Artist development, the process of preparing young singers and musicians for successful careers, is (was) an important part of an aspiring artist’s journey. Progressive record companies often had whole departments devoted to artist development. In the early 1960’s, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. took the process to an entirely new level, when he famously created the “Motown Charm School.” The label’s artists were taught how to dance, incorporating choreographed moves to give each act a distinctive performance style for in-concert and TV appearances. They were also “media trained” to conduct themselves in press interviews and other public engagements with articulation and style.
This concept further evolved in the 70’s when the major record companies began to act almost like managers, helping to guide the artist’s career under the auspices of their new “Artist Development” departments. Among the most notable being Warner Bros. Records under the aegis of the Bob Regehr. According to his NY Times obituary, Regehr was “One of the first record-company executives to institutionalize concert touring as a means for promoting records, coordinating schedules for popular acts and sometimes directly sponsoring tours by little-known performers.” Media training and wardrobe, and press photos were also considerations the label contributed to.
In that exciting era, my friends and I used to stop into Tower Records almost every night to check out the action and peruse the stacks. When we came across new unknown artists who were on Warner, we were more inclined to buy it without hearing it, simply because it came from that label. We knew that Warner’s always signed interesting, unique artists who set the bar for quality music. Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks and Bonnie Raitt were just a few of the label’s forward-thinking signings. They nurtured their artists and always put quality over commercial considerations first. By contrast, although Columbia Records signed many great artists, they also signed countless dogs, giving the impression they were just throwing shit against the wall to see what stuck.
I was recently speaking with an acquaintance who is a former senior major label executive, and currently a senior executive with one of the major steaming services, about the changes in how labels build their artists’ careers. He said that when he was working on the label side, record companies would act as VCs in a way. They would source and sign artists, pay recording costs, provide tour support, help find a manger and sometimes even subsidize the artists with enough funds to actually support themselves while the label worked diligently to earn back their investment. Now that he’s on the other side of the desk, he laments that labels have essentially devolved into “rights” managers, concerned more about managing their copyrights than building long term artist careers.
These days, the artist must have a huge social media following to attract the label’s A&R execs, as well as professionally recording and filming their own music and videos. They also have to generate a sizable following on Spotify and Soundcloud, get their music on streamers ’playlists’, and have a thriving live performing career before a major label will even speak with them. In other words, the labels don’t really have to do anything but monitor YouTube and other websites. Sure, when they sign these artists, they give them a recording budget and invest in marketing and radio promotion, but not to the extent that they did even 20 years ago. Now they’re primarily concerned with playlist promotion and managing music recording rights. Although both the major labels, as well as the thriving independent ones, still hunt for new talent, it less in smoke-filled clubs in the middle of nowhere and more online.
What does this lead to? Well, there are exceptions, but generally speaking at the expense of quality and long-term artistry, there’s far less gut-instinct and far more reliance on data.
In turn, the major labels seem to have lost any “soul” they may have had and have become nothing more than technocrats. Hardly what a vibrant music industry needs to develop long-term artists.
In the words of Pink Floyd,
“Well, I’ve always had a deep respect, and I mean that most sincerely.
The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think.
Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?”