Indie Labels

What Will A Record Label Look Like In 5 Years?


2009 2010  2011 2012 2013  

Calendar Martin J. Thörnkvist is a music industry thinker and strategist who operates indie label Songs I Wish I'd Written and is one of the founders of The Swedish Model consortium of labels. This article first appeared on the group blog Digital Renaissance.

The future. This undefined scope of time with a divine shimmer around it. When it comes to the future of music I’ve always consider myself an optimist.

For one, I’m certain that musicians and music fans have a prosperous future ahead of them. That’s because music is the single most important ingredient in the music business soup and music is, of course, a result of an artists creative minds. And it’s when musicians interact with listeners that a window for business is opening. Not before, and not just because some A&R person, marketeer or CEO opened their wallet. That the relationship between musicians and fans is the foundation of the business and the single most important piece of knowledge that we all have to submissively recognize. This is the key to the future for the middle men we call record labels – we have to encourage the interaction and realize that it will live without us.

We middle men have to remember that we always need to convince our customers (musicians and fans) why they should engage with us….

Music on plastic discs or plain mp3s just ain’t enough anymore. Competition is hard and consumers doesn’t take bullshit anymore. If they love something you don’t offer they’ll go create it themselves.

So, how will most record labels cope with the fact that they have less power and have to dance after somebody elses whistle? Based on what we’ve learned from the recent 10 years they probably won’t do very well in the 5 years to come. Many labels are like oil tankers trying to turn around in Øresund.

But that’s the major part. I’m sure we will keep see more innovative ways of connecting with fans and giving them a reason to buy popping up here and there. Many more will experiment with new models where power is given away to the fans and where the recorded music is used as the great messenger of feelings it was constructed to be.

Music people also need to study other businesses more closely.  Begin with the ones that are closest to us: media, film, literature and games. We are in need of inspiration. (I’m actually in the middle of a that process, writing a book with some of the smartest people in each of those businesses.) I would like to explore the area of inspiration a bit further. For example I’m really interested in finding out more about how drug dealers relationship with customers look and is maintained. Wouldn’t it be great if we can get listeners in for free but charge on the way out?

In the near term, Davids will continue to challenge Goliaths. The game will continue to change. And that’s good. At least it’s good for musicians and fans. The core. How the middle men in the business navigate the new map will define how well they succeed. How well the major players are at adopting change is the single most important factor on how well they’ll succeed. Change is hard, culture is hard, Davids are hard. My simple message is: When you see something new rise let the problems that come along with it lead the way to possibilities and solutions.

Oh, I almost forgot. In five years a hard drive available to ordinary consumers will carry 35 TB of data. Data = music. 35 TB = 2.5 million songs. Watch this development closely. It’s easy to get blinded by Spotify, but imagine when file sharing on the street means transferring the entire music history. At least it is a wild card. It seems that we will have to work on better ways of charging for music than 1 dollar a song. Don’t you think?

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  1. I’m in total agreement that it is the audience who creates the success of anything related to music. That’s who pays to hear people play and buy the product;in whatever form the product comes in. It is LIVE music that will propel the music biz to the next level. And thank goodness for that. Technology is driving people to isolation, which is the antithesis of what music is meant to achieve. Music is a devine entity meant to bring people together! Whether it’s on the front porch, where family members listen to the radio, recordings, or actually play music together – or whether the music occurs in concert halls, clubs, festivals, house concerts or in churches. Music is a social medium meant for the collective consciousness of groups of like minded individuals.
    Janet Hansen

  2. People want to be in the cool groups, but unlike in the past, we want those to be groups that value the things we already value. If we’re fans of a particular kind of artist, it becomes part of our defining identity. And as a direct result, we want any new artists we let into our “circle’ to be truly part of “the group”, and we want to trust they truly share our values and aren’t “bogus”.
    What I mean, then, is that labels will function more like old clubs, than labels. It’s already true in the upper echelon of the indies. If we love Antony and the Johnsons, then we pay more sympathetic attention to artists who share a record label with him. Ditto with Sufjan Stevens and Asthmatic Kitty. Conversely, if a label becomes too eclectic in its artist roster, it will lose power because fans will not be able to trust the “brand” to deliver what it is they seek. And for artists as well as fans, that is where their ongoing usefulness resides.
    I have to say I speak as someone who has spent about a decade on a high-quality, but wildly eclectic label. Really remarkable artists, but the styles/musical worldviews/lyrical worldviews/etc have absolutely no crossover. And it’s why I realized recently that I have to leave. But not to go it alone, just to find a label whose audience I make sense to.
    I think that’s the future for all of us.

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