Roundtable Discussion: The Role Of The Record Label

Merge Records baby.

hide captionMac McCaughan says that "Merge has never been what you'd call an early adopter" of new technologies, though does like making onesies!

Merge Records

Last week, I had the opportunity to chat — and, by chat, I mean "chat via the Internet" — with a handful of independent record labels' owners and managers. I wanted to discuss the role of the label in a time when fewer people seem to know or care what labels their favorite musicians or bands are on. Furthermore, and perhaps this has always been true, we may not even know what exactly a label does.

At the beginning of this decade, record labels were still a way of indexing artists; of positioning them within a community, a scene and a movement. Throughout our end-of-the-decade coverage, one reccurring theme is whether context still matters. After all, one of the most glorious (if not overwhelming) changes to take place in the last 10 years is how much music is available to us, and from everywhere.

So, while the notion of community has been broadened and redefined — we may no longer see record labels as megaphones for towns and the bands therein — perhaps we still need someone to help curate and make sense of the music out there. Personally, I still turn to certain labels as a means of filtration.

And, while plenty of musicians have acrimonious relationships with their labels, just as many do not. Musicians still choose to work with specific labels because they are aware of their history and want to be part of a tangible community of people and supporters.

While music fans have reaped endless and copious rewards in the last 10 years — in the form of non-stop music, almost too much from which to choose — labels have struggled to keep up with ever-changing technologies, attitudes and means of communication. Fortunately, many indie labels have thrived because their bottom line, though still reliant upon monetary solvency, has been about bucking the fleeting musical trends and instead putting out music that's lasting and exciting. Most importantly, these labels put out music that they love, in the hopes that at least a few of us will catch on.

This conversation about labels includes the following people, whom I thank for their participation:

Maggie Vail and Portia Sabin from Kill Rock Stars
Gerard Cosloy from Matador
Mac McCaughan from Merge
Robb Nansel from Saddle Creek
Chris Swanson and Darius Van Arman from Jagjaguwar/Secretly Canadian/Dead Oceans

Unfortunately, Laura Ballance from Merge and Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop were not able to participate in the discussion, which continues below:

Carrie Brownstein: From a label perspective, thinking back on the first few years of the last decade, what was the first musical moment or change in technology that made you think, "Things are going to be different from here on out"?
Darius Van Arman, Jagjaguwar/Secretly Canadian/Dead Oceans: It feels so obvious, but iTunes launching at the beginning of the decade was one of those moments.
Portia Sabin, Kill Rock Stars: Yeah, I was going to say iTunes. iTunes really revolutionized cash flow for indies who normally get paid four times a year.
Darius Van Arman: You didn't necessarily have to know someone in a fancy suit to distribute your music around the world.

Carrie Brownstein: Who do you think were the first musicians or labels to take advantage, or who lucked out with, or who made the best of the new technologies — live streams, interactive Web sites, online stores, even just Internet buzz?
Gerard Cosloy, Matador: Didn't Twin/Tone take their entire catalog digital super-early? Sort of like inventing color TV in 1923?

Carrie Brownstein: When did you guys feel caught up? Did you lose anything by waiting?
Mac McCaughan, Merge: Merge has never been what you'd call an early adopter.
Gerard Cosloy: That's a tough one. I think I was initially not super-freaked-out about file-sharing because bandwidth/speed issues were such a stumbling block for so many, initially. By the time broadband became mainstream, however, it was too late!
Mac McCaughan: I agree with Gerard; we kind of sat back to see what was going to happen, and then it did.

Listen to "Ambling Alp" by Yeasayer (Secretly Canadian):

Carrie Brownstein: Was file-sharing as problematic for indies as it seemed to be for majors? Did any of you have bands that benefited from the buzz or leaks?
Gerard Cosloy: Early on, I felt like the impact was mostly beneficial. That was before it took only a matter of minutes to download an entire box set.
Portia Sabin: The problem is that it's totally unmeasurable — maybe in the beginning, it gave bands some buzz, but now it's just impossible to know how much an artist would have sold without illegal downloads.
Darius Van Arman: I still think it can be beneficial to artists. Trickier thing to evaluate for record labels, whether it is more beneficial than harmful.
Gerard Cosloy: I agree with Darius. I have no research into this matter, but I generally felt the early downloaders/uploaders were hardcore music nuts who tended to buy more records than anyone else.
Carrie Brownstein: Gerard, I think someone in England did a study on this, and you are right!
Gerard Cosloy: In the years to follow, file-sharing became mainstream... and younger audiences had less of a fond connection to things like record stores, record labels, etc.
Maggie Vail, Kill Rock Stars: I think it's definitely been a problem. I hoped there would have been, by now, a politicization or awareness that indie labels aren't nearly as corrupt as their major counterparts, but that hasn't seemed to have happened. To many, a label is a label is a label, and they are all evil — or so the justification goes.
Gerard Cosloy: It would help if more indies weren't as corrupt as their major counterparts!
Maggie Vail : I agree.
Gerard Cosloy: I mean, I can't expect the average American teen to feel bad because Wind Up is going to have a bad quarter. I can't even expect them to feel bad about Touch & Go having troubles — few of 'em live in a culture that respects what that label meant.

Listen to "I Wonder Who We Are" by The Clientele (Merge):

Carrie Brownstein: What is the role of the label right now?
Chris Swanson, Jagjaguwar/Secretly Canadian/Dead Oceans: Context.
Portia Sabin: Same as it ever was: a filter, a bank, a promo machine. A source of contacts in the industry.
Carrie Brownstein: I still like labels as a means of curating and filtering all of the info for me.
Mac McCaughan: The Internet allows you access to all the music you could want, and that's the problem — if you don't know what you are looking for, it's like trying to find a good record in a thrift shop. So the label is, as Portia says, a filter, or at least a starting point for fans.
Darius Van Arman: I hear more and more from music buyers that they don't pay attention to labels. The younger ones.
Maggie Vail : That is true.

Carrie Brownstein: Is it strange that people don't even know what label a band is on anymore?
Darius Van Arman: Yeah.
Gerard Cosloy: Strange, sad. However, there's still an active minority that give a hoot.
Carrie Brownstein: A decade ago, people still bought music based on the labels the bands were on. Or didn't buy albums because of what label the band was on.
Maggie Vail : I think there's still some of those, but not nearly as many.
Mac McCaughan: I feel like our hardcore fans still do pay attention to that stuff, and it's our job to create more music fans like that.
Darius Van Arman: My hope is — and I imagine we all would hope this as label owners — that at some point, it will become obvious that curating is needed.
Chris Swanson: I'm not sure that people don't know labels now. I still think the music geeks know labels.
Portia Sabin: I think labels are caught in a cultural bind: No one really wants to know what a label does; it's like the sausage factory. Even long-established bands have a hard time talking about what labels do.
Gerard Cosloy: I mean, HoZac couldn't have a singles club otherwise.
Mac McCaughan: I'm one of those people that doesn't pay attention, either, I guess; I don't know what HoZac is!
Carrie Brownstein: I don't know HoZac, either.
Gerard Cosloy: GOOGLE THAT S—-.
Mac McCaughan: GTS!
Maggie Vail : http://www.hozacrecords.com/
Mac McCaughan: I don't know. I think that bands are into labels because bands — at least most of the ones we all work with — are music fans. Music fans, like baseball fans, also have a sense of history and an interest in the trajectory of things, not just the current moment. So, when we toured in New Zealand for the first time, I was as excited about meeting the people at Flying Nun as anything.
Chris Swanson: I agree. Music fans want as much information no matter how esoteric it may seem to a casual fan.
Portia Sabin: I agree that bands are into labels; I'm talking about people understanding what labels do. I think there's a semi-willful lack of understanding.
Chris Swanson: Now that labels don't run studios as much as they used to, it definitely is more abstract what our role is.
Gerard Cosloy: I think we have a scenario these days where folks (young, old, whatever) can list 40-50 "fave" bands on their social-networking profiles without actually owning a single record by any of 'em. There's loads of free content on the web (much of it produced or paid for by labels themselves), and if it comes down to buying a ticket or buying a record, a lot of fans would rather buy a ticket.
Mac McCaughan: But is it parallel things happening here — Gerard's scenario of fave bands but no knowledge of label, and then music geeks who go to record stores — which never meet, or do they cross at some point?
Gerard Cosloy: People who have full iPods ID themselves as "music geeks." Seriously.

Listen to "Life Magazine" by Cold Cave (Matador):

Carrie Brownstein: Are we in the age of dabbling?
Gerard Cosloy: Dabbling? Definitely.
Mac McCaughan: You're right.
Gerard Cosloy: And the churn factor is severe; the public burns out on supposed faves very, very fast these days.
Mac McCaughan: To a certain extent, at Merge, we know all this but try to pretend it's not happening — the churn factor — seriously.
Carrie Brownstein: Are there any of your artists in particular who have suffered through this churn factor?
Gerard Cosloy: I'd rather not say. But I think it is fair to say that anyone who is making a second record is about to contend with it, to some degree.
Portia Sabin: Dudes, we are in the era of "I like everything," which translates to whatever is on the radio/on the iPod, which has always been the majority of music fans, in my opinion.
Chris Swanson: I feel like full iPods are an illustration that a large part of the population now consumes music like they did in the '60s. It's primarily singles-driven, or track-driven. It feels like a jukebox culture with iPods so ubiquitous. People are generally more into songs right now than bands, albums or labels.
Gerard Cosloy: Right on, Chris.
Chris Swanson: If it sounds great, people love it.
Mac McCaughan: I like songs, but I hate that trend.
[Robb Nansel from Saddlecreek Records joins the conversation at this point.]
Chris Swanson: Lots of folks still want to take it deeper, but I don't think it's necessarily a sign of a corruption of taste that people are stuck on a good song right now.
Portia Sabin: That unfortunately doesn't translate into careers for artists, though.
Maggie Vail : Yeah, I would say it's not new — it's just in our world now, too.
Gerard Cosloy: Portia's right; it has always been the majority who thought that way. The difference is, there's no longer any cultural nudge-nudge to get anyone to think differently.
Maggie Vail : Yes.
Gerard Cosloy: Not on a mainstream level, anyway

Darius Van Arman: Does anyone feel like there are now music fans who take such pride in being early discoverers of music, and that is more exciting to them than the actual music itself?
Carrie Brownstein: Darius, I feel like there have always been those people; they used to work at record stores.
Maggie Vail : Yes, of course, but that's been true forever, too. I remember when everyone in [Olympia, Wash.] had a tape of Nevermind months before it came out.
Gerard Cosloy: I had someone critique an upcoming comp of ours the other day that we've never made advances of. He'd already heard the entire thing. Magically. I mean, I don't think he was telling the truth, but that's not really the point.
Darius Van Arman: I might have been one of those people. Championing some rare Roy Montgomery 7", more because I knew no one else could get one easily. What a doofus I was when I was younger.
Gerard Cosloy: It's sort of fun to invent a record/band that doesn't exist and watch everyone flip out. Not so much fun to try and get people to hear something that does exist, and they yawn.

Listen to "High Times" by Elliott Smith (Killrockstars):

Carrie Brownstein: Do any of your bands want to forgo the album process? Why do albums and sequence and artwork still matter from a label perspective?
Chris Swanson: We've got a few artists who we're encouraging just to focus on singles right now.
Carrie Brownstein: Chris, really? Why?
Chris Swanson: Not because we think they'll "break," but because focusing on the song can be good for their creative process. And because sometimes a killer song can do more for your career than focusing on a wider canvas and missing nailing that one song.
Maggie Vail : I would say I haven't had any bands that don't want to do albums. They all still want that document.
Portia Sabin: We're just going all vinyl.
Robb Nansel: I am not sure we should just assume that the album format makes sense every time. However, the way the promotional structure is set up with press, etc., it would be really tough to "release" a new single every couple months and maintain interest. You could possibly maintain fan interest, but it's tough to keep critical interest and tough to budget around so many single releases.
Maggie Vail : I agree, Robb.
Carrie Brownstein: Again, I feel like we are at a crossroads. The artists and some fans and the labels want a document. But who is collecting?
Mac McCaughan: Someone is buying vinyl.
Portia Sabin: Well, that is a weird thing — I was semi-serious about vinyl.
Gerard Cosloy: There are definitely vinyl buyers. But they are less influential on the rest of the marketplace than ever before.
Mac McCaughan: But not enough to make up for everyone who's stopped buying CDs.
Maggie Vail : No, not even close.
Chris Swanson: Labels aren't as necessary for singles in the blog world, though, so the singles universe is threatening for labels.

Listen to "The Sound" by Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson (Saddle Creek):

Carrie Brownstein: Is the vinyl resurgence a myth, or are the same people who always bought vinyl still the ones buying it?
Gerard Cosloy: No, there's tons of first-timers. Tons.
Maggie Vail : It's not a myth.
Mac McCaughan: Not a myth, but still a niche.
Chris Swanson: Vinyl market share is up with digital. CDs are paying the price.
Gerard Cosloy: Who else is buying those s——- USB turntables? Not the old f—-s.
Darius Van Arman: I think it's in large part because of digital-download coupons being packaged with vinyl; that seems to be the trend.
Gerard Cosloy: Yeah, I like that trend.
Maggie Vail : It helps. I used to buy both if I really liked a band.
Gerard Cosloy: Not so fond of the holdouts (i.e. Death LP on Drag City — BOO!).
Mac McCaughan: Why make people pay twice? If it's our job to create music fans, it can't hurt to let them know we're not out to rip them off.
Chris Swanson: The margin on vinyl is tough, though — something Matador seems to be combating with high vinyl prices. I'm curious as to the rationale behind that. Gerard?
Gerard Cosloy: We have turnaround/production issues with vinyl that are similar to CD problems we had in 1991!
Mac McCaughan: Yes, vinyl is freaking expensive and takes forever, as Gerard says.
Gerard Cosloy: But we are also about to issue certain titles with lower-grade vinyl and more Spartan packaging for less money.
Chris Swanson: That's cool. I thought it was interesting to see the high Sonic Youth vinyl price. Felt prohibitively high to me, which seemed strange, considering how both label and band seem so pro-vinyl.
Gerard Cosloy: Fair enough, Chris. And that is actually one title we have plans to do as a cheaper vinyl edition.
Robb Nansel: We just raised the list and scaled back the packaging (non-180, etc.) for most of our fall releases.
Chris Swanson: I think 180 is a myth created in Chicago in the mid- to late-'90s! I think Steve Albini singlehandedly created the vinyl myth. He's in cahoots with the vinyl industry. All my favorite vinyl from the '60s and '70s is flimsy as hell. You can roll it up!
Carrie Brownstein: Vinyl roll-ups, I'd buy!

Listen to "Gravitate" by Lou Barlow (Merge):

Maggie Vail : I am just personally glad I can get all the records I want again on vinyl. The breakdown between digital, vinyl and CD is really interesting from band to band.
Portia Sabin: Anyone with legacy artists — CD sales are still very high on those. 80 percent.
Gerard Cosloy: We see some wild variations in digital percentages from artist to artist.
Darius Van Arman: For us, Dinosaur Jr., being a legacy band, is one of those that is still mostly CD (60 percent range). Compared to Sunset Rubdown, with a younger fan base, which is more like 60 percent digital. And both records had the same release date.
Gerard Cosloy: Similar experience to Jagjaguwar for us.
Robb Nansel: Yeah, we see anywhere from 25-50 percent digital.
Carrie Brownstein: So it's a generational thing?
Darius Van Arman: It might be a generational thing. It might also be genre-related. Some mix, probably.
Maggie Vail : I've noticed almost all the new bands are digital-heavy.
Mac McCaughan: I agree with Darius on different types of bands and the digital/physical breakdown, [it's] getting into some pretty wide ranges.
Portia Sabin: Digital is the only reliable singles format.
Chris Swanson: Are many of you guys having luck making money on singles? Or is it primarily an artist-development tool?
Maggie Vail : Singles for us are always about development.
Portia Sabin: A weird thing for us is that, no matter what song off an album we give away as a free MP3, that song is always the most-purchased song off that album.
Robb Nansel: Same here, Portia.
Gerard Cosloy: Same thing happens to us.
Darius Van Arman: We have the exact same experience.
Mac McCaughan: That's "the single" to people.
Robb Nansel: So we should just all give away all of our albums!
Carrie Brownstein: Problem solved!
Maggie Vail : We do; we can't help it.
Portia Sabin: Because I don't think there's ever been money in physical "singles" of any type.

Listen to "Don't Haunt This Place" by The Rural Alberta Advantage (Saddle Creek):

Carrie Brownstein: Aside from putting out good music, what's the single most effective thing a label can do to get people to buy their music?
Gerard Cosloy: Not sure what the single most efficient thing would be (other than, you know, the Pitchfork 9.1), but getting people excited is never easy to quantify or predict.
Carrie Brownstein: Does a Pitchfork 9.1 help?
Maggie Vail : Absolutely.
Gerard Cosloy: Sadly, yes. A Pitchfork 9.1 is more influential to the audience and the retailers than a Rolling Stone or New York Times review.
Carrie Brownstein: What does a Pitchfork 4.5 do?
Portia Sabin: A 4.5 can kill a record. Unfortunately.
Mac McCaughan: Agree on the Pitchfork thing, though I do think that a 9.1 helps more than an average number hurts.
Robb Nansel: I'd be inclined to say a high Pitchfork number helps; a low Pitchfork number is irrelevant.
Gerard Cosloy: There remain great things that aren't even on the Pitchfork radar.
Mac McCaughan: Impossible!
Gerard Cosloy: The Beatles.
Chris Swanson: Cold War Kids were killed on their debut and did quite well.
Gerard Cosloy: Just having a number next to a review discourages anyone from reading.
Mac McCaughan: Yes, and often the review will be enthusiastic and then the number is like "6.9" and you're like, "Thanks for nothing."
Portia Sabin: There's a difference between getting an average/decent review and being a band who is loved by Pitchfork. We have two bands who are doing well despite being basically ignored by Pitchfork right now.
Chris Swanson: Anything under a 7.6 or 7.7 is a non-review.
Gerard Cosloy: If any of us were really great at galvanizing public sentiment/handing out the learning lessons, we'd be less dependent on Pitchfork. And that's our fault, not theirs.
Mac McCaughan: Hard to galvanize such a diffuse group of people, though I know we all try.
Gerard Cosloy: Pitchfork's rise to prominence [also] coincides with Rolling Stone being 36 pages.
Mac McCaughan: It's a pamphlet.
Portia Sabin: And full of dudes and old, old bands.
Gerard Cosloy: And newspapers scrapping what little pop criticism they offered.
Mac McCaughan: What I don't understand is online magazines that could compete as strong voices in the field — Salon, for instance — scrapping their music coverage.
Darius Van Arman: I don't think Pitchfork is the problem. I think others just need to step up. For whatever perceived power Pitchfork has, there's no real obstacle to someone doing what they do, and maybe doing it better.
Gerard Cosloy: Agreed. The only ones I know who are in the "f—- Pitchfork" camp are the ones who just got a bad review. Start your own f—-ing music site.
Mac McCaughan: I don't see how it's particularly harmful on its own — it's the lack of competitive voices. The Internet is a big place, and once people get used to going somewhere that they trust, they're not likely to strike out on their own into the wilderness.
Robb Nansel: I still think playing shows and word of mouth is what sells records. It's 1995 from that perspective.
Mac McCaughan: It's any year from that perspective; you're right, Robb — touring is the most old-fashioned, but still the best way to cement your place in people's minds.

Listen to "When We Swam" by Thao with the Get Down Stay Down (Killrockstars):

Carrie Brownstein: What does the term "indie" mean to you in 2009?
Portia Sabin: Not being partially/mostly/at all owned by a major.
Darius Van Arman: "Indie" means Indianapolis, where I'm from.
Gerard Cosloy: In some countries, they think indie is a genre.

Carrie Brownstein: With so many bands adding songs to commercials — even though the concept of selling out seems moot, and it's often necessary as a means to make a living — how does an artist maintain a distinction between being a band and being a brand?
Gerard Cosloy: I'd like to meet more bands that actually believe there's a distinction.
Portia Sabin: I think bands ARE brands, and they are starting to all understand that. Especially the ones who don't want to do ads, for instance — they don't want to damage their brand by being seen as "selling out."
Gerard Cosloy: You can market yourself as a brand. But that part of the process shouldn't take precedence over everything else you're doing.
Robb Nansel: Be a band first; you can be a brand later.
Maggie Vail : I like those ones, but I am old-fashioned.
Darius Van Arman: I agree with Robb.
Mac McCaughan: I think people buying fewer records puts some artists — or more likely their managers — into a panic. And they start thinking about licensability first and the actual album they've made second.
Gerard Cosloy: I seem to run into fewer new bands these days who have hang-ups about ads. Or any opinion at all other than, "How do we get in them?"
Mac McCaughan: Sometimes songs ruin commercials for me.
Carrie Brownstein: And commercials ruin songs for me.
Darius Van Arman: How about in films or TV shows?
Maggie Vail : Film or TV is different, I think. It doesn't become a jingle.
Mac McCaughan: What a relief to watch Mad Men and know you won't hear a song from the last 40 years.
Maggie Vail : Except for The Decemberists. Season Two.

Listen to "Overnite Religion" by Kurt Vile (Matador):

Carrie Brownstein: With the democratizing nature of the Internet, is it now fair (or safe) to say that a band on an indie or smaller label can now achieve the same amount of success as bands on major labels?
Portia Sabin: There were 105,000 records released in the U.S. last year, and of those, 1,515 sold more than 10,000 copies.
Carrie Brownstein: That's an amazing statistic.
Portia Sabin: So indies now have a greater share of the market that exists, but we still don't have the part that the majors have always had: 500,000-plus.
Gerard Cosloy: So true, Portia, but the majors themselves have fewer million-plus sellers than ever before.
Portia Sabin: Exactly! So indies appear stronger because we have more of the market that actually exists

Carrie Brownstein: What are you nostalgic for from 10 years ago? What don't you miss?
Darius Van Arman: I don't miss how labels used to print 8x10 photos of their artists.
Maggie Vail : I don't miss that, either.
Gerard Cosloy: I totally miss those.
Maggie Vail : I had stacks and stacks in my office.
Mac McCaughan: We had a fanzine planned that was just going to be those.
Gerard Cosloy: We no longer have a demo wall of shame in our offices, hence the lack of everyone else's 8x10s.
Maggie Vail : I don't miss all the overnighting!
Darius Van Arman: I don't miss sharing one dial-up connection with Chris, Ben and Jonathan. Or making phone calls to promoters before promoters were using email.
Maggie Vail : I don't miss the cold calls or the "new release" faxes.
Gerard Cosloy: There's some record stores I miss.
Maggie Vail : I miss some zines, magazines, record stores.
Robb Nansel: I'm nostalgic for an underground.
Gerard Cosloy: Here's your underground: http://www.myspace.com/burgerrecords.
Mac McCaughan: Is that made up or real?
Gerard Cosloy: Real.

Listen to "I Knew" by Lightning Dust (Jajaguwar):

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