Fact: Bands don't need a record label to record (see GarageBand) and distribute (see BandCamp, Facebook) music.
Kill Rock Stars' Elliott Smith. We'll get to KRS in a second.
Fact: The vast majority of bands still see value in the infrastructure that a label provides, and have discovered that there's a difference between recording and distributing music, and having your music heard and making a living (or any money at all).
Fact: There are plenty of artists who have proven that they don't need a traditional record label to be heard and make a living (see Pearl Jam, etc.). However, as Brian J. Barr pointed out yesterday, most of those bands are already famous, thanks in no small part to years of investment from major labels.Justin Bieber blew the hell up on YouTube, and signed to Island Records. The Head and the Heart sold 10,000 copies of their self-titled debut without a label. Since they signed to Sub Pop, they've since moved almost 100,000 units.
In a feature on influential Northwest label Kill Rock Stars in today's paper, both the label's CEO, Portia Sabin, and its former VP, Maggie Vail, tell SW's Dave Lake the same thing: There's no shortage of bands clamoring to be on record labels. Here's Sabin:
"The supply side of bands who want to make music and be on labels is just as strong today as it always has been."
When it comes to the challenges facing the music industry, most of the press coverage and conventional wisdom is that labels are doomed and record stores are dead. This is an easy assessment to make after more than a decade of plunging album sales. But there's little room for nuance in this idea. There's little credence given to the notion that a struggling, evolving industry isn't necessarily a dying one. And that having fewer record stores (or newspapers, for that matter) doesn't mean we're on the brink of having zero record stores. Not when half the music sold is pressed on physical matter, CD sales are showing signs of stabilizing, and digital sales continue to climb despite many hit tracks going for $1.29 instead of 99 cents.
Mike Batt, the owner of the local retail chain Silver Platters -- a store, btw, that's selling albums like Radiohead's OK Computer ($8.99) and the Velvet Underground's Loaded ($6.99) for less than iTunes -- recently told me that he sees a "tabloid-like fascination with the struggles of the record industry and record stores. The more press runs with it, the more it sets in people's heads as being so and is possibly causing the public not to look into shopping at record stores."
I'm not suggesting we be Pollyannaish about the state of the industry, but the aforementioned conventional wisdom of the music business in the Internet age desperately needs an update.