Once Again: Just Because You Can Go Indie, Doesn't Mean You Need To
from the details-matter dept
For years and years we’ve argued that there still is a role for labels — even major labels, if they are able to do more reasonable deals that embrace new opportunities, rather than shun them. In fact, we’ve pointed to many different examples of pop stars on major labels doing creative things to connect with fans and give them a reason to buy. Nothing in that says that major labels have no place any more. What we have noted is that the overall market has changed and there are a lot more options. We’ve also noted that, historically, being used to their gatekeeper position, the major labels have treated many artists badly, signing them to questionable contracts, where very, very few of them end up making out well.
The reality today is that you don’t need to go that route if you don’t want to. That doesn’t mean that there is no need for major labels at all — even if some will confuse those two statements. It just means if you want to be a successful musician, it’s now a choice, rather than a requirement. In short: major labels can and do play a role in helping some artists. Historically, I think they’ve done a pretty bad job of it (mostly representing their own interests much more than the artists’), but that doesn’t mean they don’t do certain things well. And for artists who need those certain things — with radio play being a big one — it may be reasonable to do a deal with a major, though, preferably with eyes wide open and (if possible) on their own terms, rather than the labels’. The point of what I’ve said all along is that you can now succeed without the labels if you want to. But for those who wish to use the labels, that should be an option to. It’s just that the rise of alternatives should mean that the labels become more willing to change their terms to be less artist-unfriendly. It also likely means that we’ll see more overall competition and that many artists will find alternatives appealing. As such, the majors will be forced to adjust over time, even doing more reasonable deals.
I bring up all of this again, because there’s a lot of attention this week over the news that Trent Reznor has signed some sort of deal with Columbia Records (owned by Sony Music) for his new(ish) band, How to Destroy Angels, leading a bunch of people to claim that he’s “abandoning the DIY” market. You can see everything there is to know in the statement Reznor released last week, which doesn’t go into many details, but it certainly hints at the idea that this is not a standard-issue major label deal:
Regarding our decision to sign with Columbia, we’ve really spent a long time thinking about things and it makes sense for a lot of reasons, including a chance to work with our old friend Mark Williams. There’s a much more granular and rambling answer I could give (and likely will in an interview someplace) but it really comes down to us experimenting and trying new things to see what best serves our needs. Complete independent releasing has its great points but also comes with shortcomings.
I’ll be interested to hear about the details eventually, because that certainly hints to there being much more to this than just “signing with a major.” And there’s nothing I disagree with in what he says. Being completely independent does have its great points, but it also makes certain things much more difficult. I don’t think anyone’s denied that. Of course there are also well known shortcomings when working with a major label. So, it’s a case of tradeoffs, and when you have someone in a position to negotiate a more favorable deal that can hopefully minimize the bad side of a label deal, and get the good part, that seems like a perfectly reasonable strategy for those who want it. I think that Reznor likely would have been fine staying indie for this release, but depending on what he’s doing, there may be perfectly reasonable arguments for doing this deal.
I know that there are some people who think that everyone absolutely should go indie, but I’ve never said any such thing, nor do I believe it. I think that going indie is now a much more viable option than it’s been in the past, but going to a major label certainly does not preclude being innovative. In many ways, I think of it similarly to the way I view startups as well. It’s less and less necessary to raise venture capital to do a startup — but that doesn’t mean that raising venture capital is necessarily a bad thing. There are certain opportunities that really require it. If you go in with your eyes wide open and can negotiate a favorable deal that lets you do what you need to do, more power to you. In the long run, I think that there are much bigger opportunities in focusing on better connecting with your fans, and historically major labels have sometimes made that more difficult. But if an artist sees good reason to work with a major, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.