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The terminology of the music industry can sometimes be confusing.

Terms like A&R, indie and even record have seen their meanings evolve over the decades for a variety of business reasons, and these shifts sometimes make it difficult to discuss what’s happening to the music business.

Because I work in the independent artist space, I am regularly asked whether artists need labels to succeed in today’s music industry.  To me, the persistence of this question betrays ignorance of not only the scope of what labels do, but of the spirit that exists at the heart of thousands of record labels around the world.

People like Tunecore’s Jeff Price will tell you that the manufacturing and distribution services once provided by record labels have been rendered obsolete, and that is increasingly true. And plenty of in-the-red artists can tell you certain labels are ill-equipped to do radio promotion or tour support efficiently (though that doesn’t stop them from trying).

But at the end of the day, the record label is just a brand, and it always will be. That brand is animated by the abilities and expertise of its staff. When you look at labels like Sub Pop or SST or K or Slumberland, tiny independent labels that have been nurturing and building bands for close to 30 years, you can identify common threads that continue to make them vital partners for artists.

Each consists of handfuls of people devoted to celebrating certain scenes or aesthetics or ideas. They are committed to local, small-scale, economically realistic endeavours. What you see, ultimately, are centres of passion and community and energy that helped to bring a lot of great art into the world. Now more than ever, this is what every artist needs to succeed.

Stax didn’t become the brand that it remains because of Atlantic’s distribution and finances. Stax became Stax because of Muscle Shoals and the core players that worked there. Motown built its iconic brand through the rigours that Berry Gordy brought to bear on every aspect of the record-making process. Even UMG and Sony, for all the negative publicity they’ve endured over the years, are still synonymous with global success. Every time a programme director or a magazine editor got a package from one of those majors, the following thought passes through the backs of their minds: “Everybody is going to hear this record. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to partake in that success.”

The means by which a label can build and sustain its brand are in the process of changing. Not many labels can afford tour support anymore, only a handful can afford radio promotion, very few have in-house art departments or enormous marketing staffs, and even recording budgets are shrinking. As the CD continues to die out, the number of labels that do have those people will grow smaller still. The more fiercely independent artists out there will say that this reality has rendered labels irrelevant.

But as the web becomes a richer, more varied environment for bands to inhabit, labels will become even more important for artists looking to widen their reach, strengthen their identities, and find fans. The terms of their relationships with bands will continue to change, as will the scope of the services they offer. Labels are now responsible for drilling down and developing significantly more sophisticated understandings of the communities they serve. Labels need to know not just where their artists’ fans are on Facebook and Youtube and Twitter. They need to find every community, every possible brand and content partner, that can strengthen and spread its artists’ names.

I run a site dedicated to helping musicians advance their careers independently and succeeding on their own terms, and I believe that artists have never had more opportunities to educate themselves and build their careers. But like most other players in the independent music sphere, I also believe DIY does not stand for Do It Alone. Every artist needs a team to turn their music into a career. And labels that are devoted to serving specific scenes, aesthetics, or communities with realistic, feasible projects will always deserve a spot.

Max Willens is the editor of We All Make Music, a website dedicated to helping musicians navigate a changing music industry. WAMM tweets here, Max tweets here.


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