In the DIY discussions of the last ten years the utopian idea that artists somehow don’t need "record labels" has been promulgated as the beginning of a new era, but how that career management void would be filled has never been entirely clear. In the most general sense, a “record label” is the total, organizing, business entity that markets an artist, directs their career, and distributes their music. Whether a boutique imprint run by the artist themselves, or a larger partner entity or team, the basic model is the same and the need has never gone away.
The downfall of the major record label system has largely been driven by a lack of scalability and a serious loss of the musical vision that started this industry in the first place. In the Fifties and Sixties record labels were more genre specific and run by business people that were fanatical about the music they sold. Years of consolidation and a focus on generating profits by selling new formats, as opposed to creating extraordinary new music, made the industry less competitive in the face of rapidly developing digital technologies. The label business became dependent on creating massive profits from international mega-hits. The ‘middle-class’ models for marketing artists to smaller, dedicated, sustainable audiences fell by the wayside. For example, jazz, roots, or classical musicians who at one time maintained longstanding relationships with independent labels began bouncing from imprint to imprint as these once highly focused companies were assimilated by the corporate borg, soon disappearing altogether.
Today an artist starts as their own label (whatever that may look like), learns the business, and grows into the right partnerships as their career develops. There is a greater need than ever before for independent record labels, that are focused, frugal, and run by smart business people who are absolutely passionate about the music they promote. It takes a strong, dedicated team to build and sustain a music career amidst all the noise of today’s world.