Much fretting about the release of two new Frank Ocean albums last month concerned their business implications. On August 19, Endless appeared—a single-track “visual album,” a surprise release in line with the marketing strategies of our time. It premiered (and currently lives) exclusively on Apple Music, a streaming service not to be confused with the iTunes Store, where it remains unavailable for sale.
The next day, Endless was followed by Blonde, a “real album” with honest-to-god track breaks—an Apple exclusive at first, but one that could be purchased and has since spread to other streaming services.
A narrative emerged: Endless had fulfilled Ocean’s contract with Def Jam, a major label imprint under the Universal Music Group. Blonde, in turn, was an independent self-release. In a single week, the “real album” netted over a two million dollars. Endless netted… well, nothing, because it’s still not for sale. Had Frank Ocean found a loophole in the music industry?
“How savvy,” cried the press! How sneaky! A game changer, if there ever was one. Ocean—alongside Chance The Rapper, who released his much-adored Coloring Book with zero label backing—have provided fresh examples that big albums no longer need the support of a major label to make an impact. Hell, they might not need a label at all.
But the money has to come from somewhere. In 2016, artists are making deals directly with tech companies. We still don’t know much about what these deals look like—how much they pay, how rough the terms might be—but we definitely know that major labels have yet to pull rank on these new income streams.
Yes, Universal reacted to the Frank Ocean release by “banning” exclusives with the streaming services, but would they really say no to their biggest stars, especially when they can jump ship and do their own deals? Would Columbia, itself a subsidiary of Sony, try to force Beyoncé, their most successful artist right now, to not release albums and videos exclusively to Tidal? I’m sure they want to, but they don’t have enough power anymore.
Why would an artist sign with a label at this point? In a series of interviews with industry veterans and tastemakers, we heard again and again that, beyond helping to fund a lifestyle where it’s feasible to record music as a job, the biggest reasons left to sign with a label are distribution, radio promotion and good old-fashioned connections.
Yet return to Frank Ocean, and you’ll see that distribution is a tenuous perk at best. If physical copies are dying out, multi-decade connections to retailers and manufacturers mean very little. Radio, on the other hand, makes hits even when you don’t listen to it. It’s still a world where connections matter more than originality, and a scan of the top twenty songs on the Billboard Hot 100 finds no artists who aren’t either signed to or distributed by a major label.
It’s near impossible to break through without the help of label professionals who already live on the other side. They’re the ones who get calls returned from television bookers. They’re the ones who can get an artist nominated for awards or played on the radio twice an hour. Their power may be reduced, but is it disappearing completely? Frank Ocean might provide a new model, but it’s not the only path to success.
Let’s let the experts explain.
Jonny Shipes, Cinematic Music Group
"I don't think signing to a major label does anything for you out of the gate for a few reasons.
"Let's just say you have a huge record or buzz and all the majors are running to you to sign you—the hard work you have put in up to that point is just starting to come to fruition. The labels are only knocking on your door because you have made yourself hot. Why would you take the momentum you have built on your own and hand it over to people that are only going to capitalize on you and move on?
"Unless you need the big money up front, I think it's best for you take the time to build yourself into the artist you know you can be and build a real, dedicated fan base. Play shows, make some dope merch, and distribute your music yourself. Spotify, Apple Music and other platforms are the new radio stations. The internet and social media have removed all barriers that may have been in the way 10 years ago when trying to break as an independent artist.
"My advice is to stay independent or find a partner that is independent from the major label system, so that you can be yourself in your music and not what someone else wants you to be. Also, the pressure of recouping a massive advance from a major label could completely change the music and the artist themselves.
"The major label model is broken as far as the artist is concerned. If you want to own your masters, get larger indie percentages and money, and be in the best possible deal for you—do your own thing or find an independent partner like Cinematic to rock with you."
Huw Stephens, BBC Radio 1
"I still value and respect music labels greatly. The independent music sector is vital in allowing artists to get heard, to be nurtured and get their music out to as many as possible. A label name and logo brings a certain credibility. But behind that, you have a team of individuals who care about the music, work hard in forging relationships for the benefit of the music and musicians, and that team mentality which is inspiring.
MUSIC RELEASED THROUGH A LABEL THAT COMES WITH HISTORY... CAN HELP ME AND THE LISTENERS UNDERSTAND WHAT THAT ARTIST IS.
"It applies to so many labels, from Stones Throw and the Ninja Tune labels, to the Beggars Banquet group of labels and all the great indie labels that nurture some phenomenal talent. For us on BBC Radio 1, I play nine hours of unique music every week. Music released through a label that comes with history, or equally with a freshness, can help me and the listeners understand what that artist is about a little more."
"It can be a positive because some people really need the money. It’ll help out around the house, or whatever the case may be. It’ll help their living condition.
"That’s the blessing about a deal. You get some advance money to take you out of your situation. You move out of the hood. Help your mother out. Whatever you gotta do with the money. Every record label has a building with all of these different positions that people have to help you with what you have. Whether it’s PR, or to help you with your social media, whether it’s licensing, all of these departments, whatever it is.
"I look at the record label as a music bank. You can go and get a little bit of money from them. You can go sit at a meeting and they can tell you how they do things, give you some infrastructure. They got the infrastructure. It’s up to you. They bring you to the water by signing you, you got to swim and find where the boats is at now, and where the food is at on the boat and all that. And that’s the infrastructure. They're gonna give you the infrastructure, you’ve just got to be business-minded as well as an artist nowadays.
"But sometimes [not signing] may hurt them as well. Because, man, I know what it’s like to be hustling, hustling, hustling, and getting nowhere fast. So for you to say no to a million dollars, or say no to a couple thousand dollars... You may not ever get an opportunity like that again.
"I’ve known kids that had a hot record one year and say, 'Yeah, we ain’t signing to no deals,' and where they at now? If they signed to a deal they would have probably had the infrastructure to further their business. Because it’s like now you’re working with a corporation to help push whatever product you’re promoting. Because you don’t have money. You need capital to last in the game.
"When you sign on to these big companies, you can either be looking at it like you’re working for them or they’re working for you. You can either be the slave or you could just be the boss and have them work with you on whatever you want.
"But you’ve got to make it your business to get up and go there and tell them what you need out of them. Be like, 'Yo I’m not getting this, I’m not getting radio, I’m not getting videos. I need more money for videos.' This, that, and the third. It’s all there for you. But if a kid is doing it by themselves, they’re not going to able to have the resources like that."
Chris Inumerable, Classick Studios
"Owning a business gives me a different perspective on this question. I see everything in terms of ownership and power. Since I've put up my own capital and reinvested in my own studio and built it from the ground up, I would be opposed to the idea of someone else coming in and taking a portion of my profits, pushing my brand in a way that may lack genuineness, and shifting my mission statement for a profit.
"I'm all about organic growth. While there may be benefits to signing to a major label depending on what you're trying to accomplish as an artist, it's important to make sure that the relationship works in your favor and not the other way around."
Bob Lefsetz, The Lefsetz Letter
"Sign with a major if you want to get on the radio, if you want to break big, sooner rather than later.
"Go with an indie if you’ve got no radio potential but you need help and have a hardcore fan base which is anxious to hear your recordings, if you think publicity will garner streams and sales.
"But if you’re primarily a live band, go it alone. Just make sure your music is everywhere so people can access it if they have the desire.
"The issue is attention. If a label can get you that, go for it. As for distribution, you can do that yourself. But it’s nearly impossible for anybody to get attention, major, indie or all alone. The experienced, the majors, have relationships they can leverage to your advantage (if they choose to do so!) Going it alone is so much tougher. Then again, you’re beholden only to yourself."
"I’m not opposed to signing. It’s all about how you approach it. I feel like a lot of guys aren’t really that marketable. You’ll have your one hit and you’ll get that offer and you’ll take it. And then you just expect the label to do all the work after that. Your job has just begun once you get signed.
"I encourage a lot of artists to do their research beforehand. It’s a two-way street. You want to become an artist? You want to get to that next level? That label can help you do that. But if you want that help you have to stay out of trouble. Stop saying shit on Twitter that will fucking get you banned from certain shows. And getting in trouble with the law.
YOUR JOB HAS JUST BEGUN ONCE YOU GET SIGNED.
"Everything besides the music is always the shit that gets people in trouble. If you keep yourself out of trouble and keep producing good content they’re gonna do the job for you, because it’s a machine. And in order for the machine to work they need fuel, and with no fuel they’re just running on old fumes."
Julia Willinger, Mom + Pop Music
"I think having a smaller team that allows the artist to lead is always the way to go. We each know the artist and manager personally. Without the personal investment or understanding of each individual artist, how can someone know where or how to work the artist? Yes, music is music and in terms of radio and sync it's a bit different, but the people who play songs on radio and license tracks to films also need to know what to tell their contacts or friends about the band.
"When there's so much music out there, the people around the band make all difference on how the story is told to everyone. Again, radio comes down to formats and virality/streams/Shazams, as well as the song itself, but it's also all about who you know, how much of an expert you are, and if you understand the changing market today and now.
"At the end of the day, major label or indie, it comes down to the individual people. There's always hierarchies and politics no matter where you go, so make sure you work with like-minded people who are on the same page as you. That goes for an artist and for anyone in any industry, really!"
Roger Gold, 300 Entertainment
"There's a big picture point of view here. A lot has changed in terms of what's going on in the landscape. Obviously, it's no secret that you don't need a label of any kind for access to distribution and making direct deals with DSPs and having your own access is not one of the things you need a label for. You don't need labels for access to expensive recording studios or equipment to make records. We can do it with a little software at home on our laptops.
"What I think labels do provide still – and what I think is extremely important for artists – are funding, marketing and promotion, radio promotion itself as a service and the personnel who have the relationships and trust with radio programmers, high level access and influence on various platforms like television, the ability to make a phone call to a TV outlet and have the credibility to be able to get your artist an opportunity to be able to perform on a TV show that will give them a broader audience.
"The other things I would say that make labels relevant still, and which I think 300 is particularly strong for, is our passion for artists. Really, the ability to speak to those platforms and bring our artists there with credibility because we are curators who have been doing this our entire lives in a way where we're not, as a label, a cluttered major with many priorities, many of which conflict with one another. I think the people who lead our label are incredible curators who bring an enormous amount of passion to be able to help bring artists to these outlets in a way that's effective.
"We look at ourselves as partners to artists, not some place where they sign up for their life rights. We are a place where we respect majors and respect independents, but we view ourselves as something in between, something we felt was needed in a modern world.
EVERY ARTIST THAT COMES TO WORK WITH US AS A PARTNER IS DIFFERENT. THEIR NEEDS ARE DIFFERENT... WE DON'T HAVE A COOKIE-CUTTER SYSTEM.
"I think that the type of deals most companies are offering are pretty much the standard long-term artist commitment with 360 and other commitments. However, that's not how we view it. We take a much more flexible approach. One of the things we pride ourselves on is the idea that every artist that comes to work with us as a partner is different. Their needs are different. We look to create novel arrangements with every artist we work with. We don't have a cookie-cutter system."
Dan Weisman, Roc Nation
"The thing that the majors were always able to tout that was a pretty untouchable resource—radio promotion. And to a certain extent majors still have this on lock; especially in the pop, Hot AC and country formats. Radio is still powerful and serves as a great way to complement streaming. However, with the exception of the US and Germany, whose radio stations are highly regional and focused on genres, most countries have only a handful of influential radio stations. In the U.K., for example, there are only five stations that 'matter.' Australia has three. The U.S. pop format has 165 stations.
"When I was managing Mike Posner at the beginning of his career in 2010, we hired an independent radio promoter to work 'Cooler Than Me' (three times platinum in the U.S.) to rhythmic radio as a way to continue the momentum we had built in the college scene, and force that song as his first single—RCA wasn’t sure which song to work. By getting the song started on our own, we took the responsibility off their shoulders and in the event it didn’t work, they could go at it again with another single without any stink on their hands.
"I did the same thing with my clients Capital Cities in 2012 with their hit single 'Safe and Sound.' The difference was, they weren’t signed to a label and we were going after the alternative format. That indie radio campaign, although costly, bought us a ton of leverage when going into our negotiations with labels and publishers (something which was not happening prior to working the record). I think with last year's success of Major Lazer’s 'Lean On,' it was proven you could go No. 1 independently. They used the same company for their radio promo as Capital Cities did.
"I guess the biggest thing that labels offer other than radio is scale and financial resources. The two comparisons of other industries would be the beverage space and tech space.
"If you are a growing beverage company, you might be able to grow your beverage brand to be a global brand, but it might take 10 years. If your product is good, and Coca-Cola comes to you and says, 'Let us buy 1/2 your company and we can get you in every store that Coke is in globally,' then that becomes a pretty sexy offer. Do you want to risk 10 years of work to maybe end up where Coke can get you in three years?
"Labels are a similar thing. Their apparatus is in place globally to help potentially popular artists become more successful. Whether a beverage is good is a little less subjective than whether an artist is good, but at the end of the day if you aren’t making a product that a number of people want, it really doesn’t matter if you are signed to a label or not.
IF AN ARTIST IS DESTINED TO BE SUCCESSFUL, BEING SIGNED TO A LABEL WILL HELP THEM BE MORE SUCCESSFUL GLOBALLY. HOWEVER, THERE IS ALWAYS A TRADE-OFF.
"Some would argue that being signed to a label increases your chances of success. I’m not sure if that’s the case but I certainly feel like that if an artist is destined to be successful, being signed to a label will help them be MORE successful globally. However, there is always a trade-off. Maybe an unsigned artist makes more money than a more successful signed artist since they control all of their music, publishing, brand, merch, etc., but that signed artist who has a label deal, publishing deal, touring deal, merch deal, brand deals, etc. (all of which he/she most likely lets the label get a taste of), has more ubiquity and has more time to focus on music and being an artist than the indie artist who handles everything themselves.
"Ubiquity seems to be the end game, right? But it’s definitely a trade-off. Looking back at the history of the intersection of art and commerce, there was the Medici family in Italy whose patronage of the arts was hugely impactful for over 300 years. Which came first? Their patronage or the art? The art, but it flourished because of their patronage. Would da Vinci be as renowned today without the patronage of the Medici family?
"If you look at the music business in a similar way, all of the most influential and renowned artists of the past 75 years have been signed, in one way or another, to major labels. Today there are only three majors left. The music business certainly has done a great job of promoting it’s own folklore, and its fight to remain relevant in this digital era is ongoing. However, if you look at the past 15 years of popular music (i.e. post-Napster), how many artists have made an impact that were not signed to major labels? How many are still making an impact that are not signed to majors? The only ones I can think of are Tech N9ne, Macklemore, and Chance The Rapper…but Macklemore had a label services deal with a major, and Chance The Rapper did a deal with Apple, so although he’s not signed to 'major label' per se, he has a deal with the most valuable company in the world. which might as well be a major label.
"Put it this way…if I, Dan Weisman, was an artist. I would see the value of signing a deal with a major; I would just make sure I did it on my terms and that I understood exactly what I was signing, and if that meant a smaller advance or waiting longer, then so be it. In my successes outside of the music business, I have seen the value of partners and why it makes sense to bring them in.
"The only thing I would keep in mind as an artist is the fact that major labels need artists to stay in business (although their catalogs are valuable), and the semantics of relationship should ultimately become more two-sided to reflect that shift."
"As a young artist, you have to be able to handle everything yourself. But at a certain point, once you’re experienced enough and ready to take it to the next level, you have to have like-minded partners with deep experience, shared vision and mutual respect.
"Some artists are in positions where their labels and management teams make a lot of decisions for them—creative direction, who they should put on a feature, who should produce, when they should release things. That’s fine for some people, but it’s not our situation. We have a strong vision, and our label is a great partner in supporting it.
"We can be a tricky partner: we spent 18 months making our third album, which is an eternity. Last year, our first single on The Hunting Party was a six-minute metal song with a feature by Rakim, which is probably the most difficult single we could’ve handed a radio department.
"Even now, we’re in the studio and the new music is wildly different—very melodic and doesn’t sit firmly in any genre—it’s almost like a whole new band. But even with those wild cards, I feel like WBR is ready to roll with any punches. The label trusts we’ll get the music right; we trust they’ll help broaden its reach. If you’re in a position where you need to delegate to a partner, you have to have mutual trust and respect."
Jordan Kurland, Zeitgeist Artist Management
"What majors still do really well is the radio side of the business. They have the ability to blanket. They have more money. They have deeper pockets and more feet on the ground. What majors don't do well, at this point, is artist development.
"That's a big generalization, of course—some still do it and are able to take an artist from nothing to being a significant act. It's a generalization to say indies are good at getting runners on first and second, but have a hard time getting them home. Majors can't get a runner to second, but if you get them there, they'll do a great job getting them home.
"For us, when we're working with an artist and they're looking at what their options are for a label, it really depends on what the goals are. The reason Best Coast signed to Harvest/Capital for the last record was because they'd been on an independent label and they wanted to see what it was like to be in the major label system. Hopefully that system opened some doors that hadn't been opened for them previously.
"It's about trying to position yourself to achieve what you want to achieve. You can look at like when Death Cab signed to Atlantic in 2004, we had so much momentum going into the deal that they just had to deliver the songs. Atlantic did a great job. They listened to me and the band a lot about concerns on the transition and how we wanted to be perceived. That was a much different time. The stamp of an indie label meant more than it does now, in a way.
"If you have momentum, can a major take advantage of that momentum? Absolutely. Can a major get the red state radio stations to play a song at alternative radio that Sub Pop can't? Of course. They've got more money. They've got more relationships, more leverage.
"Self-release is more viable because the tools are there. You can do a deal with Tunecore, who is going to help distribute your record. You can hire publicists.
If an artist walked in here and there were ten labels of different shapes and sizes trying to sign them and they said, "No, we want to self-release the record," we'd have a conversation with them about why and what the advantages and disadvantages would be.
THE THING YOU NEED WHEN YOU'RE SELF-RELEASING RECORDS... YOU STILL NEED MONEY. YOU STILL NEED TO HIRE A PUBLICIST... YOU'RE STILL GOING TO PRINT POSTERS.
"The thing you need when you're self-releasing records... You still need money. You still need to hire a publicist. You still need someone to work the record at college or specialty shows. You're still going to pay for advertising. You're still going to print posters. You still have to manufacture the product, unless you're doing digital only. Depending on the goals of a self-release, it's an extreme investment in time and money. You don't have to spend $100,000 self-releasing a record, but you're going to spend tens of thousands if you're going to do it right."
Brick Bronson, 36BRICKHOUSE
"As a manager, first, I have to look at my structure. Does my team have the ability to service my client's needs fully? Can I execute production without quality suffering? Can I secure top-level producers, musicians, and studios?
"Producing an album, an EP or even just one record will be an expense. But not only are there financial considerations, do I have enough access? Can I secure all those people? Do I have the industry clout? If I know I have all the tools in place to handle booking shows, securing tours, licensing, video production, content creation, radio promotion, publicity, video promotion, strategic partnerships, brand management, and the countless other ways I need to provide my artist with full service, then why share our profit with a major record label, who will take the lion's share?
"If I don't, and I need all or a combination of these services, a major label is then attractive. Ultimately, however, major labels fail daily on breaking new music and keeping artists relevant. We never rely on anyone for our success but ourselves."
Matt Colon, Deckstar Management
"Signing does have advantages, but not nearly as many advantages as there were 10 or 20 years ago. Signing to a major label used to mean you had access. Access to retail, distribution, A&R, creative services, PR, radio, and big major label budgets. Now it's really mostly about the last two (radio and money), but budgets are not what they used to be, and there are tons of indie label radio success stories.
FOR MOST OF MY ARTISTS I ONLY ADVISE THAT WE LOOK TO MAJOR LABELS IF THEIR MUSIC IMMEDIATELY LENDS ITSELF TO RADIO.
"Management and third party companies tend to handle all of these services to a large degree. The internet and social media have leveled the playing field enormously, so for most of my artists I only advise that we look to major labels if their music immediately lends itself to radio, i.e. pop-leaning. All that said, radio is still the key way to truly have a record go from a great song to a hit song, and major labels work radio better than anyone else."