As the manager and founder of a small independent label for 6 years+, I am by no means putting any master thesis or 20 years of major label experience behind this article. However, I think my position in the music industry is a good foundation for understanding the importance of independent labels in a time where all music can be found everywhere and even labels have been thought of as an unnecessary money sucking third party.
But they are not!
Ok, so let me start. The most important reason why the music industry (or actually both major labels with commercial power plus the consumers) need independent labels is FILTERING. While the second most important reason why the world needs independent labels is the label’s ability to create underground networks or establishing any platforms for distributing music. This includes gathering likeminded people with the same music taste into groups, which makes the life easier for consumers looking for music similar to tracks they already like. A modern label is much about these two things. Finding the best tracks (filtering) and establishing an effective network channel.
Back to filtering.
I can only imagine how many shitty demos the major labels get and how much time they would have to spend on discovering good artists with new and cool music this way. So majors or bigger independent labels look for already filtered artists.
Let us start with the beginning of the chain: The bedroom producer.
Say that he has got a very killing track coming along that he made partly following tutorials on YouTube. He is sixteen years old and does not know much about the music industry in general. He knows many other bedroom producers who makes similar music, and he knows them mostly from online communities and some even from LAN-parties. Together they form a small network of producers who engage and motivates eachother to make new tracks. At one point, this sixteen year old bedroom producer feels that he wants his music to be heard by a bigger audience. The most common thing to do now is to put it out on Soundcloud on his own profile, and hope for the shit to go viral by itself. Obviously that is not going to happen. But he uploads it, and the track becomes unfiltered amongst a lot of other bedroom producers.
After uploading 10 tracks to Soundcloud and also some on YouTube, he starts to get annoyed by the slow response. By listening to his favorite artists, he knows that there are networks with a lot of subscribers out there. “Hmm, if I could only get my music onto there”. There you have it, the now seventeen years old bedroom producer has lifted his ambitions and is looking for help to achieve more plays and reaching a broader audience.
He decides to send a bunch of his tracks to the same network that his favorite artists are getting played by. Let us say this network is a modern independent music label which has established a popular YouTube channel with 200.000 subscribers. The one at the label side who recieves this demo is the first line fighter in the filtering process. He listens to all of this bedroom producer’s tracks, and instantly hear that one of his tracks are of such quality that he wants to spread it through his network. For the rest of the tracks, he responds to the bedroom producer that they are not up to expected standards. The bedroom producer signs a deal with the label so that he can get a small share of the generated streaming income, and understands that he has to keep it on with the standards of his signed track to be able to get more tracks featured. You see, consumers are only able to listen to a certain amount of tracks, so they need to be good to be featured.
So this label just filtered out nine tracks that were boring to listen to and really were not up to standards when it comes to arrangement, sound engineering and creativity. At the same time this label encouraged this bedroom producer to increase his standards. If he is an aspiring artist or producer, he will get motivated by this process, and if he is not motivated by it – well, maybe the label just filtered out a copycat tutorial bedroom producer who just ran out of ideas, which in my opinion is good to filter out at this point. In this “independent label first line defence”, filtering artists is just as important as filtering music.
Now, there are networks out there today who are not living up to these filtering standards, and just pumps out and shares everything recieved from bedroom producers. This does not make a very good music industry representant, and then we come to the next point:
What does it take to be promoted by a bigger network or independent label?
First off, you need to have come further down the road than a bedroom producer. You have probably had a couple of years with motivation from a smaller network or label. In other words, you have been through a filtering process earlier, which conveniently also made you motivated enough to take your music to the next level, which also gave you a bigger fanbase because you got aired on that 200.000 subscriber channel. Remember, there is a reason why people subscribe to channels in the first place, and that is the amount of great music being spread out from there. Not the amount of music being spread out from there.
Imagine as a consumer/plain listener, how would it be to skip 80% of the tracks on the channel you are subscribing to because the tracks were shit, even if they are supposed to fit the genre description? I know I wouldn´t be around that channel for long. So while you get your nice and smooth track played on the big Soundcloud or YouTube channel, there are still people making shit music in the bottom of the chain, while you have made a step up. And that step was NOT just as simple as just sending your track to them. That step included a lot of work.
So, the bedroom producer has been shared throughoutly the label’s network, and has gained experience on making high quality tracks. His fanbase has also increased from 10 to comfortable 10000 facebook page likes.
For getting further success, he needs to get filtered more. Every time he takes a step up for where he is getting aired or signed, label, promotion bureau, radio channels, management, he gets filtered by industry professionals. Included into this description of industry profssional, you also find the big bloggers with a lot of influence. This is a kind of a modern label, but lacking a few functions.
Getting filtered makes him as an artist experienced enough to stand up for himself, to get his own extensive fanbase, industry respect, influence.
At the top of the chain, you have the major labels. They live by having the few extremely talented artists who went massively through eighter step of the filtering chains, or they went viral and popular. Popular is a keyword here, because bigger networks, channels and labels won´t even touch you if you´re not popular already. Put that in perspective, though, because you only need to be as popular as the level below indicates that you should be. Remember, this new channel you should be aiming for, is offering a new dimension to how many people they reach with their uploads or networks.
Looking from the listeners point of view, stuff that goes viral is getting so extremely popular so fast because the content has been filtered so many times by each and everyone who shared. This is a turbo version of the conventional filtering that I have been talking about in this article. Of course anyone wants to go viral with their music, but the reason why so few does it is: Lack of network or promotion channels for doing it, and the fact that the listeners could never make everything go viral – because only the most special stuff does that. If everything was so special that it was supposed to get mass shared and go viral, then the bar for speciality would automatically be lifted.
So instead of hoping for a viral breakthrough, I think you should consider striving for getting involved in filtering processes and to take one step at a time that way. Good luck!