When the bank Citigroup took control of EMI last week, it triggered speculation that the era of major label contraction would continue. If Warner Music or another label buys EMI, we'll be down to three majors. This could mean the loss of hundreds of jobs in the music industry, the elimination of redundant labels and potentially, the disappearance of some of the most storied labels in the industry.
But when it comes to how the music sounds, do we care?
Labels in the digital era are fighting obsolescence on many fronts. Production, promotion and distribution of an mp3 is far simpler than that of vinyl, which must be pressed, packaged and shipped. Because digital files are easier to strip of information than CDs or LPs, listeners may love the entire catalog of a certain label without ever associating the songs with a common source. But when it comes to serving as a filter, we wanted to know if labels — big ones like EMI or tiny boutique outfits — still give people a sense of what the music associated with that label will sound like. And more importantly, if it'll be any good.
So we asked a handful of people who listen to music for a living to tell us about the last time they listened to a song, watched a video or bought an album by an artist they'd never heard before, simply because of the label that released it. Turns out that for every person who has recently followed a label's output, there's another who rejects the premise.
David Brown (host of Texas Music Matters on KUT in Austin, Texas)
Angel's album On Earth As It Is In Heaven, released on Casablanca Records in 1977
"I figured there just had to be more where KISS came from."
Robert Christgau (critic, NPR & MSN)
"I have a few prejudices along those lines, but they're provisional and I keep them to myself. The artist is the metric, not the label."
Jessica Hopper (music journalist and host of WBEZ's Hit It Or Quit It podcast)
"Last month I went down the YouTube rabbit hole on Portrait Records' early '80s proto-rap/electro-disco tracks, because of Russell Brothers' 'The Party Scene.'"
Tim Page (professor of journalism and music at USC)
"My relationship with music just doesn't work that way. That said, if I had to go into a store and pick out something new, I would be likely to bet on Nonesuch."
Andrew Noz (writer)
"I probably haven't seriously paid attention to a record label in about five years. They barely exist any more in the genres that I follow."
Douglas Wolk (freelance writer)
"[Last week] I downloaded Justine & the Victorian Punks' 'Beautiful Dreamer' because it's on DFA, and I will listen to anything on DFA. Yes, it's a disco-not-disco Stephen Foster cover."