As streaming continues to dominate the music landscape and platforms like SoundCloud and Spotify ramp up their artist offerings, creators seemingly have more control over their careers than ever. But what does that mean for labels and other stakeholders — and are those "creator-first" services all they're cracked up to be?
A handful of speakers at this year's South by Southwest (SXSW) conference tackled those questions, including SoundCloud CEO Kerry Trainor, who joined the panel "First Play to First Platinum: The Evolving Creator Journey" on Wednesday (March 13). SoundCloud recently unveiled a new distribution option on the platform, the latest addition to its suite of tools that cater to artists. Spotify debuted a similar feature in September, adding to its own Spotify for Artists repertoire.
Some fear that features like these diminish the role of labels, and indeed, some artists have responded to shifting tides by choosing the independent route. But to Trainor, the wealth of information provided by streaming services isn't just putting power in the hands of artists — it should benefit the entire music ecosystem as well.
"In any investment scenario, information is power on both sides," Trainor says. "When artists come on SoundCloud, they generate information — a following, data, plays, likes — and that puts them in a position to negotiate the very best deal. That's also beneficial to the investors, even if it is a label, meaning more clarity around something they might invest in."
At a separate Wednesday panel focused on indie labels titled "Why Be Independent?," Merlin U.S. GM Jim Mahoney made a similar point. "From a marketing perspective, you should lean into whatever data assets you can get your hands on," he explained. "It’s fantastic when your gut is spot-on and you know exactly what to do, but the marriage of [data and instinct] is indisputable."
Few understand the importance of streaming services for emerging artists better than Taylor Bennett — brother to indie pioneer Chance the Rapper — who joined Trainor to speak about the creator's role in the music industry. When Bennett and his brother released their early projects independently online, for free, he said, "we created a compound that was very deadly to the industry as we knew it. Now you could not only tour by yourself, sell your own merch, but you could also distribute your music."
And the data SoundCloud and other streamers provide can help artists with more than their music. Bennett says he even turned to SoundCloud's geography-based analytics to route his first tour, by pinpointing where his biggest fans were located. Those innovations "create a direct correlation from business to artist," he says. "There is a clear path."
But even amid those industry shifts, taking the independent route still presents challenges, as Bennett himself expresses in his recent single "Streaming Services." Those platforms may break down the barriers to entry for new artists, but that means the competition is fiercer than ever — in 2019, almost anyone can upload their music online, making it hard for any one act to break through the noise.
To Patrick Ferrell, A2IM's head of label relations, who spoke alongside Mahoney, the saturated market could actually make a label deal more desirable to some artists. "There’s more artists than ever today, but it’s about knowing what you need," she said. "You can submit your music and it can be up in less than 24 hours, but once it’s up, what’s next? That’s where labels amplify."
Ultimately, to prosper amid the industry disruptions brought about by streaming, labels will likely need to redefine their role. But that doesn't have to mean shrinking importance.
"It’s a good thing for independent music that anyone can have access to the market," chimed in Zena White, managing director for Partisan Records. "We shouldn’t be afraid of change. As a label, having to reexamine our value is not a bad thing."
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