Independent Record Label Resurgence: Are major labels now less relevant?

Photo Source: Eric de Redelijkheid

By Craig Strachan

The record label industry reached an oligopoly over the wider music industry not really seen since the times before The Beatles and of Frank Sinatra in the 1940s and 50s. Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI make up 88% of the market today and have dominated the music industries’ output like this for nearly the last 20 years. 

However, the last few years have been brewing a growing comeback for the independent record label. I think this influx is really a sign of the times. Independent record label numbers have always surged when music makes big advances and needs a vital change up. It occurred in the 60s with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, it occurred in the 80s to reinvent the music industry when stadium rock became oversaturated and it seems to be occurring now too. It feels like something about the current political and social climate that’s been sent into a whirlwind fever over the last few years that has created a bit of a brainwave in modern alternative and indie music as well as its’ lyrics. The rising popularity of Idles (and thereafter Joe Talbot’s own independent label) are a massive example of this. Confusion seems to be on the rise, the ‘fake news’ era has bred a sense of uncertainty that people want to break free of, and the music seems to be catering to this call for a brutal and plain honesty. Whether it be about politics, mental health or sexuality. The age of the deeply shrouded lyrical metaphor is over. A breaking point has been reached somewhere along the line and artists now seem to be reacting in favour of direct emotional honesty. 

With Idles, the Bristol act throw out lines that conjure no illusions on their left wing politics. Take the line “the best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich” off their track ‘Mother’. Or lead singer Talbot’s portrayal of his struggles with toxic masculinity on the track ‘Samaritans’; “The mask of masculinity… this is why you’ve never seen your father cry”. All from an independent label. 

Worcester born, B-town indie kids Peace released their third album ‘Kindness is the New Rock and Roll’ in 2018 which tackled mental health in the same style. First single ‘From under liquid glass’ affirms some depressive and anxious emotions by simply shouting “and I’m left alone in my big f**king mental head” in a way that indicates there’s no other clever way to say this. Again, from an independent label. 

Or look at Wolf Alice’s not-so-hard-to-figure-out song title ‘Yuk Foo’. It’s a furious explosion of a track that feels like lead singer Ellie Rowsell is delivering a big yuk foo to her experiences of societal standards on feminine sexuality. Again, from an independent label (Dirty Hit). 

It’s this change in the style and delivery of recent music which is why we are seeing a revival in independent labels. Only independents can facilitate such a quick turnover in style. Criticism aside, a major record label is a massive sprawling monster of a corporation and they are very set in their ways. In terms of indie music, they seem to have established certain formulas ‘that work’.  The fast teenage ‘anthems’ about adolescents on the pull down the clubs, overindulging on booze and cigs. Then the occasional ballad on the acoustic guitar about how some guy’s girl has left him. 

Don’t get me wrong this kind of model has produced some of the best music of the turn of the century. That attitude brought us Oasis and early Arctic Monkeys to name just two. However, it has been twenty years plus since some of these artists best works were released. And now in almost 2020, this type of indie music is oversaturated and cliché (See Catfish and the Bottlemen). But because of the pure massive size of these major labels nowadays and how long they have trusted in these formulas, they can’t keep up it feels to me anyway with the fierce intensity and turnover of the new musical and political climate. They’re stuck in a rut of ramblings about lacklustre relationships when the real people they’re supposed to be speaking for are screaming and protesting about things that really matter to a lot of like-minded people today. Independent’s then fill the place they’ve always adopted in the music industry; giving a platform for those trying to make original music that exceeds what came before it. Therefore, rendering the major labels irrelevant unless they can adopt these values too. However, this seems unlikely considering how it contradicts the corporate values the major labels embody.