independent record labels

This is an article about what independent record labels do for music and concerts. We’ll get there, I promise. But let’s start at the beginning.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Beyoncé, obviously a pop star
Beyoncé, obviously a pop star.

What do you want to be when you grow up? For many careers, it’s quite straightforward. Doctor, lawyer, firefighter, etc.

But what if you said “a pop star” or “a rock star.” Now the path isn’t so clear. How does one become a “pop star”? How does one have a job making music at all? When exactly does your hobby suddenly become a viable career? Beyoncé is definitely a pop star. Your mom’s most talented karaoke buddy who sings at the school fundraiser? She’s probably still a lawyer.

Becoming an artist is much more nebulous than other careers, even within the music industry. A venue is a venue because of the physical space it occupies and the events they put on. But for artist, especially with the proliferation of YouTube and SoundCloud, who actually counts? I could put a song on SoundCloud right now. Does that mean I’m an artist?

Record labels: The closest you’ll get to an “employer”

Chance The Rapper
If you can smile like that, maybe you don’t need a record label.

While certain artists did get their start as an independent artist and remain so (Chance The Rapper, for instance), most prospective artists should, and do, look to get signed by a record label. That still remains as close to an industry standard you get for artist legitimacy.

There are a lot of labels out there, in a tangle of corporate ownership but different names, vanity labels, joint partnerships. Wipe it all away though and you’re really looking at three big record labels, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group. Between the three of them, they control about 75-80% of the music industry. Essentially, the music industry has seen the same corporate consolidation as other many industries. We’re not going to get into that, just know that it makes big companies with less competition.

Big companies with little competition tend to play it safe because nobody and nothing motivates them to do otherwise. They follow trends instead of leading them. It’s nothing against them, it’s smart business.

It wasn’t always smart business to play it safe. Back in the day, the industry was much more spread out and competitive, so everyone had to push the envelope or risk getting left behind. Labels would fold all the time, but the hunt for the next big sound, the next big artist, that was always the raison d’être.

Disrupting the Big 3: Independent record labels

indie labels
Some independent music labels.

The music industry still moves forward, but not via Sony, UMG, or Warner. Instead, you have to dig a bit deeper. A fraction of the remaining slice of the pie is where independent music labels live. They’re small, often hard up for cash, and usually very localized, but they’re the ones really digging for talent and pointing the needle on where music is now and where it’s going next.

Turns out, record labels still shape the music industry, it’s just not the ones you were thinking of.

One of the most prominent independent record labels is Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. You might know it as the grunge label that included Nirvana and was a driving force in early-’90s grunge. Not only does it still exist, but you might want to take a look at its current lineup. While they do still carry legacy grunge artists, they’ve remained not only relevant, but at the forefront of Seattle music by finding artists in the genres that are shaping music now.

Maybe you’re surprised to see this grunge legend carrying rappers, but they’re doing exactly what independent record labels all over do for music, keep pushing forward. And independent record labels can be found doing similar work all over the country, from Atlanta record label LVRN, to San Francisco record label Bright Antenna, to New York record label Fool’s Gold, and so many more.

How they get to you. Part I: The concert goer

Smart music venues know this too. They know which labels to keep an eye on for signings and what to look for as talent buyers. As a consumer and lover of music, this is how you should keep your eye on the pulse as well. Look for the right record labels for the best music. Look for the venues who follow those labels for the best concerts. You’ll find yourself rarely ever let down.

By following these easy markers, you’ll be much more in tune with the music industry. It’s not that hard! And if you love music and concerts, it’s worth it. You’d have known about the movement in Brooklyn’s sound away from indie or the next big music scene in America.

How they get to you. Part II: The prospective artist

For somebody who answered that question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with something like “pop star” or “musician,” but have no idea how to get started, getting in with a record label something to work for. Even with independent record labels, it’s not easy. You’re not going to get picked up just because they’re desperate. But if you really are serious about a career, and you really have a sound that will shape music now and in the future, they’ll find you. That’s how one “becomes” an artist when they grow up.

And that’s what independent record labels still do for music and concerts.


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