Popping The Question: Can The Major Labels Survive In The Internet Age? (Part Two)

Click here for part one of this discussion, where I talk about the effect illegal downloading has had on the music industry and how the major labels have responded.

Illegal downloading is a problem that all record labels and artists have had to face, but what has really challenged the major labels’ dominance is the endless variety of music that is now available. Before the internet, unless you lived near a record shop that was able to order or import obscure releases, your music purchases were limited to what was available in your local HMV, Virgin, Our Price or Woolworths. It used to be a glorious moment to discover an old flop album you’d always wanted in the Woolies bargain bin, but now you can find it for 99p on eBay or discover exactly why it flopped by listening to it on Spotify.

As for foreign music, ten years ago you wouldn’t even know an artist who only had domestic success existed, unless you’d visited the country they were from. Now, as I know I have a tendency to enjoy Swedish pop, I can immerse myself in the Swedish music scene so much that I’m as likely to know who’s no.1 in their charts as in the UK. For those of us who are open-minded and understand the basics of Google (it is shocking how many people still don’t seem to!), there’s enough amazing music out there for us to discover a new favourite every day if we want to. It’s a dream world for us intrepid music explorers but for the major labels and even the larger indies it means they have to compete for our attention against not just each other, but also foreign labels and the increasing number of artists who independently fund and release their own music, cutting out the record labels altogether.

Thanks to the emergence of social network sites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and SoundCloud, which allow musicians to upload their music and promote it to an unlimited international fanbase, every artist now has the chance to become a worldwide success regardless of whether they’ve attracted the attention of a major label A&R department, or even if they’ve never tried. As these sites became popular, artists who successfully used them to build a fanbase used this achievement as a marketing tool, but it was usually quite hazy whether these artists’ major label deals came before or after their online fanbase. I noticed that all the supposed online success stories of the mid-2000s seemed to involve acts who either had the help of a major label using PR and advertising to make sure their MySpace got plenty of visits, or totally made up their online fame as a marketing ploy (we all remember Sandi Thom). Therefore I wasn’t convinced that the music industry had become as open and democratic as the media were leading us to believe.

However, the major labels’ attempts to dominate the musical elements of social network sites dramatically faltered as unsigned and independent musicians took the idea that they could be worldwide stars by simply posting their music online and ran with it. As social networking has become the most popular means of online communication, it has seeped into every step in the journey of an artist, whether they sign to a major label, release music independently or simply record music to share with their family and friends via the internet. Artists use social network sites to build up a fanbase, to communicate with that fanbase and, if they do believe that signing to a major label is their path to success, then their social network sites are their method of showcasing to those labels every reason why they should be signed.

As social network sites are open to everyone and there are examples of unsigned or independent artists accumulating millions of views/followers/friends, many people have wondered whether signing to a major label holds any benefit for an artist in this new internet era. However, the ratio of major label to independent artists in the charts has not changed, and because of this there are few unsigned artists who wouldn’t jump at the chance for a major label deal. If you’re wondering why this is, perhaps you should take a look at the YouTube homepage. While anyone can upload a video to the site (so far so democratic), only those who can afford it can pay for their video to be featured or advertised on the homepage or on relevant videos, which is proven to generate a large number of views. And recently Universal and Sony, the two largest major labels, have taken their control over YouTube (which now sits alongside TV and radio as the most common means of discovering new music) to a new extreme by founding Vevo, YouTube’s partner for music content.

Through their partnership with YouTube, Universal and Sony are able to ensure that any music video they want to promote is put in front of exactly the people they want to promote it to. Next to any Vevo video (see screengrab above), where you once saw a selection of videos popular with people who watched that video, you will now see a playlist of Vevo videos, which are all of course Sony or Universal acts. YouTube have also changed their most viewed music video chart to one which I can only deduce is completely made up. While the top 100 most commented and most liked video charts (which used to be almost identical to the most viewed chart) show a mixture of official videos, fan-made montage videos and performance videos by unknown acts we’ve come to know as “YouTube stars”, you will only see official videos by the world’s biggest artists on the new and certainly not improved YouTube most viewed chart. What used to be my favourite way of discovering new unknown talent has now been removed, and for those unknown artists their avenue for reaching a huge captive audience has been blocked.

As anyone who has spent time browsing YouTube cover videos will know, there’s a strong and inspiringly supportive community of artists promoting their music through the site. Due to the changes made since YouTube partnered with the major labels via Vevo, these artists no longer have the opportunity to top the most viewed chart or to compete with the Katy Perrys and Justin Biebers of the world in viewing figures. The explanation for this is that the major labels got jealous and blocked it. And this is why the major labels won’t be losing their grip over the charts any time soon, whether you mean the CD sales charts, the iTunes chart or the YouTube chart. The independent artists who depend on the internet for their success will always be a step ahead in finding the next way to reach new audiences, but major labels are always on their tails chopping off their figurative fingers every time they reach for the success that they, especially in tough economic times, also depend on to survive. Only a lucky few (including, of course, Justin Bieber) manage to escape with five fingers intact, and those usually end up rewarded with a major label contract. If you can’t beat them, join them – or in this case, sign them!

While the internet has given independent and unsigned artists a new way to find fans and make a successful career out of music, every benefit they get is also received by major label artists, and usually they use their money and influence to get ten times more of it. It’s unfair, but it’s nothing new. Any artist can upload their music online, just like any artist can send a demo to a gig promoter, a radio station or a TV booker, but independent artists don’t have the same relationships with those gate-keepers as major labels do. It would be fantastic if regulatory measures could be put in to prevent the majors from dominating social network sites, but no such measures are in place to make sure independent artists get played on the radio, given support slots on big tours or advertised on TV, so it’s idealistic to expect this new avenue of promotion to be any fairer.

However, what the internet does bring is scale. You could tour for ten years and not play to a million people, but with clever marketing you could have a million YouTube hits overnight. And the majors don’t have the monopoly on cleverness, so if you’re an independent artist don’t be disheartened, just get those brain cogs turning and go for it!


  1. Sandi Thom reverted to an independant label (her own)after being dropped by Sony. The large advance and publicity machine plus the untold thousands and thousands of pounds paid out by Sony on advertising her product when she was signed to the label have made sure that on a much smaller scale she is surviving in the business. Nowadays Thom is an astute business woman in as much that she now utilises her famous boyfriends contacts and associates plus his audience to advance her own career after it so dramatically declined.
    Great Article! your observations are spot on!

  2. @Amy I think it says more about Sandi Thoms heavy reliance on PR companies and Internet social networking more than her music because despite massive exposure through the medium that shot her to fame and is supposed to help independant artists, the Internet was also a big player in her exposure and downfall and at times outright ridicule.

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