Are record labels evil?

Aimee MannI saw this question on Twitter the other day. Given that Amanda Palmer’s $1.2 million Kickstarter album is roughly what a big record label would spend—what’s wrong with the record label anyway?

Well, just three things: control, recoupment and accounting.

(That’s Aimee Mann by the way not Amanda Palmer… all will become clear.)

Control

With a record label you couldn’t choose the studio or the producer. Your album would be vetted for radio-friendly sounds and safe lyrics. You might get some input but the last word on content, design and marketing would come from the label. Media interviews would be set up by the label and under a 360° deal even merchandising and gigs would be decided for you.

Maybe you came to the label with 50,000 fans but the record label isn’t thinking about them, they’re thinking about how many other fans buy records like the ones in the charts. As Aimee Mann said of her time with big labels: they say they really love what you’re doing but they’d like you to do something else. And of course, you pay the bills.

Recoupment

A record label might give you an advance (a small one these days) and pay expenses but everything they shell out simply adds to the recoupable amount they recover from sales. That studio and producer they chose? Recoupable. The artwork you didn’t really like? You’re paying for that too.

Accounting

Recoupment wouldn’t be quite such a scam if record label books didn’t come from the banana republic school of accounting. Every artist who has audited their accounts has come up with some “overlooked” money in their favour. Even The Beatles had to take EMI to court to get their label accounts paid in full.

Of course record labels aren’t evil in the same way as Stalin, Hitler or Satan himself but there are valid reasons to avoid them. It goes without saying—so I’d better just say it—not every record label is the same. XL hasn’t handled Adele the way UMG would. And there are artists like Justin Bieber who don’t (yet?) have the creative breadth of Amanda Palmer or Aimee Mann. For artists like Justin a major label deal really is the best thing.

Some recent links

This is my second selection of links from the web (mostly via Twitter) to replace what I used to do on Facebook. This lot are all about some aspect of copyright and the debate still raging between people who want things to be free and people who make things in the first place.

  1. Steve Albini and Amanda Palmer: Piracy Only Helps Musicians Alan Cross blog
  2. Copyright law reform Music Law Updates
  3. The cult of free—a user’s guide John Degen
  4. RIAA not going after Limewire for more money CMU
  5. It’s not the song, Stupid, it’s the rights David Newhoff

A note about number 2: it’s a good article with many references but some of the historical practices of the record industry won’t apply today. For example, artists are no longer signed for life—although it’s undoubtedly true Major labels would still like to do it if they could get away with it.