Brand of Outsiders
Boutique labels reinvent the artist-label relationship
In the early 2000s, Rick Becker, now better known as DJ Excel, was living on Maryland's Eastern Shore selling mortgages. In the '90s, he'd been an eager part of the old-school Baltimore club community, even working with a then-primordial Unruly Records. The thing that changed was fatherhood, sending him from the world of urban dance clubs to a relatively square and stable life. In his absence, Baltimore club music changed--the on-the-fly cutups were losing out in favor of deeper, shinier, and original tracks from producers such as Rod Lee and Blaqstarr.
This is what Excel returned to, anyhow, when he moved back to Baltimore in 2004. And in the interests of "doing it the way it was, the old-school way," he started the record label Bmore Original, he explains on a brutally hot afternoon in a Mount Vernon café. "Dudes from Baltimore [working with] dudes from Baltimore," he says.
Bmore Original may have courted the old-school aesthetic, but as a business model it was unprecedented. The way we get music had changed as well. Excel claims he was the first digital distributor for club and hip-hop in town, putting him leagues ahead of the rest of Baltimore. In 2010, club distribution has moved almost entirely digital, whether it's mixtapes on allbmorehiphop.com or MP3s from Unruly Online or big guns such as CDBaby or iTunes. As for physical product, Bmore Original sells T-shirts and other merch.
The monumental shift in music sales from CDs to digital is an old story by now, but Bmore Original is still a model for the future--most labels are in some form of catching up. Artists don't get much from Bmore Original expense-wise--but these kinds of music aren't too expensive to produce--just a spot in the label's internet channel to the world. So: server space and some promotion. (Excel was dropping postcards around town the day City Paper caught up with him.) Excel says his label is like a "flea market, everybody selling side by side."
Of course, Bmore Original is hardly the only label model for new times. In fact, that's part of what makes the music industry's rapid flux so interesting: There is no set model anymore. There was a time when running a label meant fronting the product costs for an artist--recording, production, manufacturing--and handling the business and distribution of that artist. All those things are cheap now. Recording: Pro Tools and many other pro-level home recording set-ups are out there. Manufacturing and distribution: the bare minimum, transmitting an electronic file from one computer to another.
In that sense, Bmore Original is perfectly poised for these times. But consider the upstart Friends Records, an offshoot of the Bmore Musically Informed blog. Partners Brett Yale and Sound Garden employee Jimmy MacMillan are releasing physical product in the form of vinyl and cassettes, both of which are in a marketplace upswing. (Beyond audiophiles, many people still want something to touch and show off.) With a Friends release, you get both the LP or tape and a digital file. The label still holds to the boutique ideal--small, high-quality, curated. You might subscribe to its record club, if it had one.
Labels, particularly indie labels, have long existed as brand names--an assurance of the musical product--but, more and more, the business of the labels has sloughed away. Friends operates mainly on handshake agreements for two main reasons: the label is small enough that everyone is literally friends, and the money involved is so slim.
"It used to be the record labels owned the artists, ran them, [were] in charge of them," Yale says in a recent phone interview. "We're not messing with any of that. [The artists are] in charge of how it looks and how it sounds. We're just helping them put it out there. We're trying to simplify."
Domenic Romeo, guitarist in local hardcore powerhouse Pulling Teeth, runs music label A389, a tight-focus operation that exists primarily to put out the music of Romeo's friends and idols. "[A record label has] become less of an important thing," he says in a phone conversation. "It seemed like you had to be on a label to get any recognition. The internet, and the ability to tour, has changed things.
"A lot of bands don't know where to start," he continues. "I just know how to do it. A lot of bands just don't have the experience. I work with some bands that just don't want to deal with it."
None of these are even indie labels in the classic sense. Sub Pop, Touch and Go, Matador--these are all independent businesses that are or were emulating the models of the major corporate chains, only at a much smaller scale and, ideally, with a different ethos. An artist in that scheme is still essentially an investment and a product: a thing to put money into and expect money out of. The new wave of label boutiques appear to trade in the word "collaboration" for common business terms. You can imagine the eventual solution to the music industry shift being no longer top-down record labels, but artist associations, democratic groups even a step beyond Excel's "flea market."
The converse to that, but still very much a boutique, might be the MC E Major's recently launched Under Sound label ("Kinda Like Something Big," Music, Feb. 3). It's released music by other artists, sure, but Under Sound's three partners also agree that it's very much a label and brand revolving around E Major. And these days, it is entirely possible to have a label centered on one artist, particularly in something as personality driven as hip-hop.
Part of that is making it something more than a label, as Under Sound has done. The trio emphasizes that Under Sound is also a well-read music blog, a clothing store and, right now, an outlet for art prints. "We discovered early on that, nowadays, you're not going to make money with a record label selling albums," E Major (Ian Mattingly to the government) told this writer last winter.
"We definitely don't want to get into anything where we're in contract with artists or anything" he added. "We want to work with people we know or like. The way it works now is we've bartered for so much stuff, like, 'Hey, give me a beat, I'll rap on your song' kind of thing. It works out really nicely that way."
Despite reports to the contrary, major record labels probably aren't going anywhere soon. Notice how, as industry power is lost to the internet, they reassert power in altogether uglier ways. Instead of having corporate music wafted in front of your nose, it's packaged and shoved down the pop-culture consuming public's throat. (Where the fuck did Justin Bieber come from, anyway?) The losers in the industry are ultimately the classic indie labels--to wit: the all but shuttering of indie classic Touch and Go last year. It won't be the last.
Expect two tiers to be facing off at the music industry-as-we-know-it's end: the majors and these individuals and subindie boutiques. As to what that means for the music you hear, that thing you actually care about--well, it's a matter of money versus numbers. And those battles never turn out well.
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