Thursday, August 5, 2010

Catch 22: Major labels step quietly with "indie artists"

In the past 15 years a well known evolution took place from both the artist and label perspective as far as promoting music, touring and gaining a fan base.  It seems to be well known that as the digital age grew to fruition, the label's business model slowly evolved from their original focus of making a long initial investment on an artist that was fairly unknown before discovery by their label to the model of today which essentially involves the label looking for artist that had already created their own buzz, had experience recording and touring.  (I go into more detail on this in a previous post: "Industry Entry: Remember the 90's?"  Regardless, this business model is aimed at reducing their risk on investment by attaining an artist that has already been "road-tested" so to speak. (They have already proved that they CAN be liked by audiences and be successful as an artist.)

This shift although brought on an a change in what is now considered "indie" "major" or anything in between.    Specifically, any artist that has created a following before the assistance of a major label could technically be considered an "indie" artist no matter what type of music they play whether it be pop, hip-hop, rock, etc.  Here is a better illustration:

"Indie Artist" (Old Definition:)  An artist that creates, distributes, and performs music independently with a sound that sits outside the boundaries of current popular music.  Lack of label support derives from fear of investment in an artist with a musical style out of the norm

"Indie Artist"  (Digital Age Definition:)  An artist that creates, distributes and performs music independently.  Lack of label support derives from fear of investment in an artist that has not already been heard or exposed to fairly large audience.

The difference derives largely in idea that nowadays, the stray from a specific musical style doesn't deter a label from signing an artist but rather the artists lack of previous exposure will deter the label.  Note that the original definition can still apply today simply from the fact that music out of the norm or testing boundaries tends to have a hard time getting noticed (even locally) thus perpetuating the original definition in some cases that indie artists have a hard time getting signed.

Because of this major shift, almost all artists have a fairly long "indie" career before being picked up by a major label.  In other words, there is much less possibility of being signed to a major label in the form of "overnight success."  Furthermore, all artists (even pop artists) take on the old indie standards as far as interacting with their fans.  Maybe they communicate with their fans personally with no manager, they plan their own tour schedules, they have a beer with a fan in NewYork whom they barely know.  So what?  Where does the problem lie? 

The problem now lies in the fact that indie artists (by today's definition) are still seeking and are good candidates for major label record deals.  Some don't want them, but many of them do, and when they are actually on their plate they tend to look more appealing.  Once again, what is the problem?  Well, major labels end up needing to take on the strategic task of "stepping quietly" with these artists in order not to disturb or scare away the die hard fans that the artist worked so hard to gather over their "indie" years.  What do I mean by step quietly?  I mean making sure not to dip their hands too deep in the previous perceptions held by the indie artists fans.  That means trying not to alter an artists musical style on their major label debut and continuing to make touring and on and offline communication personable (and much more.)  Seems easy right?  Not.  If labels don't step easy with artists, the artist could lose their street credibility, buzz or even their current and potential fan base.  All of a sudden the label has entered into a more risky investment because they are now working with strategies that they are not familiar with.  Because of this (and many other reasons) artist transfers to major label status have often failed or not gone as planned.

The advantage (from the record label perspective) to former investment style is that taking a risk on a quite unknown artist the label has the ability to do as much molding or marketing as they see fit because there are less (if any) pre-existing public perceptions of the artist that the label has to juggle.

If you are an indie artist by the current definition and currently building a size able fan base under the major label radar, the ideas above could be a cause for strong consideration.  Remember your fans should always come first as they technically create, mold and influence you.  How would your fans feel if something dramatically changed to the way you created and distributed your music?  Record labels can help you to further your career, but as an artist you must make sure it is the best way to move forward for you and your fans.  Remember these things before you sign near the "X."