Where Do Record Labels Stand In Music’s Streaming Wars?

Apple Music is signing exclusivity deals with musicians, paying for music videos, giving artists a huge platform in return, while Spotify continues to grow in power and influence.

But where does this leave record labels, and are they being phased out of the process? In his Mercury Prize acceptance speech, grime artist Skepta noted how Konnichiwa’s songs “travelled the world, no record label or nothing, they just travelled the world”. And in 2016, independence doesn’t need to be justified. For many artists, it’s the default option. Music’s best Twitter bio – JME’s “No label, No pr, No publisher, No manager, No pa, No stylist, No Instagram, No meat, No dairy, No egg & No Fluoride” – is a fair reflection for how musicians operate today. It’s not that outside intervention should be resisted; it’s just that today, the options are more open than ever for building a fanbase and selling out shows on your own terms. Depending on how it’s perceived, today’s talked-about ‘streaming wars’ are another way for acts to gain independence. While Apple Music, Tidal and Spotify fight it out for exclusives and subscribers, artists are the main draw – and many are being offered giant sums in return for their next release.

Apple Music is going further, paying for music videos (they funded Drake’s “Hotline Bling”, for starters) and putting money behind tour videos for Taylor Swift. In the case of Frank Ocean, he’s believed to have left his record label, Def Jam, before pursuing an Apple Music release for Blonde (Endless, the visual album that dropped the day before, was also hosted on the platform). By offering huge sums at various steps in a musician’s career – not just in an album release, but in singles, videos and touring – are streaming giants now too involved? And where does this leave record labels, who used to be far more responsible for funding and building an artist’s career? “We’re not in a position as an industry just now to turn down the offer of investment when it’s on the table,” says Colin Roberts, an artist manager at Big Life Management, which looks after the likes of Bloc Party and Nadine Shah, and previously handled London Grammar. Few get close to a Beyoncé-level of superstardom, but when acts reach a certain status, their ambitions grow with them.

The bigger the idea, the bigger task it is to fund what they want. “Creative people have big ideas that deserve to be realised,” he says.


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