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Digital Disruption In The Recording Industry

What does the future record label look like?

by Shelley Bishop

I had the opportunity to discuss this topic on a panel at the Fast Forward music technology conference alongside members of the Australian industry and media. From the role of a studio manager, I am able to observe the content creation process from a bird’s eye view. It’s not unusual to have an internationally acclaimed major label artist, an independent songwriter or bedroom producer, and an orchestra under the same roof working simultaneously. 

People are quick to assume that record labels have become irrelevant and cumbersome, unable to adjust to the convergence of media spearheaded by streaming platforms.  

The truth is, infrastructure and technology has disrupted all industries; music has just been hit a lot harder than most. 

Does the rise of independent content creation spawn a threat to the major labels?

Will labels enter into mass acquisition of independent channels in order to beef up their current offerings and widen their spread? Will streaming platforms soon provide label services from under their own banner and create a self-sustaining machine? 

The answer to all of these questions is likely yes, but this is only a prediction.  

It is evident that times have changed dramatically, and the route to market is easier than ever. 

Technological advancements and mass production of recording equipment has enabled artists to bypass the traditional industry gatekeepers and release content instantaneously. Artists revel in the low cost and risk free environment of content creation from their bedrooms and basements, where they can craft their product offering in a timely and decisive manner. This is a far cry from the golden age of the record boom. 

Prior to home recording becoming an economic option, there was no other choice than to visit a studio to record music and hope for the support from one of the majors. Labels would screen endless talent and take a punt on “the next big thing” in the hopes they were betting on the right horse. Without the meaningful data and consumer insights we have today, it was the equivalent of betting on a horse without knowing the odds of winning.  

Sure, the horse has a history of winning and a talented breeder, but did it actually have the gusto to win? 

The labels were the tastemakers, and the few artists who rose to the top were fine wine. Today’s media market is flooded, noisy, and feels like everyone has, well, frankly had too much to drink. 

Perhaps within the future exists a self-managed ecosystem of flexibility from both sides of the fence, where short-term artist projects can be economically cycled through distribution channels until something sticks.

If Content is King, then surely Curation is Queen.

One thing is evident; we are consuming more media now than we have in recorded history and this will not slow down any time soon, not to mention the channels of distribution that have drastically changed and will continue to do so. 

Labels are just like any other corporation who has had to paddle their way through the digitally disrupted currents, so it’s high time we gave them a break. 

I don’t think the question is as simple as “will they sink or swim,” it’s more likely to be “when will the storm cease?”