There is much debate in the music industry over whether or not signing to a label is the best way to succeed. Here George Howard explains what it is about record labels that allures artists, and why labels want to keep it that way.
Guest post by George Howard of GHStrategic
One of the key tenets of my advising firm is the concept of “The Mirror of Desire.” We walk all of our clients through this exercise to help them differentiate between “Product” and “Purpose.” In short, great, durable companies reflect back at their customer an idealized version of themselves for having utilized the firm’s offering.
Apple isn’t selling computers. Rather, it is selling creativity. “I’m going to write that song/novel/blog,” the customer thinks upon opening a new Apple PowerBook for the first time.
Whole Foods isn’t selling organic food; it is selling consciousness. “I’m glad that I know where this avocado comes from, and isn’t it nice that the employee paid enough attention to me to actually walk me to where they hide the nutritional yeast? He seems very conscious of my presence,” the shopper thinks, reading the product’s provenance.
This distinction between “Purpose” and “Product” allows great brands to avoid the perils of commoditization and the axiomatic margin compression that comes with it. This resistance to commoditization occurs via the creation of emotional and durable bonds with customers who clearly identify and resonate with the brand’s Purpose via “The Mirror” concept. This resonance breeds in the customer both a sense of loyalty and encourages word of mouth, so these companies tend to have very high Net Promoter Scores.
There is, of course, another side to this, and brands, institutions and politicians are all capable of manipulating this Mirror of Desire in a way to cause those who catch their gaze in it to perform completely irrationally.
In fact, back in 2015, I wrote in this space about how this Mirror theory was being used by Donald Trump, and why it was working:
“For now, Mr. Trump’s mirror remains intact for the simple reason that Mr. Trump has managed to conflate his own personal grandiosity with what he and his supporters believe to be America’s rightful place in the world. That is, while being a billionaire flying in a personal jet is not relatable or even aspirational, Mr. Trump’s supporters find these outsized actions and his outsized personality to be the perfect metaphor for America vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and, as such, he and his actions represents precisely the type of mirror Mr. Trump’s supporters want reflected back at them.”
So yes, like so many things, the Mirror of Desire approach to marketing is a tool that can be leveraged to maximize the intent of those who understand it. Trump understands it. Nike understands it. Toms Shoes understands it. Record labels understand it.
To wit: Consider, for example, that I can stand in front of a large group of musicians and ask them, “How many of you believe that in 2018 you must sign to a label in order to succeed?” No hands go up.
I then ask, “How many of you believe that, if you receive a major label recording contract, it will be fair to you?” Again, no hands rise.
Last, I ask, “If [insert well-known record executive/A&R person’s name here] walked up to you and said, ‘I heard your music; I love it; I want to sign you,’ how many of you would sign the deal … even without really looking at the details?” In what I always view as a near-shocking degree of honesty, most (if not all) of the hands go up.
I’ve asked the above series of questions several times a year to large numbers of musicians for years now. The names in that last question change from year to year; the results are always the same.
So what gives? How can someone who knows that the product that is being offered (a record label deal) is both not necessary and likely to include a contract that is bad for them still readily sign on the dotted line?
To answer this, all we must do is gaze into the Mirror of Desire from the perspective of the musician who is making a seemingly irrational choice.
Before we do, one aside that helps to understand the concept is worth mentioning. Ask yourself, why do guitar stores have mirrors? In theory, mirrors are unnecessary in a guitar store, but in reality, they are everything.
Like the guitar shopper who gazed at herself in a mirror, the musician who is presented with a recording contract does not engage in decision-making calculus based on logic, but rather based on emotion. Consider for a second what might drive this musician to make such a choice. He or she likely began playing an instrument at a young age, suffered through the inevitable challenges and frustrations of practicing while their friends were … not. Eventually, for those who didn’t abandon their instrument (as most do, with playing with friends/sports/Instagram winning out over sight reading most of the time), practice becomes less of a chore and more of a source of joy and pride and identity or purpose.
When someone becomes a musician, they are self-selecting as something of an outlier, someone who has made choices that keep them a few standard deviations from the norm with respect to the habits of an “average” individual. With this outlier status comes, of course, some degree of delight/special-ness, but it also comes with a lack of the type of external validation that many others who are not musicians seem (however true or not) to receive.
For many who are not musicians, the life of a musician can easily be romanticized in a manner that makes it seem far more exciting and gratifying than it is. Typically, as it is for most artistic endeavors, the amount of time one puts in to developing their artistry is not affirmed by any external source. Most poets do not receive plaudits for their work any more than most actors are cast in roles in which their craft (and all the countless time and energy and money they have spent to refine it) is recognized. Novelists? Yeah, no. And so it goes for musicians.
Thus, in that moment when a record executive from a label that their friends and parents might know the name of offers them a recording contract, they do not think: “What, really, will a label do for me that I can’t do myself? And according to the contract, whatever it is that they do or don’t do, I’m going to be paying for in a vastly disproportionate manner.”
No. For most, that moment allows them — often for the first time — to think: “It was worth it. All of the struggle and the time and the disappointment and the feeling that I’ve made the absolute worst life/career-choices was worth it because someone who is not a friend or direct relative — in fact, someone from a real label that people have heard of — believes in me and my music.”
That is the mirror that record labels hold in front of the musician. The musician, for one moment, sees himself or herself exactly the way they’ve longed to be seen: as a “real” musician. One who has been validated by no less of a source than an executive at a major label.
And for that moment, it was all worth it. And for the immediate subsequent moments, too: telling Mom and Dad; telling friends; posting on Facebook. It’s all sweet validation, and for this single moment (because it typically starts spiraling downhill rapidly), artists are willing to trade almost anything.
Major labels know this.
It’s why they will never change.
Why would they?