13 March 2007

Record Labels

In The New York Times today there is a very brief announcement that Starbucks, which has made something of a business of purveying music performed by musicians on various record labels, plans to start its own label.

"New Label for Starbucks

Starbucks, which has been trying to market cultural cachet with the same might it does coffee, is finally starting its own record label. The coffee chain’s past efforts to refashion itself as musical tastemaker have included distributing albums from major-label stars like Norah Jones and, more recently, the first album from a previously little-known independent-label band, Low Stars. But now, under a deal with the existing label Concord Records, Starbucks will sign its own artists, with a first release anticipated before the end of the year. The label, Hear Music, is expected to pursue both new and established performers. The two partners scored big once before: Starbucks and Concord released Ray Charles’s final new CD, “Genius Loves Company,” which has sold more than 5.5 million copies worldwide. JEFF LEEDS"

This seems to me to be a mistake - they should really stick to making coffee; that said, I wonder who would sign with such a label. (After all, Ray is dead.) What identity do they anticipate establishing? I'm sure they have a plan, but it does not seem obvious to me. I think that whatever quirkiness they had going for then until now will become homogenized. This leads me to wonder about record labels more generally. I am listening to a CD at the moment by violinist Jenny Scheinman on Cryptogramophone. That may seem an extreme case, but most of the musicians I listen to record for off-beat, usually specialized labels. Paul Motian on ECM and Winter & Winter; Lucinda Williams on Lost Highway; Los Lobos on Hollywood; Tom Waits on Anti; Buddy & Julie Miller on New West; Wilco on Nonesuch; and so forth. And then, of course there are the intrepid types like Dave Holland or Dave Douglas who have launched their own labels - Dare2 Records and Greenleaf Music respectively.

So, the first question is, why would Starbucks think it needs to start a new label? The musicians I've listed are just a small sampling of the sorts of folks the coffee-makers could peddle to caffeine fiends. Which of these folks (or others resembling them) will sign with the generic "Hear"? The second question is why would someone like Waits, who has had "major label" contracts in the past, sign with someone like Anti? Finally, why would Douglas and Holland take the plunge and start their own labels? Neither, I suspect, had any trouble persuading their former labels to let them do pretty much as they pleased musically. I think this whole topic is fascinating, in part because there is an imperfect analogy to Photography Agencies. I know little about the political economy of either labels or agencies, but I always have assumed that there is a real trade-off between creative control and commercial viability.

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