Are Record Labels Still Relevant?

Aaron Meola (Tender Loving Empire); John Shepski (Fluff & Gravy); Blake Hickman (Good Cheer); Portia Sabin (Kill Rock Stars), all Portland-based record labels.

There’s a lot of confusion in the music industry about record labels — what do they do these days? Can an artist succeed without one? How are indie labels different from majors?

We just partnered with Kill Rock Stars to dive into a number of pressing questions facing up-and-coming artists, especially those at critical junctures of their careers.  In a recent episode of her podcast, The Future of What, Kill Rock Stars president Portia Sabin took these questions to three fellow indie labels, Tender Loving Empire, Fluff & Gravy, and Good Cheer Records.

Despite the labels’ varying ages, reach, and aesthetic, everyone in attendance could agree that the business related tasks that come with releasing a record are too much for one person, or band, to handle on their own.  It’s a great and educational conversation that covers almost every aspect of what indie labels do, including re-emerging cassettes, the difficulties of vinyl, national and global expansion, distribution, major label partnerships, touring, photography, Bandcamp benefits, managing submissions, and managing artist expectations.


Image by Anna McClain, used with direct permission.  

12 Responses

  1. Nicky Knight's thoughts

    Record labels are very much relevant if you’re after airplay hits.. the reason..
    The major label machine has access to commercial and non-commercial radio stations program makers and stations playlists.
    If you’re an indy artist or label you can get your music into the Internet space ok but you are very unlikely to garner any valuable airplay rotation.

    Hits generally require both (availability on online stores and lot’s of YouTube, SoundCloud, Apple Music, Spotify streams/plays..) and national and international radio airplay.. being a one city wonder won’t make you a star or give you material rewards..

    So yes, if you’re after hits then you kind of need to be with one of the top guns labels.

  2. Anonymous

    “all Portland-based record labels.”

    lol not exactly representative of most of the western world.

  3. In The Know

    Yes Labels are still relevant, they have established partnerships with other companies in the music business that artists do not have access too. This provides unique opportunities for artists to earn more money and gain more exposure.

  4. Sakis Gouzonis

    It is more than obvious in our times that all record labels are useless and irrelevant. Artists and bands should never use them. Besides, they won’t even exist in a few years from now. The internet has totally and thoroughly replaced all labels. With so much beautiful, free and legal music online these days, the revenues of all record labels will drop to $0 eventually.

    • Disruptor

      Yes, and the “beautiful free music” means that us musicians are getting paid even less than when we had to give the labels their cut …

  5. Nicky Knight's thoughts

    Sakis it’s true you can release you music without them and find an audience and that’s great and very freeing for the artist .. but for hit makers who want airplay hits on the radio and performance royalties, then you really have a far greater chance by working with an A-lister who’s signed with a major and has marketing priority with the major. You need the major label machine to give you hits…

    You can sometimes strike it lucky right out of the box with an Internet hit that gets some airplay action because the song becomes such a YouTube sensation .. but it’s very rare.. but can happen … However, that approach is a bit like a lottery..

    I suppose the whole recorded music hit single business is a bit of a lottery in a way as nobody really ever knows if they’re going to get a hit.. it’s the public that decide..
    but they have to hear it first in order to decide.. so radio is still very important in building hits..

  6. jr

    I think it is urgent that the music business stop using terms like “Labels” as if anyone who calls themselves one is equal to everyone else.

    Labels with a lot of money will continue to be relevant and those without money will simply make money from the artists that are ignorant of the fact that they can do low level numbers on their own and probably far better. yes it is work but what isn’t?

    The majors will not only continue to thrive but will get stronger in their role as gatekeepers. Adele would not be Adele if Beggar’s had not partnered with Sony..end of argument and if the largest indie label on Earth can’t go it alone do you really think these mom and pops can? I’ve got a bridge to sell you if so.

  7. Versus

    Yes, for various reasons including:
    – promotion
    – publicity
    – artist development (rare now)
    – management
    – tour support (maybe)
    – advance (if you’re lucky)
    – connections for licensing and placement

    Of course, you can try to do all of that yourself, but it’s unlikely you excel at all those capacities, or that you will have time, energy, or focus to then actually work on your art.

    Or (if you’re well off) you can hire a team and delegate…in which case you have essentially formed…a record label.

    • Disruptor

      This is the most intelligent post on here. Someone who actually knows what they are talking about.

  8. Troglite

    Perhaps the more interesting question is whether independent artists can live above the poverty line without an “Airplay hit”?

    There are many examples of major artists with hits who ended up broke.. and there are many example of artists that are well outside of the mainstream who have managed to sustain themselves financially. These seem like fundamentally different, but potentially viable business models with unique needs, benefits, and risks.

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