(L-R): Official.fm's Amaechi Uzoigwe, WMG's Stephen Bryan, Merlin's Charles Caldas, Beggars Group's Martin Mills, Epitaph/Anti's Brett Gurewitz, Ultra Music's Patrick Moxey, Sony Music's Dennis Kooker, and UMG's Jon Vanhala discuss the changing role of labels. (Photo: Chris Owyoung)
"The last ten years we've seen the decline of the record business, and now we're seeing the rise of the music business," said moderator Amaechi Uzoigwe, head of content and business affairs at Official.fm, at the New Music Seminar Monday. Much of the panel, titled "Music Labels: The Businesses Formerly Known as 'Record Companies,'" focused on how the role of labels has changed in the current music industry, and how label owners can expect to fill the new roles created by this fluctuation.
The panelists, interestingly enough, were split almost down the middle between independent label owners and major label executives -- with Ultra's Patrick Moxey, Epitaph/Anti's Brett Gurewitz, Rostrum's Benjy Grinberg, and Beggars Group's Martin Mills on one side, with Sony Music's Dennis Kooker, UMG's Jon Vanhala, and Warner's Stephen Bryan on the other, and Merlin CEO Charles Caldas also involved -- which made for a sometimes friction-filled discussion, despite the panel's universal emphasis on the emerging industry's need for frictionless music services.
As labels re-calibrate their roles in the music industry, changing revenue streams dictate that they serve as more than just the caretaker of recorded music. "I don't feel that we're competing with other labels, we're competing with marketing firms," said Gurewitz. "Our role is as artist advocate... nobody achieves great success alone. We are the team behind them."
Part of that comes from tackling different income streams, be they merchandising, licensing synchs, or targeted marketing to embrace the many different technology companies that provide varied methods of access to consumers. "With new technology, consumers have more options, more targeted offerings, and more opportunities [to consume music]," said Bryan.
"People are lazy, they'll pay for convenience, and if you can give them the easiest way possible [to access music], they'll do it," added Caldas.
All roads led back to reducing the number of steps between consumers and their music, whether through consolidated global rights organizations, simplifying the music licensing process, or finding ways to take ad-supported access models and using them to upgrade consumers to premium, monetized services.
"Access models grow the pie for everyone," said Vanhala. "There are more consumers of music this second than there ever have been... As we move those people into frictionless models, it benefits all of us."
Ultra Music's Patrick Moxey noted that his label has successfully increased its YouTube revenues, which have gone from mere pennies to a seven-figure income source with the label's channel now getting some 1.8 billion views. Ultra Music, he added, is in the process of producing original video content based on his label's EDM lifestyle and that one of the writers pens scripts for "CSI."
As the playbook for labels has changed, so has the role of the artist in the industry. "Artists today are more powerful than ever," said Grinberg, noting how Mac Miller's Blue Slide Park debuted at No. 1 with very little traditional radio or other marketing. "They are business people, marketers... They know how to relate to their audience and know how to connect properly."
Beggars' Mills made the point that different independent labels have different connotations and signing with Gurewitz's Epitaph, for example, is not the same as signing with Matador records (which operates under Mills' Beggars Group umbrella). Artists need to be aware of which indie labels do what best before signing a deal.
And with today's artists having more options than ever of how to release their music, Grinberg said, the old "archaic" record contracts are binge tossed aside in favor of a more egalitarian split -- and with digital platforms becoming ubiquitous, the differences between major labels and indies will be reduced. Yet the role of the label -- as a support structure and a team helping an artist achieve success -- will not be going away.
"The power is with the artist," he said, "but the infrastructure and guidance [of a label] is still important."
Additional reporting by Andy Gensler