocate can recoup the investment of the time, energy, and money it takes to play this role. Something new is on the horizon. The sooner we try different models... the sooner we fail and learn from those mistakes... the sooner a working model will emerge.