Major Labels are in the midst of a war with streaming services, or at least that’s what they think. In reality, the battles rage much deeper and wider than they are willing to believe. People are rejecting the tried and true formula for hit music that has dominated music for the two decades, and major labels are getting pushed out because of it. What is truly killing major labels? Well, major labels are killing themselves.
I grew up in rural Indiana, where country music dominated the airways. Most of my town could relate to tractors and trucks, there were at least two corn fields within walking distance of my house. I listened on occasion generally because there was nothing else I had access to, although it was never really my sound. However, my distaste for country music and mainstream music in general came to a fever pitch during a distinct moment in one of the plethora of country music award shows one year, I don’t remember which one, not that it matters. Miranda Lambert won an award for some version of the Song of the Year Award, but superstar female country singer Miranda Lambert was not the one accepting this award, rather the songwriters, three guys in their late fifties and sixties came up to accept the award. My eyes were opened to how dishonest and fake country music is. These old guys had never stepped foot on a farm, and it seemed unlikely they had ever met anyone who had. This is country music, a formulaic combination of trigger words by people in offices.
That’s the reason Chris Stapleton’s 2015 Traveller was such a smash hit for country music, it was the first album in nearly a decade that seemed honest, that people truly connected to. Yet, this development was lost on major country labels, who continue to run through glorified karaoke singers at an incredible rate. While outstanding artists like The Civil Wars, The Wild Feathers, and Jason Isbell get little to no support in mainstream country music.
This past week has proven that these problems aren’t limited to country music. Somehow, Frank Ocean can release an album that will debut at #1 on Billboard’s Album Chart this week, and his (now former) label can be upset by that. Major labels aren’t at war with streaming services, they are at war with the listeners.
Listeners want to connect to music on a personal level, and people are getting better at seeing what is fake and what is real. People connected to “Take Me to Church” by Hozier allowing it to become one of the most successful debut singles of all time. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis thrive on the freedom to create the music that speaks to them. Bon Iver built a career on creating some of the most personal music being released today. Even artists from the past are getting a little more attention due to people looking for something to relate to, as Elliot Smith’s music has been somewhat rediscovered by a new generation of listeners. Kendrick Lamar, Halsey, The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, on and on the list goes of heartfelt and honest music creating this new music industry
Ed Sheeran directs a song to labels saying “You need me, man, I don’t need you.” The root of the problem comes down to this ego of the labels. They, somehow, still believe that artists can’t make it without them, even as indie music pushes further to the mainstream, and major artists, like Frank Ocean, jump ship consistently. Small label and indie artists develop better music right now, and there is a new tool for listeners to filter out that major label music that no longer speaks to or for them: Streaming Services.
It’s easy to see why the major labels are so afraid of streaming services. When popular music was driven by radio, labels could control who got the most airplay, but streaming offers a way for fans to scroll right past them, on to the small British pop duo no label head has ever heard of. That is the paradigm shift, the power is no longer in the hands of label, that power is in the hands of the listeners.
Streaming is only the weapon being used to bring down major labels, the real problem for the major labels is the major labels themselves.