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The world without major labels

A graphic designer who's done some work in the music industry has posted a 6,000-word diatribe bemoaning the death of Oink and predicting (and encouraging) the death of the major-label system. So what would actually happen?

Rob Sheridan, a designer who's worked in the music industry, has posted a 6,000-word diatribe bemoaning the shutdown of file-trading network Oink and predicting (and encouraging) the death of the major-label system. It's an entertaining read, and should be required for Guy Hands and anybody else in the executive offices of the major labels. And he's not the only one who's predicting the death of the label system.

I'm currently reading a fascinating book, The World Without Us, which imagines what the world would be like if humans suddenly disappeared. So here's my thought experiment: what if we woke up tomorrow to headlines that all four majors had decided to get out of the music business and had freed the artists from their contracts? What would the business of music look like?

Well-established acts like Radiohead and Madonna would do better--they'd easily be able to pay out of pocket or get credit to make their next recordings, which they'd sell as downloads, or through online-only distributors, or direct from their Web sites, or through the remnants of the labels' physical distribution systems. (Surely some enterprising capitalist would still be able to squeeze a few pennies out of shipping physical discs to big retailers like Wal-Mart.) Without a label in the way, they'd have to share much less of the proceeds from each disc sold. They'd also continue to have lucrative touring and merchandising businesses.

The situation would also benefit smaller acts with devoted followings. I'm thinking about the larger of the "indie" artists--Wilco, Sigur Ros, Yo La Tengo--or the former radio staples that seem to have disappeared from the mainstream, like Nine Inch Nails. None make much of an impact on the charts, at least not after the first two or three weeks, and you hardly ever hear their new songs on the radio, but their fans buy every album and see them every time they tour.

Artists whose popularity was created entirely from the top town with massive media saturation and marketing will be much less common--who will be willing to spend so much money if massive-scale CD sales are a thing of the past? This will save concert promoters the embarrassment and expense of booking these acts' inevitable dud tours on the way down. With fewer disposable acts hogging the airwaves, radio might be forced to play more requests...or might respond by becoming even more conservative, like classic rock.

So far, it sounds pretty good for self-proclaimed "serious music fans" (like yours truly).

But what happens to developing artists? Sure, there's a common criticism that the labels don't spend nearly as much money and effort on discovering and nutruring artists as they used to, but they do spend something. Even if it's not 1991 anymore, A&R does exist.

Without labels, who pays for that first big-budget studio recording? Or are we relegated to home studios and MP3 downloads? (Forget FLAC, it won't sound much better.) Who fronts the money for the first tour--the one where the band makes a few devoted fans who drag all their friends the next time they come through town? Who handles the thankless task of publicity?

Perhaps independent labels will pick up the slack. Fine, but then we're not talking about the death of the label system, just a refragmentation back to the 1960s when Atlantic and A&M and Columbia were companies, not parts of a corporate conglomerate that also sold movies or consumer electronics gear or water. Anyway, many independent labels contract with majors (or their subsidiaries) for physical distribution, and a lot of labels you think are independent are part-owned by the Big Four. What happens to these labels without the support of their big brothers?

True digital utopians seem to believe that capable musicians cannot only write and perform beautiful music, but can capably handle all of these other tasks as well. In this utopia, every band needs a bass player with a high-paying job or trust fund. Or perhaps venture capitalists invest in musicians. (You think a major label's time frame for ROI is tough? Have a conversation with an entrepreneur who was kicked out of his or her own company for not making enough money fast enough.) Or maybe we're all playing in basements for our friends, and perhaps pulling down a couple hundred bucks a month selling downloads to fans in Poughkeepsie. Sounds OK--100 years ago, it was common for members of the upper class to take turns performing on the piano at dinner parties.

But everybody who collects music and goes to shows today will have a much harder time finding the breadth and depth they take for granted today. Are you willing to sift through thousands of MySpace pages to find a single good song? Are you willing to travel to showcases and the home towns of bands you love?

This story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates my point. A few years back, I had an L.A.-type conversation with somebody who claimed to have been at Radiohead's first gig in that city. It was the early 1990s, Pablo Honey was out but the band hadn't had its big hit, "Creep," yet. The gig was sparsely attended--to hear this guy tell it, there were about 20 people there. Grunge ruled. Nobody was interested in a British band that wasn't quite Britpop fronted by an unattractive singer with an emo voice. Nonetheless, EMI took a chance on the band, pushed the single after some early interest from college radio stations, and had a surprise hit. Radiohead might have been immensely irritated at having to tour for two years on an album they didn't really believe in, but without "Creep," there'd have been no budget for the studio time to make The Bends, without which there'd have been no time for the band to really learn their way around the studio to create breakthroughs OK Computer and Kid A, and so on.

For every Radiohead, there are probably 1,000 more talented or deserving artists who were ignored or abused by the major label system. But like it or not, the multimillion-selling pop CDs we serious fans dismiss as disposable pop trash help fund new artists. Without Britney, there's no Lashes, there's no Go Team, there's no Ray LaMontagne.

So everybody calling for the death of the label system, watch out--you might get what you're after.