Independent Labels

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There-s no way to look at the last 40 years of incredible growth and profitability in the music business, and then it-s rapid steep decline, without first taking a look at the foundation of this amazing machine.

Back in the 50-s and 60-s, the music business was creatively charged by individuals whose vision and commitment to artists far exceeded the practical nature of investment.

There were true entrepreneurs like Jerry Moss who, with Herb Alpert, built A&M; Records by selling Herb-s album literally out of the trunk of their car. Richard Bramson, who built Virgin Records, released Mike Oldfield-s instrumental album, Tubular Bells, as his first release. Chris Blackwell, hell bent on discovering rare and unique talents, built Island Records by filling his roster with those gems. None of these men focused on signing artists on the basis of a fad or radio-s favorite sound.

And the rosters of these three labels during the 70s, 80s, and early 90-s showcase an astonishing range of artistry, including Bob Marley, Roxy Music, Traffic, Cat Stevens, The Sex Pistols, The Police, The Blue Nile, John Hiatt, U2, and the list goes on and on.

The other kind of wonder kin in the music business was the creative executive at the major label. Though the majors were run primarily by business people, they had strong roots in the culture of music making and understood the nature of fostering creativity through trust and commitment in a risky business.

This is a very important point.

Major labels nowadays have a quarterly sensibility, with the words profit potential leading the charge. It-s not fashionable to work at a major label any more; in fact it-s downright embarrassing for some.

What happened here?

By the mid 90-s, label consolidation became the norm, with large international companies acquiring the assets of these creative houses. What happened next is quite predictable. The genuine love for art and community got pushed aside for quarterly profits and expediencies. The business of finding talent became more political and cut throat. Accountants and attorneys began to control the business in ways they never had. The magic left the building, and one by one, each of those visionary entrepreneurs sold their successful companies to the large international conglomerates.

This brings us pretty close to where we are today. There are now 5 major label conglomerates that control 70-80 percent of the record labels.

But here-s where the story gets really interesting again. It turns out, with the cost of making records dropping to very little and the means of getting their music heard, easier with the internet, and with so many other alternative distribution channels, that many bands and creative small labels are building their own empires. Most of these artists and labels will probably never succeed financially, but the talent pool is very strong and the results are beginning to make the majors pay attention. That little known Irish singer Damien Rice, heard first here on KCRW before anyone knew him in the US and was without a record deal here, is now a significant artist development story around the country with sold out performances wherever he goes.

Though some artists sign contracts to one of the five majors in hopes for their MTV moment in the sun, a lot of artists are interested in preserving their vision, rights and creative freedom and don-t trust the majors anymore. They are forging their own future, without the clarity of knowing what the outcome will be. I support this completely, and I think Jerry Moss, Chris Blackwell and Richard Branson should be proud to see that spirit alive and well.