The music industry is changing at last. Artists in the past had to rely on major labels to help them in areas such as music studio rental, physical product distribution (e.g. CDs), marketing, etc. This meant the major labels held the balance of power when it came to contract negotiation (especially new artists – more established artists could afford to do some of this for themselves). There are many books that describe how musicians were given an advance (money against future sales), and then had to pay out of that advance for the records to be made etc., and then pay the advance back out of their relatively small cut of the sales, and after it was paid back the records were still tied to the record company exclusively. So maybe out of a 10% cut the artists paid for the record, but then didn’t own it, and often other streams of income such as merchandise and touring also had to be tied to the same record deal. But now artists can write and produce the music themselves with relatively inexpensive equipment thanks to modern technology, they can distribute it themselves (see below), and they can market it themselves via social media using search engines (google, youtube, etc.) and pay per click advertising as well as interacting with their audience. Streaming companies such as Spotify help new artists by placing them on their playlists giving unimaginable exposure which helps them battle the marketing budgets of the major labels.
Kobalt was founded in 2000 with the aim of changing the music industry through technology and doing it with fairness, freedom, and transparency for artists. Now they represent over 40% of the top 100 songs and albums in the US and UK. They provide a web portal and app for all their artists that shows breakdown of income by works, rights, and countries – unprecedented transparency. They allow artists to keep the rights to their music and they don’t dictate what artists should write – fairness and freedom. If artists need help they have the right people to provide support in the appropriate areas. Some big names have moved over to Kobalt including Lenny Kravitz, Pet Shop Boys, and Massive Attack. In 2013 the late great Prince signed a record deal with Kobalt after long fights to control his own music.
The big labels try to argue that Kobalt are only for established artists and don’t provide what a new artist needs. I completely disagree with this. What new artists, and small independent artists need, in my opinion is the big labels out the way in order to create a level playing field where the music counts not huge marketing budgets. The huge marketing budgets big labels have are fed by the music rights they own going back decades. Why should a record label be living off music written and performed by for example the great jazz artists from the 1940s who sadly passed away many years ago – and using this money to squash modern day up and coming artists with their own agenda? What exactly are major labels bringing to the table now? Would the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker approve of their music being used like this – these are artists who pushed forward the boundaries of jazz by rebelling against the established norms of the day – and were given the platform to do this by clubs such as Minton’s Playhouse who encouraged experimentation and were generous with food and money for artists. Without places like this Modern Jazz / Be-bop may never have been invented.
Kobalt for their part have an answer for the smaller independent artist – called AWAL. You have to apply to be released through AWAL and put forward your case, if accepted they then distribute your music without any up-front fee, and if you start to catch on they will look at how they can assist you including financial assistance. You get similar technology to Kobalt artists, and you can cancel your contract with them at a month’s notice, and maintain ownership of all your work.
I am really pleased to be able to say Evolved, my next album, is being released through AWAL. They haven’t paid me anything to say any of the above, I wanted to be released through them because of the above. I’m proud to be a tiny part of their story.
This 18 minute video on YouTube from The Economist gives a balanced view on the disruptors in the music industry currently – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqz3DaisBz8