In the music industry
, a record label
can be a brand
and a trademark
associated with the marketing
of music recordings
and music videos
. It is more commonly the company
that manages such brands and trademarks; coordinates the production
, and enforcement of copyright
protection of sound recordings and music videos; conducts A&R
; and maintains contracts
with recording artists and their managers.
Generally, recorded music needs a record label in order to be widely known, reviewed, heard on media outlets such as radio or television, and in order to be available to buy in stores, although the Internet has changed this to some extent.
Record labels may be small, localized, and "independent", or they may be part of a large international media group, or somewhere in between. The largest 4 record labels are called major labels. A sublabel is a label that is part of, but trades under a different name from, a larger record company.
The term "record label" originally referred to the circular label in the center of a vinyl record that prominently displayed the manufacturer's name, along with other information.
When a label is strictly a trademark or brand, not a company, then it is usually called an imprint
, a term used for the same concept in the publishing industry. An imprint is sometimes marketed as being a project
, or division
of a record label company, even though there is no legal business structure associated with the imprint.
Major labels today (Big Four)
- Warner Music Group
- Sony Music
- Universal Music Group
Major labels prior to 2004 (Big Five)
- Warner Music Group
- Sony Music
- BMG Music
- Universal Music Group (Polygram absorbed into UMG)
Major labels prior to 1998 (Big Six)
- Warner Music Group
- Sony Music
- BMG Music
- Universal Music Group
Record labels are often under the control of a corporate umbrella organization called a music group. A music group is typically owned by an international conglomerate holding company, which often has non-music divisions as well. A music group controls and consists of music publishing companies, record (sound recording) manufacturers, record distributors, and record labels. As of 2005, the "big four" music groups control about 70% of the world music market, and about 80% of the United States music market. Record companies (manufacturers, distributors, and labels) may also comprise a record group which is, in turn, controlled by a music group. The constituent companies in a music group or record group are sometimes marketed as being divisions of the group.
Record companies and music publishers that are not under the control of the big four are generally considered to be independent
), even if they are large corporations with complex structures. Some prefer to use the term indie label
to refer to only those independent labels that adhere to an arbitrary, ill-defined criteria of corporate structure and size, and some consider an indie label to be almost any label that releases non-mainstream music, regardless of its corporate structure.
Music collectors often use the term sublabel
to refer to either an imprint or a subordinate label company (such as those within a group). For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, "4th & B'way" was a trademarked brand owned by Island Records
Ltd. in the UK and by a subordinate branch, Island Records, Inc., in the United States. The center label on a 4th & Broadway record marketed in the U.S. would typically bear a 4th & B'way logo and would state in the fine print, "4th & B'way™, an Island Records, Inc. company". Collectors discussing labels as brands would say that 4th & B'way is a sublabel or imprint of just "Island" or "Island Records". Similarly, collectors who choose to treat corporations and trademarks as equivalent might say 4th & B'way is an imprint and/or sublabel of both Island Records, Ltd. and that company's sublabel, Island Records, Inc. However, such definitions are complicated by the corporate mergers that occurred in 1989 (when Island was sold to PolyGram) and 1998 (when PolyGram merged with Universal). Island remained registered as corporations in both the U.S. and UK, but control of its brands changed hands multiple times as new companies were formed, diminishing the corporation's distinction as the "parent" of any sublabels.
Vanity labels are labels that bear an imprint that gives the impression of an artist's ownership or control, but in fact represent a standard artist/label relationship. In such an arrangement, the artist will control nothing more than the usage of the name on the label, but may enjoy a greater say in the packaging of his or her work. An example of such a label is the Neutron label owned by ABC while at Phonogram in Great Britain. At one point artist Lizzie Tear (under contract with ABC themselves) appeared on the imprint, but it was devoted almost entirely to ABC's offerings and is still used for their re-releases (though Phonogram owns the masters of all the work issued on the label).
However, not all labels dedicated to particular artists are completely superficial in origin. Many artists, early in their careers, create their own labels which are later bought out by a bigger company. If this is the case it can sometimes give the artist greater freedom than if they were signed directly to the big label. There are many examples of this kind of label, such as Nothing Records, owned by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; Nitro Records, owned by Dexter Holland of The Offspring; and Morning Records, owned by The Cooper Temple Clause, who were releasing EPs for years before the company was bought by RCA.
A “micro label” is a new generation of the traditional music record label that focuses on releasing music in almost exclusively in digital or mp3 form, relaying almost entirely on online retailers such as iTunes. A micro label tends to be a single owner proprietorship. The micro label’s competitive advantage against traditional record labels, both major and independent is that the entry costs are considerably lower. Traditional CD’s and LP’s are not, generally produced for sale by the micro label and the staff can consist of nothing more than the owner. Micro labels focus almost entirely on web presence and the global music consumer community as their strategy and avoid regional or local orientation. In fact, micro labels may be the first example of the “mini multinational” corporation as they can be run by one person, using a laptop from anyplace in the world at any time.
Some disadvantages of the micro label are that their low capitalization rates mean they, so far have had little resources to promote their artists in traditional ways such as promoting tours. Additionally competition for consumer and music fans’ attention on the web is challenging. Many recording engineers in the industry still remain unimpressed by the sound quality of mp3’s and other digitally distributed music formats as opposed to CD’s and even the vinyl LP. Also, micro labels are not in a position to experiment with interesting packaging concepts that independent labels for some have been known for.
Micro labels are probably not going away however, as the quality and availably of technology improves and the market shares of traditional record labels continue to fall.
An example of the micro label is Northern Californian label “Sanctioned Records and Media” that produces electronica and Bhangra by artists such as former Psychic TV’s Alaura, IDM artists Phokus Group and Bioutopia and Indian Bhangra artist Sanxe Kumar Loveji and trance artist Justyn
Relationship with artists
A label typically enters into an exclusive recording contract
with an artist to market the artist's recordings in return for royalties
on the selling price of the recordings. Contracts may extend over short or long durations, and may or may not refer to specific recordings. Established, successful artists tend to be able to renegotiate their contracts to get terms more favorable to them, but Prince
's much-publicized 1994–1996 feud with Warner Bros. provides a strong counterexample, as does Roger McGuinn
's claim, made in July 2000 before a U.S. Senate committee, that The Byrds
never received any of the royalties they had been promised for their biggest hits, "Mr. Tambourine Man
" and "Turn, Turn, Turn
A contract either provides for the artist to deliver completed recordings to the label, or for the label to undertake the recording with the artist. For artists without a recording history, the label is often involved in selecting producers, recording studios, additional musicians, and songs to be recorded, and may supervise the output of recording sessions. For established artists, a label is usually less involved in the recording process.
Although both parties allegedly need each other to survive, the relationship between record labels and artists can be a difficult one. Many artists have had albums altered or censored in some way by the labels before they are released—songs being edited, artwork or titles being changed, etc. Record labels generally do this because they believe that the album will sell better if the changes are made. Often the record label's decisions are prudent ones from a commercial perspective, but this typically frustrates the artist who feels that their artwork is being diminished or misrepresented by such actions.
In the early days of the recording industry, record labels were absolutely necessary for the success of any artist. The first goal of any new artist or band was to get signed to a contract as soon as possible. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, many artists were so desperate to sign a contract with a record company that they usually ended up signing a bad contract, sometimes giving away the rights to their music in the process. Entertainment lawyers are used by some to look over any contract before it is signed.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a phase of consolidation in the record industry that led to almost all major labels being owned by a very few multinational companies. CDs still flow through a handful of sources, with the majority of the sales going through the "big four" record labels. The online digital distribution of music shows some potential in breaking up the number of avenues for artists to find markets but the exact outcome is impossible to predict.
Resurgence of independent labels
In the 1990s, due to the widespread use of home studios, consumer recording technology, and the Internet, independent labels began to become more commonplace. Independent labels are often artist-owned (although not always), with a stated intent often being to control the quality of the artist's output. Independent labels usually do not enjoy the resources available to the "big four" and as such will often lag behind them in market shares. Often independent artists manage a return by recording for a much smaller production cost of a typical big label release. Sometimes they are able to recoup their initial advance even with much lower sales numbers.
On occasion, established artists, once their record contract has finished, move to an independent label. This often gives the combined advantage of name recognition and more control over one's music along with a larger portion of royalty profits. Singers Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann and Prince, among others, have gone this route. Historically, companies started in this manner have been re-absorbed into the major labels (two examples are Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records, which has been owned by Warner Music for some time now, and Herb Alpert's A&M Records, now owned by Universal Music Group). Similarly, Madonna's Maverick Records (started by Madonna with her manager and another partner) was to come under control of Warner Music when Madonna divested herself of controlling shares in the company.
There are many independent labels; folk singer Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records is often cited as an ideal example. The singer turned down lucrative contracts from several top-name labels in order to establish her own New York-based company. Constant touring resulted in noteworthy success for an act without significant major funding. Ani and others from the company have spoken on several occasions about their business model in hopes of encouraging others.
Some independent labels become successful enough that major record companies negotiate contracts to either distribute music for the label or in some cases, purchase the label completely.
On the punk rock scene, the DIY ethic encourages bands to self-publish and self-distribute. This approach has been around since the early 1980s, in an attempt to stay true to the punk ideals of doing it yourself and not selling out to corporate profits and control. Such labels have a reputation for being fiercely uncompromising and especially unwilling to cooperate with the big six (now big four) record labels at all. One of the most notable and influential labels of the Do-It-Yourself attitude was SST Records, created by the band Black Flag. No labels wanted to release their material, so they simply created their own label to release not only their own material but the material of many other influential underground bands all over the country. Ian MacKaye's Dischord is often cited as a model of success in the DIY community, having survived for over twenty years with less than twelve employees at any one time.
Internet and digital labels
With the Internet now being a viable source for obtaining music, netlabels
have emerged. Depending on the ideals of the net label, music files from the artists may be downloaded free of charge or for a fee that is paid via Paypal
or an online payment system. Some of these labels also offer hard copy CDs in addition to direct download. Most net labels acknowledge the Creative Commons
licensing system thus reserving certain rights for the artist. Digital Labels are the latest version of a 'net' label. Whereas 'net' labels were started as a free site or just a hobby point, digital labels seek to give the major record industry a real run for their money.
Open source labels
The new century brings the phenomenon of open-source
record label. These are inspired by the free software
and open source
movements and the success of GNU/Linux