Switching Sides – Do Labels have a future?

in Music

Sidney Gourgel examines the fates of famous acts who left their record labels and ended up on top.

Legendary rapper and producer Q-Tip made the immortal charge in his 1991 hit ‘Check the Rhime’ that “Industry Rules #4080/ Record company people are shady.” And it’s no secret that the music industry has seen its fair share of well-established artists to rising acts shifting from major labels to the independents. With the upheaval that the industry has faced this past decade due to the the Internet, the question many artists are asking themselves is: do the major labels still add value to an artist’s exposure?

Perhaps one of the most famous cases is that of André Romelle Young, aka Dr Dre. When he realised his label, Ruthless Records, was profiting from ownership rights to his music, and paying him only for the value of his initial contract, he got the help of Marion Hugh ‘Suge’ Knight Jr, who was wounded in a gun-fight outside the MTV Video Music Awards in August this year, stormed into a board meeting of Ruthless Records with a gang of men wielding pipes and baseball bats. Dre was released from his contract. Not long after, Dre and Suge formed their own label, Death Row Records, only to see Dre walk away again, citing mismanagement issues. Dre set up a precedent for other artists like 50 Cent, who not only wanted to perform, but to create their own recording label.

Of course, record companies generally don’t shout about artists leaving them. It not only looks bad on them, but it sends out a bad signal to unsigned bands. In the words of Casey Rae from the Future of Music Coalition, an organisation specialising in music industry education, “Maybe it makes sense to sign you, get you under contract and keep you off the streets so nobody else has you. But they don’t care if they do anything with you.” This is quite a strong statement, but it’s a fact that record labels are often too concerned with managing earnings from their current crop of stars to spend too much time nurturing the stars of tomorrow.

A case in point that has been hitting the headlines this year has been the explosive disintegration of the relationship between Universal Music and Azealia Banks. Propelled to stardom off her debut single ‘212’ in 2011, she has yet to release her long-awaited album, even though the rumour-mill has been in overdrive about when it will finally drop. She’s deluged the Internet with heavy-handed Twitter comments about her label, and in an interview in the Guardian this year she railed, “I’ve been gratefully riding off of mix-tape fumes for the past two years, but my fans really need some new music. Universal needs to just hand me over to another label who knows what to do with me. I’m tired of having to consult a group of old white guys about my black girl craft. They don’t even know what they’re listening for or to.” In early July, she announced that she had finally been released from her contract with Universal.

It’s not just the major labels that come under fire. Childish Gambino, the rap alter ego of actor and writer Donald Glover, fell out with indie rock label Glassnote Records. The premise for Glassnote was explained by founder Daniel Glass as “a heaven for rock bands and artists that appreciate a group of people that support them on the road and when they tour.” Unfortunately, despite being a rap pioneer by signing with Glassnote, it seems that Glover wasn’t impressed when Glassnote mishandled his project. He took to Twitter to vent his frustration, “I don’t like record companies, but I’m not having another project go through this. I’m trying to create one of the more imaginative roll-outs, but other people’s lust for money and impatience is ruining it.” He even went so far as to ask someone to buy him out of his contract.

Artists have always complained about their record labels, whether it’s due to creative stifling, greed or ‘old white guys’ not understanding the music. But in today’s age, where mix-tapes and tracks proliferate online, it’s interesting to see where this will take the record industry. A latecomer to the digital age, it’s clinging onto worn-out business practises, but if they disappear, who, or what, will take their place?