What is the purpose of a record label? The answers to this are surely varied, and the possible responses have shifted in recent years as the music industry has begun to struggle in the digital age. But if you break it down there are a few key things a record label provides an artist: money, distribution and promotion. Unless a band are independently wealthy, funds are necessary to record and manufacture albums. Money is needed for expenses like studio time, producers and equipment rentals. Distribution is still important—although it was arguably more important before digital sales overtook physical sales. Most record labels have agreements with a distribution company that works to place their albums in retail stores. Usually, the bigger the label, the more widespread their distribution. Then there’s promotion, which involves securing press coverage, radio play, video placement and general advertising. So with that in mind, the question on many bands’ minds is: Do bands really need a record label—or do they just need a new kind of label?
Former AP cover stars THE DONNAS have signed with a new company called Crowdbands, which is helping to shift the traditional record label model. The company is largely fan-based, with fans actually getting to make decisions for the band while helping fund their album production. For $25 for one year, Crowdbands allows you to help determine which songs will appear on the Donnas’ next album and where they will tour; ultimately making fans actively involved in the future of the band.
For the Donnas, Crowdbands is an attractive alternative to the conventional label system. “We’re at a point in our career where we can either continue on the level we're on now—the independent, ‘put it out yourself with no help’ method, try another major label or give up,” says guitarist ALLISON ROBERTSON. “We're not a 'give up' type of band. We've tried a major label, large and small independent labels and, most recently, released two albums on our own label. Crowdbands is something totally refreshing that is unlike anything we've ever seen before. It caught our attention because we’re a band who aren’t just appreciative of our fans, but actually motivated by their opinions.”
Asking for fan suggestions in a band’s business model isn’t exactly a new trend. As Weezer prepared their 2002 album, Maladroit, they involved their fans heavily via message boards, asking for opinions on new demos and even the album title. The process raised some disagreements between frontman Rivers Cuomo and the fans, and Cuomo later admitted that he included certain songs on the album specifically because fans asked for them. Devo took a similar approach with their latest album, Something For Everybody, and physical copies of the disc were emblazoned with a sticker that reads, “88 percent focus group approved.” Other artists offer fans a chance to vote for setlists or help determine tour routing.
What makes Crowdbands distinct from these endeavors is that the company actually helps fund and distribute albums. Although the Donnas are the company’s first and only signing, co-founder TOM SARIG says they are “close to signing a few more incredible renowned artists.” He says the goal of the company is to provide a viable platform for bands to release new music and to help solidify the bond between fans and bands. “Our hopeful, perhaps naïve, dreams include the idea that [our members] could move the needle for our artists’ careers. It’s a central tenet around the formation of this effort,” says Sarig. “We saw a problem that needed to be solved. We saw some of our favorite bands either finding themselves without a record label or without adequate label support. We set out as a hopeful construct to cure some of this chaos and make a difference and help create great culture.”
There are other platforms for artists that offer a similar model of combining a band’s label needs with the desire to build better fan relationships. MADINA LAKE’s recent EP, The Dresden Codex, was completely funded by Pledge Music, a company that, according to its website, “helps artists and bands design a specifically tailored fundraising campaign to raise money for their next release.” Madina Lake got on board early on, and the company has grown to include a huge number of active bands including Funeral For A Friend, Lovedrug and the Subways. In Madina Lake’s case, they had been dropped by Roadrunner Records and wanted a way to release new music while searching for a new label. “Record labels have essentially one tangible thing to sell, which is a CD,” says Madina Lake frontman NATHAN LEONE. “Once those sales started plummeting, they tried to grab onto other aspects like band merchandising, touring and publishing. Pledge is this new concept where the CD isn’t the only tangible item [for sale]. Bands can offer up anything they want, from handwritten lyric sheets to old guitars and drum heads. It provides a platform for people to give fans things they’d want from their favorite bands while centered around a charity—our [charity] is Keep A Breast. It essentially helps finance the production and distribution of a CD, or for us, an EP.”
Madina Lake even booked private acoustic performances in fans’ homes while touring the U.K. last year, which went a long way toward helping them generate enough money to make and distribute 2,000 physical copies of their digital EP. The band were so impressed with the process, that it almost seems crazy to learn Madina Lake will be announcing that they’ve signed with a new record label in the next two weeks. “Facilitating it was difficult,” says Leone. “There are four dudes in our band, and for this next record, it wouldn’t be feasible for us to run it all. When it came down to actually manufacturing and shipping our EP, we just couldn’t do it. We were acting as label, distributor and publicist. We were doing every bit of it. It was amazing and I don’t regret a bit of it, but at this point, if we went on tour without a label, we couldn’t possibly facilitate and manufacture all that and fulfill orders. [But] I imagine if you were willing to work hard enough and keep offering these things you could have a career straight through Pledge.”