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The music industry obsesses over artist performance statistics – where are label performance statistics?

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Photo: Haley Powers

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by Keith Jopling

One of the watchwords in labels recently has been a focus on the ‘value proposition’ for artists, and it is easy to see why. In the streaming and social age, where independent self-releasing artists can get their music out into the world without a label, why should they sign to one at all?

Up until even recently it was clear, for both majors and for indies. Signing to a major brings money (that huge advance), status, and access to the global marketing machine. Also, it brings a history of building superstar careers for music icons. Many rising artists revere these icons and aspire to follow in their footsteps, even for just a short while. For indie labels the value proposition is similar but with a different flavour. There is perhaps an outstanding artist on the roster, or the label has a notorious brand history. It may be down to the label’s creator; the impresario as label owner is perhaps an old concept, but big personalities still hold sway and can persuade artists to come on board. While no artist or manager is likely to be convinced these days that signing to a label represents ‘making it’, the general idea is that it is more likely to improve your career chances. And it will get that all-important cut through, even if it means spending your way to success. 

However, as things change, artists are more of a known quantity at the point where the signing decision arises. Because of their vital stats – social followers, Spotify streams, TikTok success, etc. – most artists ‘break themselves’ before the label gets involved. The traditional label value proposition, as outlined above, is no longer as convincing. Already on the ‘edge of success’, artists are looking for a label partner that can take them to the next level, which might come down to a series of specific goals: a successful album project, a global ‘hit’ song, a step-up on the live circuit. 

These markers are measurable via streaming counts, charts, certifications, and ultimately, festival slots and ticket sales. Those markers of success in recordings are often used as evidence to agents and promoters that the artist has a fanbase that might want to see them perform live. The artist may be also looking for a partner to help them make the best record they can make, of course, and one would hope this development role is still part of the core label proposition these days. And yes, maybe they will have a better shot at stardom or longevity.

Here is the rub, however. While all the artist’s statistics are on the table, visible to all, how can the artist assess the label’s track record of success in achieving those goals for other artists? What is the label’s ratio of signings to success? How about retention rates? Do artists tend to re-sign to that label for a second or third project (or renew on their contract)? Do labels provide a third-party audited report based on previous outcomes? Over the record industry’s 10-decade history, we get to know about the major successes, but there is no count of the more numerous failures, dropped artists, or bungled album campaigns. 

How do labels compare to each other on these markers? How do majors stack up against indies? Or how do indies compare with artist services players and distributors? In the age of artist power, transparency and visibility of data, where is the comparison site for the artist services sector? In the data-driven streaming age, such intelligence should exist, but it still does not. 

There are services that could step into this arena. Spotify comes to mind, of course. It has all the data necessary – at least for streaming outcomes on its own platform. With APIs, most social metrics can be pulled into a more holistic artist dashboard, with a timeline element correlated to their period under contract. Spotify’s songwriters hub promised to empower songwriters to be able to compare streams not only with other songwriters, but with their royalty statements. Visibility helped there, a little. But that hub seems to have been a little forgotten about, with few content updates (the lead content on Spotify For Artists is from December 2020).  

Another, perhaps better, candidate is the industry directory ROSTR. When UTOPIA went on a spending spree in 2021, it acquired the service, but the ROSTR management team quietly bought it back in February 2023. It tracks signings by both labels and agents, and has all of those third-party social APIs (but, of course, no streaming data). It would take a good five years or so, but ROSTR would have more benchmarking capability than any other third party. 

Another alternative is the chart companies, but since these are very closely associated with labels as paymasters, it is doubtful that a performance benchmarking service is high on the list of good ideas. The chart companies have never crunched the data to produce all-time league tables by label – it would be interesting to see those results, however. These could be broken down by genre and time period. 

In commodified markets, consumers can ‘compare the market’ (largely on price, but also in terms of service and product features) for anything from insurance, to telco networks, to mortgage lenders. Since the artist services space is not highly differentiated, how else is an artist supposed to make a choice, other than to accept the biggest upfront cash bundle (but remember, it is an advance – a loan basically) or go with their instinct based on who they’ve met?

In the age of empowered artists and abundant data, it seems that the choice of who to partner with to help launch a career or take that career forward remains a risk that’s difficult to calculate. 

Keith Jopling is MIDiA's Consulting Director

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