Do Major Record Labels Still Have a Brand Identity?

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by Dan Runcie

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On this week’s episode, we talked all about record labels and their brands with consumers. Many of them have strong identities (for better or worse) within the industry. But on a consumer level, they might as well be a commodity.

To break it down, I was joined by my guy, Justin Hunte, former EIC from HipHopDX. You can listen to us here or read a few highlights below.

the evolution of major labels as brands

One of my favorite ad campaigns is Coca-Cola’s “Try not to hear this.” It taps into our familiarity with sound. It plays to our senses, which plays to our cravings. It’s brilliant. I bet our friend Dr. Marcus Collins could do a full breakdown on this!

That same brilliance could also exist in music and our relationship with brands. If you see a picture of Mannie Fresh on the turntables, you immediately hear the iconic drums found in any Cash Money album. That’s the power of a record label with a strong brand.

But that dynamic has relatively less identity in the streaming and social media era. The consumer product is no longer the artist’s CD you bought for $20 at Tower RecordsThe consumer product is Spotify. And if it’s not Spotify, it’s a competing service that’s nearly identical in its features and catalog. The convenience of DSPs is great but one drawback is that it stripped away the consumer identity with the record labels that release their music.

In the early days, record labels often need a brand identity to stand out. Motown had it in the 1960s. Def Jam did too in the 1980s. Interscope definitely had it in the 1990s. And Quality Control Music did the same in the 2010s. They all owned a lane that the incumbents weren’t focused on and built it up from there. That lane built an identity with the industry and with consumers.

If I see someone wear a Dreamville hoodie, I assume that they are big fans of J. Cole and want to support the whole crew. But if I see someone wear a t-shirt from Epic Records, a label that’s 71 years old, I would assume that the person is the EVP of A&R and just got back from an industry event.

The legacy major record labels may seem indistinguishable to consumers, but their brands do matter at a B2B level. The most respected major labels in the game are more likely to attract the best artists, land the best deals, consistently deliver on market share and efficiency, and have plenty of trust with the shareholders and label group CEOs. The less-respected labels are the exact opposite.

Yet there’s a case to be made that it doesn’t matter if consumers can’t tell the major labels apart. Columbia Records makes money off of Cowboy Carter whether you know Beyonce is signed there or not. Each artist is a company in their private equity portfolio. The labels still put in work, but the artists stand in front.

The typical journey for an upstart turned major label is Interscope. In the early 90s, Jimmy Iovine built a brand on artists that other labels wouldn’t touch, like Tupac ShakurNine Inch Nails, and Snoop Dogg. But now 30 years later, Interscope is one of the most successful major record labels in the industry and is more willing to sign artists from all genres and types.

It’s harder today for newer labels to stand out as much as they did in the CD era, but it’s still possible. When EMPIRE started in 2010, it leaned into distribution, and shorter-term deals, and worked closely with SoundCloud era artists. Create Music Group started in 2015 and leaned into YouTube and social media to think more broadly about monetization in the social media era. I’m eager to see the labels built for the era of generative AI, and how they leverage technology to add value for their artists and fans.

These were just a few highlights from the episode with Justin and I. We also talked about:

– why do film studios like A24 and Neon still have consumer brands
– how labels—new and old—can lean into this
– where HYBE fits into this

Chartmetric stat of the week

The late XXXTentacion is one of the most successful artists to come from the record label, EMPIRE. It’s been over 5 years since his death in June 2018, but he’s still one of the most popular artists on Spotify. As of March 26, he has over 44M Spotify followers, #23 of all artists on the streaming service. In fact, the only two deceased/inactive artists in the Spotify top 30 most followed are Queen (17th) and XXXTentacion (30th).

He’s an artist with a complicated legacy, but the listeners are as active as ever.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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