Why Young Musicians Don't Need Record Labels


In the early days of Motown Records, artists were schooled in performance, technique, and style. By the time Berry Gordy, Jr. was done with them, they walked, talked, and breathed Motown. This commonality among artists established the record label as a cohesive aesthetic and social movement. That aesthetic informed the artists' personal brands, and the movement informed their career decisions. Through artistic development, Motown the label became Motown the community.

Say what you will about major labels like Motown, but they know branding. They know how to connect an artist with the people, and how to develop a lucrative public image with a larger social relevance. A good musical brand is a constantly evolving reflection of an artist's journey. Major labels understand this.

With drastic financial shifts following the digital boom, artistic development was put on the backburner of major record label budgets. This development opened the door for independence and entrepreneurship, but left a palpable void where a sense of community and career guidance once flourished.

Musicians are providing the same sort of guidance previously offered by major labels — for themselves and for one another.

Recently, some very exciting community seedlings have taken root in the music industry, ushering in a new era for artistic development. Musicians are providing the same sort of guidance previously offered by major labels — for themselves and for one another. This support system brings community back to a tough and (at times) rigid industry. The benefits are incalculable for the musicians, and for the music we love.

The Wondaland Arts Society, created by Janelle Monae (of The Electric Lady and Covergirl fame), is one such new artistic development. Its mission statement boldly reads, "We have created our own state, our own republic … In this state, there are no laws, there is only music. Funk rules the spirit. And punk rules the courtrooms and marketplace. Period." This collective of friends and musicians has created a soul movement with a true sense of belonging. The interdependence is fostered through collaborations and community events, and showcased through blog posts and features on Wondaland's website. Artists grow alongside one another anddevelop their careers towards a common aesthetic and message. The big, scary world of music just got a little smaller.

Similarly, Railroad Revival tours are a budding source of artistic community. In the opening scene of Big Easy Expresswe see Old Crow, Mumford & Sons, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros embarking on a six-concert Railroad Revival tour from Oakland to New Orleans. United by their folk aesthetic, these three bands (spanning almost two decades of musical experience) created a mobile musical community.

Tours like this have existed in the past. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and the Carter Sisters moved in a similar circuit in 1955 with jamboree packaged tours. But nowadays, short-lived festivals seem to be the most prominent place to see multiple, charting artists on one bill. Musicians reviving these collaborative tours are allowing themselves the time to foster communal ties, ultimately weaving an aesthetic greater than one band could ever hope to have. It creates an interdependent social movement harkening back to the early days of Motown.

With these new communities, and the opportunities for artistic development that they provide (via collaboration, direct guidance, or even osmosis), the future of music is bright. Normalizing artistic development normalizes the idea that artists are developing. It allows them mobility in career choices, and defines the "brand" as a fluid entity once more. When artists are seen as well-rounded humans entitled to evolution rather than boxed-in PR campaigns with a singular image and message, their humanity becomes apparent . This means that a day without shock-value-twerk-fests is possible. When substance becomes more lucrative than gimmicks, we'll see fewer artists twerkin', and more artists workin'.

Perhaps community-based artistic development could also facilitate the transitions of our "child stars" to adult musicians if we begin to normalize the fact that artists develop like people. We could re-infuse a young adult's career growth with humanity, because nobody — not even Justin Bieber himself — has a clean-cut transition into adulthood.

This community-supported, artist-originated development has the potential to rid the music industry of stagnant brands crafted to meet impossible standards. Music would again be tied to larger social or aesthetic movements. And movements — quite necessarily — move. They are alive and growing, like the artists themselves. With this new wave of artistic development, we're re-infusing humanity into one of humanity's oldest forms of expression and paving the way for substantive music for generations to come.