Insights from a record label intern
This essay was written by a recent graduate a couple of months after starting their first internship in a music company. I think it’s a very good piece of writing. Read on…
Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘n’ Admin
-insights from a record label intern-
From the very first moments that I can recall hearing music playing from the car radio on the way to school, I have had the strangest of obsessions with music.
The art form transcends logic. Why are we moved- both emotionally and physically- by the simplest of sounds made by others.
We come together in arenas and discothèques to celebrate the noises that we hear.
We move our bodies in synchronisation to the beats that DJs and artists exhibit.
We listen to music on our own to the tunes that our idols composed, to feel happy, or sad, or to soundtrack our loneliness, to remind ourselves that we’re never really alone.
We lip-sync to music. We lock lips to music. We lose our minds to music. And if there is anything that surely sets us apart from the animals and the aliens, proving that humans are our very own supernatural beings, it surely must be this intangible art form.
Fast-forward 18 years from these musical schoolruns and I have moved to London and, like everybody else with a guitar and a blog, I think I know everything there is to know about music.
So when I am asked “What exactly do record labels do nowadays?” I am perplexed at my own lack of an immediate response.
When every wannabe musician has access to the internet and a microphone, what purpose does a label serve? What happens within the walls of the record label? And can you truly be a lover of music whilst turning it into a sellable commodity?
I have been interning at a London record label for a couple of months now and I have considered this question almost incessantly, and these are the best answers that I can conjure;
The primary purpose is to act as a medium for lovers of music, both performers and consumers, connecting the music that deserves to be heard with the consumer that wants to hear it.
Early in the process, a record company’s A&R [Artists & Repertoire]team will sift through playlists, blogs, submissions, emails and the deepest corners of the internet; listening to music from unsigned musicians and acts on the fringes of mainstream recognition.
It is only once you spend a day listening to 150 different tracks by 75different artists that you realise just how vast the distinction is between the good acts and the very bad ones.
And the most surprising of the A&R revelations is this: regardless of where an artist is from, or what genre they claim to be, 75% of all bands at any given time sound exactly the same.
This is obviously due to the 3 or 4 year cycle of trends in indie music. 15 years ago, The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand introduced the nation to choppy, duelling guitar riffs, whilst the mid-noughties saw the dawn of Arctic Monkeys‘ “I’m-a-lad-from-down-the-pub” indie-rock.
Recently, the nation has witnessed the age of The 1975‘s synth-led bands, who sound like popstars, but dress like rockstars. This came fresh off the back of Coasts‘ brand of epic indie-pop, with the garnish or arena-ready tunes, but no actual songs, and the list goes on…
It is during the tail periods of these phases, where the acts that lack pioneering spirit adopt a sound that is popular at the time of their band’s formation- rather than producing a sound that could be considered original or worthy of attention by the time the group garners any type of spotlight.
It is because of this high-density of ‘musical traffic’ that circulates online nowadays, that it is necessary for a label to scout out the worthy, original acts, and offer them the platform that they deserve- as well as delivering these special artists to the ears of music lovers who may not otherwise find them.
Although many acts find a level of success online, without a team of staff- a record company offers a level of objectivity that an artist will never find by performing to a group of friends in their kitchen.
Every artist thinks that their songs are up there with Stairway To Heaven, but that’s because they created the songs- they understand every subtle metaphor and every morsel of context that has contributed to the conception of the final compositions. A label, like the hypothetical consumer, will evaluate a song on face value and offer feedback accordingly.
Once an artist reaches a stage where they have the opportunity to be signed, the offer that a record company can put on the table is infinite in its variations; with promotional deals, publishing deals, studio time, tour assistance, distribution and many other topics up for discussion.
It is upon reviewing these contract offers, that it is evident how much a record label could do for it’s acts. A label can offer an infrastructure of knowledge, contacts and business acumen that the average headband-wearing, psychedelic-rock frontman has never had the necessity to learn.
Artists such as JME have built very successful careers without the assistance of labels and it is possible, especially for acts who fully celebrate their DIY image and have the security of a local scene around them to allow their careers to grow organically. A majority of artists, however, would have a lot to gain from a record contract.
Handing over the business side of the operation to a label can be difficult for a majority of artists; after all, this music is the product of their hard work and their metaphorical baby, trusting a professional to collaborate with its development is scary concept, but (to exhaust the ‘baby’ metaphor) allowing professionals to assist, whether it be teachers or football coaches, is a necessary measure to ensure that your offspring grows to become the best that it can be.
Hollywood and folklaw would have you believe that world of the music industry is one of decadence,debauchery and drugs, and I have witnessed many concerts descend into anarchy. But between Monday and Friday, the office of a record label is far from anarchic, there are coffee mugs and Microsoft applications and other office-y things.
Although the work is enjoyable and more fun than the conventional 9-5, concerts are very much the celebration of a successful period of work, rather than the typical example of it.
It is also worth noting that, aside from the 3 major labels, Sony, Warner andUniversal, many record companies are small-ish businesses, with a handful of staff and profit margins to keep a close tab on. The age of Spotify has arrived and the private jets &mountains of cocaine passed it on their way to the exit door.
I may be writing this from the position of an intern at a record company, but do not lead yourself to believe that is some kind of pro-label propaganda. We are all aware of the negative connotations that the music industry can conjure; the temporary nature of raising hopes & dashing dreams, and the ongoing battle between celebrating art and turning it into a throwaway commodity.
But whilst working at a smaller company, one gets to truly see the cogs of the industry, away from red carpets and Pyramid stage performances and they are cogs with musical integrity at their heart.
Restauranteurs can love food and sell it, designers can love clothing and sell it, it only stands to reason that a label head must have a love for music and a passion for its perpetual evolution.
This is no longer a career path to pursue for a love of money, or glamour, but it is the greatest career on the planet to those that sincerely love music.
All of your favourite songs, the songs that you listen to on your own, or with your friends, the songs that you think were written just for you by somebody that has never met you, the live performances that you will never forget and the life-changing tracks that are yet to be recorded are all products of a whole team of people and, for all of the industry’s pros & cons, we can’t deny that they’re doing something right.