I recently sat down to chat with Josh Rosenfeld, one of the guys behind Barsuk--the label that's brought the world the music of Death Cab for Cutie, The Long Winters, and Jesse Sykes--about a matter only tangentially related to what we're going to get to here. But I thought it so interesting that I'd share it with y'all. This particular part of our exchange isn't really an exchange, it's Rosenfeld talking at length about the perception of his corner of the music business. I've cleaned it up a bit, and trimmed a few lines.
Chuck D, not Josh.
It's all Rosenfeld from here on out:
I still think there's this pervasive impression out there in the world that record labels are evil and screw over bands and screw over consumers. I used to think that major labels were totally in the business of completely fucking over bands left and right, and I'm not saying that they're great business partners or that major label relationships are great for artists.
(But) there's this group of artists who kind of came to prominence pre-internet as a result of major label -- as a result of their own talent, first and foremost -- but also massive investment from major labels. Chuck D in particular. He makes his money on speaking engagements now, and the talking points in his speaking engagements are "Oh, yeah, I got fucked over for years by major labels. I never saw a dime." That's actually a Lyle Lovett quote, like, "I never saw a dime." I don't know, of course, the details of Lyle Lovett's record contract, but my guess is that he got some pretty sizable advances, and maybe he didn't get royalties on the back end because advances never recouped, or something.
There's something to me that's either disingenuous or just kind of sour grapesy about people who even are complaining about major label stuff at this point. Major labels have a business model. The business model is they invest huge overhead, they invest large amounts of cash up front, and when artists do well, the labels take a big chunk of the back end. That's the business model, risk return.Our model is that we take smaller risks -- we still are pretty aggressive -- we do a lot, and provide a lot of services to bands, and invest a lot of time and money in bands. But less so in the way we structure risk. We take a smaller piece of the back end. I think that winds up feeling more fair to people in the long run.
But in both cases, the notion that is out there in the public's mind that all record labels are basically ripping off artists, I just think is pretty questionable. And it makes me sad. Clearly there have been artists who signed bad record deals when they were young and desperate to get to where they're going. And then when they get there they look back and think, "Oh, it was all about me?"
In general we have really good, fair mutually grateful relationships with bands. But every time Chuck D or Lyle Lovett says something like that, it's just like one more little chip on the scales of how the public views this whole business. And if that's driving people to feel like it's an ethically pure act to take the music without pay for it, it's a bummer..
I know I'm the only person who works at a record label who has that perspective.