Musician-led record labels

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There are many instances of musicians who have set up their own record labels and successfully sold their music to the public without the help of major record companies. It is common to talk about the music industry as if musicians are only concerned with the art of making music while record labels are only concerned with the business of making money. In fact things are often a lot less clear-cut than this and producing and selling music need not be viewed as necessarily some sort of artistic compromise.

But artists can find the structures of large record labels constricting, at odds with their creative vision or simply too demanding in terms of sales. Indeed many artist-led record labels very consciously set themselves apart from the major companies. One of the key aspects of the punk rock movement which emerged from the late 1970s was the idea that musicians could make and release their music in a DIY (do-it-yourself) way outside of the mainstream recording industry. This idea had long-lasting effects and many independent labels and distribution networks were set up throughout the late 1970s and 1980s which are still important to this day. The US in particular has had a number of artist-led independent labels which have remained independent whilst managing to survive as sustainable business concerns. Labels such as Dischord (Washington DC) and K Records (Olympia, WA) for example, have been operational for over twenty years. Both are extremely vocal in their antipathy towards the major labels and advocate the DIY way of doing things. Ian MacKay, for example, points to the benefits of running his own label by suggesting that it allowed him to maintain artistic control:

"When a band signs to a major label, no matter how good a contract they think they have, no matter how much control they think their contract provides, it's unavoidable that you are conscious of being an investment... If it all goes well, then yeah, it's great. But if things don't go well, then all those aspects of the 'great deal' and 'artistic control' go out of the window because things become desperate. And then, if the label loses interest, you're high and dry. We've never had that problem." (in Sinker, 2001: 20)

Other musicians are less overtly oppositional to the wider recording industry but instead negotiate their career outside of the traditional record label model by successfully taking care of their own affairs. Others drift in and out of the major label process. For instance, after gaining interest from several major record companies at the start of her career the Liverpool born singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams decided to set up her own label. Her second self-released album reached the shortlist of the UK music awards the Mercury Music Prize. She was consequently offered a deal involving 'complete artistic freedom' with East/West Records. After two albums on this large label she returned to releasing her own albums. Similarly, the US artist Aimee Mann set up her own SuperEgo records after becoming disillusioned with her treatment within larger labels and has become more successful (in terms of record sales) using this method.

Many other musicians come through major record labels and use the profile that they have built to successfully take control of their own careers. The development of extensive mailing lists and internet technology has allowed musicians to sell recordings, merchandise and live shows directly to their existing fanbase. The artist led label can thus make sense for musicians. Often the overheads needed to run these labels are much smaller than those in a larger record company so fewer recordings need to be sold in order to break even. This smaller level of production, added to the possibilities of making money through live performances, mean that many musicians can be self-sustaining. They can maintain a level of popularity that would be considered too low-key by most major labels.