We hear it every day: the music industry is changing as a whole. Gone are the days when an artist could sign to a major label and gross millions of dollars by selling millions of albums. The role of major labels is steadily diminishing as more indies are rising to the top, and even more artists are making a living without a record deal at all. So what does this mean for record labels? For Brian Message and the the folks at MAMA Group, Nettwerk, and ATC, this means that innovation must transpire as the old business model is no longer relevant.
In July of 2009, Radiohead manager Brian Message announced his joint venture with MAMA Group, Nettwerk, and his own company, ATC, in the launch of a new digital record label, Polyphonic Records. However, this isn’t your average indie label. Artists signed to Polyphonic are allowed to keep the copyrights to their masters, which was traditionally the label’s largest asset. In addition, Polyphonic embraces more of a 50/50 net profit business model. Rather than a label signing an artist, paying the artist an advance and recording fund, then recouping the cost with revenue generated from sales, Message’s idea is more like that of a venture capitalist: the label will invest around $300k in an artist, which the artist will use to find outside sources for recording, touring, and other revenue streams. Polyphonic acts as more of a guide with the process, allowing the artist to make all his own decisions. Then, when revenue is generated, the profits are split evenly between the artist and label.
This business model opens up a new door for both artists and labels alike. By allowing artists to control their own careers, the label is taking less of a financial risk. How does this work? This forces Polyphonic to seek out and sign only those artists with a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a potential plan for investing the money wisely . According to Message, the label practices due diligence in deciding who to sign. Using current fan bases, social networking criteria, past tours, and other revenue streams, Polyphonic gauges the artist’s prior career, as well as the potential for future success.
It’s a win-win situation for the artists as well: besides retaining ownership of all their work, artists also get to keep complete creative control in every facet of their career–something completely unheard of on a major label. Rather than being an employee of the label, conveying its image, musical typecast, and stylistic influences, having creative control allows for rich independent artistic development. This is an asset that keeps artists happy and fans supplied with the quality content they deserve and demand.
Polyphonic’s concept also has the potential to completely revamp the way consumers view the music industry. One of Message’s groundbreaking ideas was to release Radiohead’s 2007 album, In Rainbows, as a free download with the option to “donate” what they felt the music was worth. Free, legal downloads for consumers directly from the artist is still an extremely avant-garde concept. Yet according to Message, it is extremely significant: “We believe file-sharing by peer-to-peer should be legalized. The sharing of music where it is not for profit is a great thing for culture and music.” Adam Driscoll from MAMA Group agrees: “Giving an album away for free may get one million people listening to a new artist.”
Not only does giving away an album create a dependable method of generating new fans, but it forces artists to get creative generating revenue from other streams. The emphasis changes from trying to get fans to buy music so the artist can be heard, to giving listeners a reason to buy artist related products, after an established artist/fan connection has been made.
So what’s the story now? Has Polyphonic been successful yet? The truth is, there doesn’t seem to be much of anything recently published on the label. There is seemingly no news about artists making it big with Polyphonic’s financial backing and advice. Does this mean that it hasn’t been successful, or that the plan has simply been abandoned? Surely not. Even if this label has nothing to boast of yet, Polyphonic’s innovative business structure, combined with the ever-changing music industry, certainly implies that this story is still just beginning.