Is this the end of the Record Label? An industry that’s reclaiming the underground and independence

We live in a hyper-speed world where everything changes so quickly. So much so that it is impossible to even keep up with real-world events, let alone the pace at which technology evolves. As soon as we begin to find our feet with any one thing, something new presents itself. Technology dictates a massive part of the progression and trending of music; new portals emerge providing multiple ways of promoting music, including the new hot topic in the music business, NFTs, as well as the metaverse bringing VR events to the forefront of music promotion and entertainment.

Sometimes it’s a community spirit and raw authentic approach that drives the music forward. A less marketed underground approach that’s creating a gulf between electronic music genres and the audiences of such genres. Something that appeals to a younger generation and brings a touch of the past to the present with purpose. A big part of being involved in music projects and record labels is research and understanding what is popular and why. Whilst we all love certain styles of music, as a preference, we also have to look at the bigger picture of what is going on and try to make sense of it. Maybe this is a traditional way of thinking about music releases like the classic label business model where A&R is key, but it’s also survival in an ever-changing, fast-paced world.

We are beginning to see independent artists and underground outfits excelling at hyper speed with visible music support in the hundreds to thousands, on digital releases, yet often the more familiar music brands or labels are struggling at the same time. It’s something that is evident with certain genres of music whereas urban-based music like Drum & Bass, Hip-Hop, Electro, House music, and Detroit-style techno hit positive highs. Could this be purely accredited to youth culture, or could it be other factors like the mass promotional giveaways in specific genres, over-marketed music losing its appeal, or a fan base that supports DJs more than the creators of the music?  

Is there a shift in audience age groups for some genres of electronic music, mainly appealing to an older generation of clubbers who were there in the 90s plus, or do some audiences mature into specific genres of music at a later date and leave the energy fuelled behind for the younger generation? DJs like Carl Cox are exceptions. He is a huge artist that has maintained both a younger and older fanbase demographic. He is a universally well-liked artist and a DJ’s DJ. Then the yearly DJ Mag polls (that we all know and love) are also showing a massive shift in DJ trends and music genres. A move away from sounds that were huge in the 90s and 00s such as Trance and Progressive House. If we ignore the more EDM-based artists for the sake of this article, there has certainly been a shift in the DJs that are supported and the sounds they push. There are always going to be loyal fans regardless, but those fans or people involved in the scene don’t necessarily have any understanding of the numbers or how certain artists or other genres are evolving.

I’ve personally spent a lot of time around the education sector with students studying music production and music business, between the ages of 20 and 30. If you asked any of the students what electronic artists/music they liked, apart from names like The Chemical Brothers and Orbital, I wasn’t very familiar with any of the others they mentioned, so maybe I’m the one out of touch, or they don’t really connect with what I’m familiar with. I do consider myself to have a broad taste in electronic music both new, and old, and I spend a lot of time digging for new music. However, it would appear today that Drum & Bass, Hip Hop, Trap, and Breaks are common go-to genres around this age group. 

Taking advice from some companies that attract huge numbers of music streams, you begin to understand that streaming portals play a big part, as it is hugely accessible. Lots of music fans use them and are relatively cheap subscription models. However, they are not really the best platforms for listening to tracks in a single format, especially straight 4/4 DJ-originated music. The bigger stream-based portals/labels are also less concerned with these styles of music as they focus on what favours bigger numbers, algorithms, radio versions, and crossover. Yet, that doesn’t account for some underground music on portals like Bandcamp, achieving hundreds to thousands of supporters compared to some known labels/acts with lower supporters. It doesn’t make a lot of sense and maybe it could be accredited the known label/artist music is purchased elsewhere such as Beatport, but then we would see these music titles/labels topping the charts on these portals over and over.

In 2019 I and Enrico Ponti achieved Traxsource techno no 1, with our EP titled Fascinated / Surreal Deal (Radiate), whilst also achieving high charting in the same genre via Beatport. Whilst it was great to visibly achieve a number one amongst other great labels/artists, the sales numbers were in the region on 85 copies across both stores combined. This might be quite surprising from an outside perspective, but it is very common and it’s consistently moving to lower numbers, this was a continued theme on our other label/artist releases that also achieved number one. 

Yet, on Bandcamp, it’s very visible how many people support/buy something. Bandcamp lists the majority of the supporters/purchasers on its website.

You can find unknown abstract modular projects like – HAKUNA KKULALA – Afro Track project (https://hakunakulala.bandcamp.com/album/the-afrorack) with over 500 downloads

or –

Future Retro – FR005 drum & bass project (https://futureretrolondon.bandcamp.com/album/fr005) with similar support numbers and there are examples on Bandcamp with double or triple figures compared to our more familiar name labels, projects, and genres that are visibly more known. Another example – (https://haircutsformen.bandcamp.com/album/possessions-revised-edition

It is very intriguing and a trend that many of us would love to better understand for the good of what we all do. Some say that it is a cultural thing, whereas certain genres of electronic music have a better heritage and are more authentic, as opposed to genres that are derivatives of them, the originators historically stamped. This can be said for House music in its original format; it is still huge in terms of numbers and heavily supported. Something else we see is that genre-specific music fan bases are often healthily supporters of label merch like T-shirts, and DJ events, as opposed to music purchases, as the DJs provide most of the music they like to listen to. 

Whilst some genres like Progressive House are hyper-played, it’s not purchased by DJs in healthy amounts compared to some other genres. This might point to too many promos circulating which causes the music to become devalued by nature. Some artists will favour promo over actual sales and financial support. I personally receive up to 300 music promos in one week, and I’m sure it’s tenfold with selected big-name DJs. We are starting to see artists focus less on the specific electronic genres in order to pursue other areas of music. This is great for music diversity but also about survival in a saturated marketplace. From a label perspective, it’s something I have to consider a lot, as diversity is key to surviving and also maintaining an exciting music domain for all.   

I recently spoke with Renaat Vandepapeliere who is the CEO and found of the iconic R&S Records. When you think of R&S Records it is hard not to think of the classic sounds of CJ Bolland, Jam & Spoon, Aphex Twin, and Joey Beltram. Whilst the artists mentioned above are obvious hitters, the label has become far more multi-genre over the years along with labels including Warp Records and Mute. The vision behind R&S Records has been incomparable whilst taking sound design to the extreme, diversity in art and culture, a no holds barred approach to releasing music, and supporting artistic output uniquely.

Whilst speaking with Renaat I asked if the diversity of the label was planned, and how does the label differ from modern-day techno-centric labels?

Renaat answered, “I do not understand what techno is in the modern-day, what is it now? It is hard to explain. Some have found a path, a sound, big breakdowns, and big drum rolls and they follow that path, but it becomes repetitive. Sometimes it is like a movie we have seen 400 times over and again, but maybe this is something that people want and that is ok. For me, I never wanted this for R&S records, I would personally get bored and lose energy for the label. The label carries the slogan “In order to Dance”, but you can dance to anything, jazz music you can dance to as well, it’s just different to say techno.” 

Renaat continued, “I don’t consider R&S an experimental Label, I have always been willing to take risks and I look for energy in music. I keep reverting to Drum & Bass and Hip-hop music because now it’s where I find the most energy.  If I like something and believe in it, I will do it and give it everything, I am not an accounting-type person. Anyone now can be a label and release another techno or club record, there is nothing unique in that anymore.”

I asked Renaat if the diverse outlook of signing music was ever met with any resistance over the years? Renaat answered, “yes, of course when I first signed and released Aphex Twin, everyone thought I was crazy and expected me to continue with only the bigger club bangers. The first Aphex Twin track we released only sold 20 copies in the first year, but we continued. Artists like Aphex Twin and Jeremey Blake are the type of artists that only come around once every 10 years.  I don’t overthink the releases, I say ok let’s do this and let the public decide if they like it. Many think you can manipulate music popularity, but you can’t.”

We moved on to talk about the impact of Bandcamp on the electronic music scene,

Bandcamp came around at just the right time for independents. For me, it’s like I have a record shop that I can access in my own home. You find the most amazing music on Bandcamp, everything from techno to jazz, pop, disco, it’s got everything. I spend hours on Bandcamp buying and collecting music, it’s the portal where true music fans and collectors will go. We noticed during the pandemic that people were listening more on Bandcamp and we shouldn’t underestimate the power of people listening. This has also continued since the pandemic and helping indies grow.”

Renaat went on to talk about the importance of DJs breaking new music in clubs…

DJs are 100 % important to music releases, does a big DJ playing your record now have the same impact as the past, no, this has gone but DJs are important. I don’t want to go to clubs as much anymore, I think it’s become too condensed with too many DJs at the big festivals and major clubs. Everybody is rushed into fitting in as many big records as they can within two hours. There is also a tourist element to the big clubs and festivals but it’s a balance, but if this is what people want, then this is what it is.

I think what needs to happen is smaller venues and clubs start again with fewer DJs and the music can be worked better for a local audience. DJs play much longer sets and understand the people listening and dancing better. New music can be broken better under these conditions and more room for new artists. If this were to happen, I would go out to clubs again and it would help underground music grow further.”

“Sven Vath, CJ Bolland, Speedy J, they weren’t as well-known in the early ’90s like now, you had to be willing to discover. If we can be prepared to discover then the scene will become alive again.

Renaat Vandepapeliere

I went on to speak with Renaat about release cycles and whether the is a lack of artist nurturing and if artists now become suppressed. Renaat answered,

What is a release cycle now, 10 days then move on to the next? Artists are feeling suppressed because they can’t see a future, we just had a pandemic, and then also their music is in this 10-day release cycle. 100% there is a lack of artist development and nurturing right now. When you build a house, you have to take care of it and maintain it, if you have a dog you are committed to raising the dog and taking care of the dog. Music is the same, artists are the same you need to work with them and not try to force them to be something they are not. Then, also some artists want to be famous and successful overnight, as quickly as possible. If we look at the most successful artists, it took them many years of hard work and adversity.

“I would recommend to any young artist or label to watch documentaries about successful musicians and others to try to understand what it has taken them and to take inspiration from them. Also, not all music recorded should be considered ready for release, some music should be curated by the label or artists as not suitable and more selective of what is final. This is also lacking in modern music, some of the best songwriters in the world do this and song writing isn’t an easy thing to master. Labels and artists can consider this with their output.”

My final question for Renaat; what do you think it takes for a label to sustain longevity and will we be talking about another R&S Records in 20 years?

Renaat answered, “A serious label invests in their artists, invests time with them and creates long term plans alongside them. All the longstanding labels have done this and continue to, you mentioned warp records, some of their artists have been there since the label started. This is becoming rare but is important that the label and artists grow together with understanding. It’s difficult for new labels when we have stream royalties that even with 1 million streams don’t amount to much, but 100% there will be more stories like R&S records, or another Depeche Mode, it might not be in the same way we have done things, but it can and will happen. Maybe this will happen via NFT, I don’t know but if you have the drive and will to do it, it can happen and there is a way.

As well as speaking with Renaat, I also had the opportunity to speak with an absolute stalwart of the electronic music scene, Robert Babicz. He is an artist that has redefined the boundaries of electronic music since the early 1990s. His unique sound/vision, emotion, artistry, and spirituality encompass something special. His early introduction was under the moniker of Rob Acid, a creative output that took the 303 morphed sound to the global stage and followed a string of crafted releases. He’s, featured on the who’s who of electronic music imprints over many years, is much a music fan and DJ favourite, hosts his label Babiczstyle, and is an audio/studio mastering mastermind.

I asked Robert about his experience of self-releasing music as opposed to label releases and whether it had been a positive experience. Robert answered, “I think times changed a lot, and we are now in a phase where labels are not so important anymore. When you go on Spotify the music is not listed by labels, it’s listed by artists. So, nobody cares how you release the music, only if you can make people interested in your music. My tip for every newcomer these days is to create their own label and maybe only work with a label if they really help you.”

There is the idea that releasing via certain portals or imprints will increase an artist’s touring opportunity. I asked Robert about his thoughts on this… “To be honest, I don’t know if this really makes any difference. For me, it’s only important to give the people access to my music, and share my love.”

We went on to speak about artists diversifying from their well know the sound. Robert went on to say, “Ohh babiczstyle is all about exploring emotions and sounds, it would be super mega sad if I would do only one style. I am way too curious and want to learn so much. And btw I love any kind of music with a lot of bass!”

My final conversation with Robert was around NFTs, as they are something that is going to impact many across the electronic music scene… “It’s a really new way to release music, I keep myself in the loop with every new technology of course. So, I would say, yes, there is more to come.”

Music seems to be becoming less about brands and less genre-specific again. There is a growing pool of DJs who will choose to discover, push the boundaries, buy music, and support labels, rather than receive promos. I also fall into that category, and would much prefer to source music on Bandcamp, via NFT, or other means, than receive overhyped promos via email. More music fans are continuing to seek out the unknown, listening to more, rather than sticking to the familiar and helping independent underground music growth. Limited editions via the new NFT portals are becoming exciting, and more accessible, aiding discovery, and offering longer-term value for both music fans and creators.

“I think times changed a lot, and we are now in a phase where labels are not so important anymore

Robert Babicz

The NFT Portals like Blockparty, RCRDSHP, Pianity, Voice, Mintsongs (and there’s more on route) are providing independent artists and labels a platform for better sustainability and without being as pigeonholed. Like Bandcamp, the NFT portals show the number of editions purchased, and the amounts paid. Transparency is very useful information for all involved. These methods of outputting music favour a more realistic output for independents with concrete evidence of support. Is NFT the new indie underground?

It’s evident that more known artists/labels are taking onboard the approach of independents that prosper on the likes of Bandcamp. A focus on building a firm fan base and genuine support with direct links to music supporters. Labels like R&S are shining examples of this longevity approach without being genre based or always a main media focal point. Many are starting their own unique subscription models, NFT only, limited releases, and other out-of-the-box thinking approaches. Again, this is becoming more visible with Drum & Bass artists like DJ Rap who has her own subscription model, NFT releases as well limited vinyl via an independent online store. Whilst there is a fear that focusing less on the familiar methods will decrease exposure, it’s questionable what that exposure equals and who benefits from it? In the main it’s evidently not the artists!

The former “The Prodigy” member, Leeroy Thornhill is part of a new platform called “Metabeats”, Metabeats is a project that comprises 54 producers and releases unique 1 of 1 piece of music via NFT. Their message is about reclaiming and bringing the electronic music scene back to its origins and owners. Each week I attend online sessions with new portal developers who are really pushing for new avenues that will shift the underground electronic domain in a positive way. 

Part of the music genre shifts we are seeing could also be accredited to many of the DJs that are pushing to become a multi-music output. This is fantastic for electronic music listening, creativity, and promoting the music as an art form, rather than blindly following a genre. There are always new trends that develop outside of the main scope of visibility. Trap music was an example of this and how it become popular among independent young artists following growing from SoundCloud uploads or using other methods of social media.

Apart from the younger generation, there is an increase in more music fans of different ages interested in undergrounds gigs, where a warehouse fitting is more appealing than a pre-designed club or festival. Besides the obvious big sell-out festivals, we have seen a number of smaller festivals get cancelled or struggle to get the ticket numbers over recent weeks. This is of course a reflection of the current economy but also a reflection of what people want to support. There is no better time to lead people down a choice route than when things become about making a real choice due to financial constraints. VR events might seem a novelty but, how many younger people will embrace them over expensive clubbing events?

There have been many hints at shifts in the electronic music scene for years, but maybe without as much direct action or visibility, as we are seeing now. It certainly feels (as much as it might seem a bit fragmented right now) that it will be a lot healthier for our music pallets going forward, and exciting new paths for entertainment. A domain where music fans and what they want to support has become more important than marketing. There could be a great future for the new generation of music artists. One where music producers create music with the word “longevity” in mind when in their own creative space. 


About the Author

Blue Amazon requires little introduction whilst mustering many accolades in music production that dates back to the early '90s to the present day.