Record labels are dead, and good riddance—they controlled and exploited musicians for decades, stole their income, and stifled their musical creativity. So the story goes. It’s true, but it’s also not true. Things aren’t that simple.
The labels, which put the business into the music business, are still around, pretty much all of them, even the ones that exist only as a perpetually recycled back catalogue. In an age of diminished, even non-existent economic expectations, they’ve managed to keep more than a few executive salaries afloat through developing relationships with streaming services. Spotify and the like are producing revenue, but most of that revenue is going to the labels and very little is going to the artists. The song remains the same.
(It should be noted that digital downloads damaged the record business. But while consumers, getting their music for free, took money away from companies, they also took money away from musicians, a new group of exploiters joining the old one and making things that much more difficult for creators. This was clear at the advent of Napster, and was an easy-to-read yet totally ignored sign of how the digital economy, from music to Uber, was still going to be based on the exploitation of the worker. Meet the new boss . . .)
Despite their reported demise, my anecdotal experience tells me there are more labels than ever, and I’m confident that if a survey were undertaken and compared against historical records, it would demonstrate this as fact. The cost to record, package, and distribute music has fallen so low that forming a record label is now a minor undertaking. As with books, there is more music being put in print, as it were, than ever before. The old industry is dead in the sense that the old model—the record label signing a musician, then handling (and essentially charging them for) the soup to nuts process of recording, selling, and performing—no longer dominates; it is merely one of many possible paths. And the labels themselves no longer dominate—DIY in attitude and practice has ensured that the new Beyoncé or Dylan album cannot solely make the market, because the market has fragmented down to the taste of the individual listener.
The industry is gone—it was never the right word anyway for the mass distribution of a creative art—while industriousness remains. The process of business remains, and there are labels everywhere dedicated to everything from micro-genres (net labels collecting environmental sounds; Illuminated Paths putting out recordings made from splices of old movies, TV shows, and commercials) to putting out music that, taken together, shows no discernible aesthetic or direction whatsoever (Blue Note Records under their current president Don Was).
There is so much fucking music out there. My listening this year has included a collection of bird calls performed by people and captured on shellac discs, and myriad synthesizer fragments from someone who may or may not be Aphex Twin. So how does the interested listener decide what to buy? (I know, I’m being naïve in thinking that you might open your wallet, but I can still hope.) That is precisely where record labels matter, have always mattered, and matter now more than ever.
The process of gathering critical opinion from friends, critics, and one’s own ears begins with the label, the most important gatekeeper on the path that begins with taste and ends up with someone handing over money to someone else. Before you read about it on Pitchfork or hear it on the Anti-Gravity Bunny podcast, the labels have already exercised editorial opinion by choosing the music they want to put on their imprint, and the important labels are the ones that develop and maintain a coherent aesthetic—you have an idea of the quality of the music they distribute, and ideally you trust them sufficiently enough that you’ll be willing to pay for something unknown and unheard. The best labels maintain a coherent, consistent, dependable focus on style (which can be narrow or broad) so that when they release music that at first appears to be an outlier or a misfit, their overall catalogue creates a context that the new release both expands in a new, yet still dependable, direction.
Think of the old Blue Note. By the mid-1960s they were the leading jazz label at a time when jazz was still present in popular culture. There were the fantastic musicians who made their own records and appeared as sidemen on others—Hank Mobley, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean. There was the consistent, dependable sound of the records as engineered by the great (now late) Rudy Van Gelder: crisp, up-front, spacious. There was the style of the music, which was artistically and intellectually hip hard bop. And the graphic design of the album covers created a universe of visual consumer cool, a signifier of a person of taste at the leading edge of culture. All this came together with such satisfying predictability that when Blue Note issued Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch!—which still sounds ahead of its time—it fit right in as a Blue Note record. It, and albums like Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and Anthony Williams’s Spring, were extensions of the music, the musicians putting one or two feet beyond the mainstream that Blue Note had defined, tugging label and listeners along with them, and they were also extensions of what we now call the Blue Note brand, adding essential details to what consumers understood the label to be.
That’s what made the great labels of the 20th century important, and, in retrospect, essential curators of our shared cultural history, and it took time, patience, and cash to build a label up to that level. And what levels. There’s a reason that connoisseurs celebrate the defunct labels of yore. They issued music of style and quality—Victor, Dial, Capitol (they had the capital to produce the glorious Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle sessions), Sun, Stax, EMI (those star-studded opera recordings produced by Walter Legge), Motown, Elektra, Atlantic, Tommy Boy.
The great exemplar of what a record label could be was Columbia. At one time they had under contract Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Glenn Gould, Leonard Bernstein, and Igor Stravinsky. Let those names linger on the page a moment, we will never see the likes of them gathered together under the same roof again.
Columbia also gave leeway to David Behrman to spend his nights producing the “Music of Our Time” series, including the premiere recording of Terry Riley’s In C, and not only trusted the experimental and avant-garde music of Miles Davis’s electric period, but invested in avant-garde jazz masterpieces from James “Blood” Ulmer, Ornette Coleman, and Arthur Blythe. Forty years later, the venerable classical label Deutsche Grammophon boldly finances the simplistic ambient pablum of Max Richter’s Sleep. Where money gave Columbia’s executives courage (or at least the courage of indifference), it makes DG’s fearful.
Columbia did what good labels could do, and the recordings are proof that it mattered, while also being economically worthwhile. Now, all these classic styles contained under the umbrellas of the big labels, styles that created the common idea and experience of just what constitutes music, are held by three giant conglomerates. Columbia belongs to Sony, which also owns Legacy, Epic, Arista, and RCA. Warner Music Group owns a massive catalogue of classic rock through the Warner Brothers label, maintains ownership of Asylum, Elektra, Parlophone, and Rhino, and also holds Nonesuch and Erato. The gigantic Universal Music Group has Capitol, Decca, Def Jam, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Interscope, ECM, Blue Note, and Island, and inside all that are the folded-up remains of A&M and Polygram.
What’s left, beyond the legacies? I’m hard pressed to think of new music coming out from those three sources that is consequential beyond the sales figures. Nothing against Dylan, but there is something dispiriting about the bogus old-timey LP label image printed by Sony in the middle of each of his new CDs. The big classical labels keep putting out new recordings of the same old pieces based entirely around the star-power of the performers, but why would anyone want to buy Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s mediocre Mozart opera recordings on Deutsche Grammaphon when the same label has some of the greatest ever made? Blue Note is an incoherent mess, each worthwhile release from Jason Moran or Joe Lovano undercut by a shallow stab at keeping the interest of the suburban NPR fan—it’s sad that they keep putting out Norah Jones’s records, because she destroyed the musical importance of their brand. Nonesuch is living off a reputation that they stopped earning when they signed Wilco.
Of the old labels, only ECM survives with a clear profile and consistent aesthetic success. But there are enough good independent labels around to fill up the niches—combine those niches, and you have a comprehensive collection: Tzadik for John Zorn and his personal musical interest as a listener; Sub Rosa and Alga Marghen for experimental music out of all genres; Harmonia Mundi for fresh thinking in classical music.
Those are four easy picks, easy because of the extent of their catalogues and their commercial stature, out of innumerable other labels. The decision of where to turn next when completely surrounded is quasi-impossible, so that’s why we have made this our Labels Issue. While no one person, nor a hundred, could nowadays seriously examine every label, we, the editors, can tell you where we turn for both satisfactions and surprises. Because labels still matter.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.