Change in the music business is a long needed thing. But I think the key aspect to address, really, is what value does your un-label provide.
Back in the 1950s or so, the recording industry largely followed the model established by 1930's-1940's Hollywood... the artist was attached to a studio or label, given all kinds of support, and maintained as long as they were successful. This was necessary.. the artist could do virtually none of this themselves.
Today, it's at least technically possible for an artist to self-produce an album, or at least a sophisticated demo disc. And the studios know this... outside of some weird cases, or perhaps the few who make it through on "Idol" TV shows, artists simply don't get recording contracts until that first disc is created. Add in the fact they can pretty easily build their own web sites, they can self-publish online, from the web site or through stores like iTunes and Amazon, and you have to ask, just what does a label-replacement bring to the party.
Certainly the big one is publishing... you need someone to make the CD and distribute it. The second one is publicity -- ensuing the new disc gets reviewed, that it gets heard, whatever that takes... these are the big things beyond the artists experience or, to an extent, need to control. The final one is funding... it may well be they need more resources to produce that CD than they have available, particuarly if there's a schedule involved.
In short, this is very much the model established for authors. If I open most any book, I find the author's copyright, not "Random House". They have assigned the rights to produce that book to one publisher, for a certain term or whatever, but they retain significant control. The publisher has limited ability to prevent the author from using that book's material in other ways... they don't own the story, they own the hardcover or paperback publishing rights, for awhile.
When you look in a CD, more often than not, you see the label claiming copyright, not the artist. Some artists (REM, Metallica, Prince, etc) do own their rights, but it's less often the case. They lose control of the use of the music, and they may need the label's permission to use it themselves. That's just plain wrong, but particulary given the very thin layer of support a label is going to provide these days.
- Artists always retain ownership of their work
Yes, this is critical... the un-label needs to behave as a publisher. There is no salient argument any more as to why the copyright for a release is assigned to the label, other than "we got these stupid musicians to agree to this". In this day and age, artists have enough support resources to not make the mistakes of the past that had rich labels riding high on the backs of the artists.
- Artists get worldwide distribution with transparent accounting.
Right. The terms need to be open, and designed in such a way that neither corporate greed, mismangement, or accounting tricks can affect the artist's bottom line. If you haven't, read "Courtney Love Does the Math" for more on this kind of thing.
- Artists get a dedicated partner with aligned incentives.
Presumably.. the un-label/publisher only makes money when discs sale, so they have an incentive to sell discs.
I think they perhaps get a more interested partner, too. The publisher's involvement in any given project should be less than that of a traditional lablel... this become a bandwidth advantage. The traditional labels have been cutting artists from their rosters on a regular basis, and this has ultimately been hurting them. The business used to be fairly regular, these days it's strongly driven up and down by the reliance on massive hit releases, rather than a steady average. While the publisher's resources ought to scale to the success of the artist, there should be much less of an incentive to drop a reliable artist, even if they don't make the Billboard 100.
- What kind of educational materials need to be created to help this business
compete with the more traditional recording contracts?
I think they need to show themselves as the proper kind of business to take the artist's music to the customer. Illustrate the antiquated and, sometimes, downright evil practices of the major labels. Prove to the artist that the un-label will be able to provide the same essential services as the traditional major labels... that this is not some compromise. Talk up the "publisher" model.
- If you were an artist, how does this proposition sound to you?
Knowing what I know about the industry, I would not be comfortable with a traditional label. I think there's a strong meme, established over decades, that only a traditional label can deliver success to an artist, so that's the big thing you have overcome. It's also cyclical.. in some generations (kind of like now), the major labels have been so far away from the music actually happening out in the world that Independents became trendsetters, and successful. Then you have a round of buy-outs of the indies, and the major labels (or, "a division of") seem cool again.
- What are the most attractive portions of this plan for musicians? What are the least attractive parts of this concept?
I think the real issue is that this needs to be flexible. If I'm self-producing an album in my home studio, I might not need much up-front money.. maybe something to cover mastering. In other situations, the album is expensive. A friend of mine, a jazz pianist, hired a number of well known session musicians for her fourth album. She didn't expect to make any money on the disc itself, as a result, but it was a great ad for her live shows, and career in general. The un-label needs to be able to handle both situations.
The attractive part, of course, is that this un-label is, more or less, assuming the proper role of publisher. Of course they should make money from that (money yes... profit is largely their problem, not the artists'), but they should not be taking the lion's share of revnue, they should not control the music itself. The artist may look at the un-label as a soup-to-nuts service, but it may also be "CD publisher", and have nothing to say about online distribution, movie sync rights, etc... just as a book author may use one publisher for hardcover, another for paperback, yet another for audiobook (not always, but it's certainly possible).
- Have you heard of similar businesses? How do you think similar businesses are doing?
As I mentioned, book publishing. When you start out, you get no money from a publisher. An established author is likely to get an advance, if they want it... the primary goal of offer that advance is to allow the author to be more productive -- she can work on the book, rather than take on articles or some other filler to pay the bills.
- Are there services that exist that could improve this business? Can you
think of potentially good partnerships or collaborations?
Book publishers all contract a realtively small number of book printers... same thing here with CDs right now. Big labels have their own, and probably contract outside manufacturers to offset load. The un-publisher needs to have established business relationships with manufacturers. Every new band probably thinks they're the next big thing... if not the Beatles, they probably hope they're another Bon Jovi, or at least The Killers or some-such. One barrier to entry will be the fear that this un-publisher is small potatoes, and will limit the artist's chance for big-time success. Same issue with Independent labels, and why so many indies eventually move to the majors.
Engineer, musician, all around fun guy. As the chief designer of some of the Amiga computers, I helped bring video to the desktop in some small way.