Do Musicians Need a Record Label?

Whether these are the worst of times or the best of times, is a matter of where in the music industry you find yourself. But it can be said undoubtedly that these are indeed the most unique of times artists, producers and labels find themselves in. The lockdown has pushed artists to embrace the digital platform like never before. With revenues from live events tanking in a span of six months, artists have found that they need to innovate, to reach out to an audience over devices.

Yet, the lockdown has magnified the already simmering changes and movements in the Indian music industry. As more artists take to directly streaming their music online, music distribution sites are mushrooming to give the artist more autonomy over their own creative work. In these changing times, accelerated by an unprecedented lockdown, how does that see the evolution of the record label?

Being independent

Firstly, the A&R departments of a record label are no longer what they used to be with the Internet providing ready access to a budding artist and his reach. A&R executives no longer have to show up at bars and venues where artists perform to spot potential talent. Secondly, the newer crop of artists is increasingly coming in more aware of the technicality of their craft,
more involved in the production work and often more educated in doing much of this on their own.

In such a scenario, the entry of music distributors like the Sony-owned The Orchard, Believe or CDBaby, has meant that Indie artists can attempt to reach a wide audience, beyond the limiting space of their own personal social media accounts. This has also meant that the artists find more control over their works.

Says Ritnika Nayan, CDBaby, Director, Market Development, India,

“Companies like CD Baby like to educate artists to take control over their careers. In the past artists have relied on labels and managers to do everything and hence aren’t always clued into how things actually work. We at CD Baby like to ensure artists have all the tools to be successful so they can learn to navigate the business themselves.

We offer easy distribution, sync opportunities, Youtube monetization, promotional tools via companies like and more.

I think overall as an artist there are only perks being with a distributor. Another advantage is that CD Baby is now a part of the Downtown music family and hence we have multiple companies and options available from CD Baby to Fuga, Songtrust, Adrev, Dashgo and Downtown Music Publishing. So, no matter what needs the artist might have, we have an in-house solution for them.”

CD Baby, created by American writer-musician Derek Sivers, was one of the first companies that allowed musicians to distribute their own CDs, before getting onto the streaming service bandwagon. Brooklyn-based independent digital music distribution, publishing and licensing services company TuneCore launched its India operations a few months ago, making it its eighth international expansion. The Orchard focuses on marketing, advertising, sync licensing, video monetisation, performance rights, and more, ensuring that through all this the artist is empowered to connect with a wider audience.

One name that has risen in stature within the country purely on its direct connection with its audience has been Soulmate. From the verdant environs of Meghalaya comes a musical duo so fresh in their sound, so soulful in the melodies that Soulmate has become one of the most respected names for Blues in India.

Says one half of the duo Rudy Wallang,

“Where Soulmate is concerned, our forte has been in playing ‘live’ and touring as much as we can. This constant touring has kept us in touch with our fans and well-wishers on a one-on-one basis. As an independent artist, I feel we are free from all the hassle of being tied down for X number of years to a contract with a label. I really don’t know what it’s like to be with a label since we haven’t really worked with any so far.

And it is also up to us, as independent artists, to make sure that we work hard and push ourselves and our music as much as we can… which is not that difficult nowadays with all the online platforms that are available.”


One of India’s biggest exports to the world in recent years has been indie artist Prateek Kuhad. His is a voice like none other. And by the sheer earnestness of his vocal prowess and the heartfelt nature of his songwriting, Prateek has managed to strike a chord even with former President Barack Obama, all without a label publicising his genius.

Anirudh Voleti, who helms artist management agency Big Bad Wolf, has seen Prateek from his early years as a singer and manages him today, says,

“It’s not a question of whether one needs a label or not. Each singer’s requirement is different, and each label, marketing agency, distribution site has its place in this industry. Prateek has always had a direct connection with his audience. It (his popularity) has been so organic that by the time he made it to (President) Obama’s annual 2019 list, he had already gained so much popularity in India!”


The label backing

Although he had already become a regular on the concert circuit, interest in Prateek Kuhad’s popularity spiked with the Obama endorsement. Anirudh earnestly admits that their worlds just exploded with newer fans and career prospects following this unexpected vote of confidence. With agencies approaching them from the US and Europe, he knew that to really reach out to the American fans, Prateek would need to sign up with an American label.

“We had gotten this far on our own and it’s gratifying just how much one can do while relying on talent and the honest connection with fans. We recognised that we would need to have a local presence in America to guide us on our strategies and plans are given this massive interest in his work now,” Anirudh adds.

Only a couple of months ago, Prateek was signed on by American music giants Elektra Records, becoming the first-ever artist to be signed out of India. Elektra Records has a 70-year legacy with a roster that spans The Doors, Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Metallica, Tracy Chapman, The Prodigy, and more.

Conventionally, a record label’s role has included spotting new talent, helping in the production of the music, managing bookings for tours, studios, and media spots, marketing and distributing an artist’s releases, as well as overseeing copyright violations by others over their own licensed material. With the rise of the digital platform and the access to YouTube and streaming sites, finding new talent, production of music, and even reaching out to the media have become areas that can be done independently, with varying degrees of success though. In a country like India where film music occupies a huge part of the label’s focus, their roles are changing with the times.

Rapper Vivian Fernandes aka DIVINE was first spotted by Sony Music India while performing at Blue Frog in 2014 and signed a contract with them shortly after. His career trajectory saw him win many accolades for songs such as Yeh Mera Bombay and Mere Gully Main.

In 2019, Nas’ Mass Appeal Records and Universal Music India launched Mass Appeal India and signed Divine as part of their initiative to bring international hip-hop to India and take Indian talent to a global stage.

Vivian says,

“I wouldn’t say the functioning has changed but more it has definitely evolved more in terms of acceptance on music outside of films and giving a major push to those projects. Labels are very well placed to get music heard by the right audience with all the data and analytics that’s available through streaming, but I think there can be a focus on traditional A&R and Artist Development. That’s super important to build the Music icons of tomorrow.”

While musicians today are more clued-in to the workings of a successful song and have a better understanding of recordings, distribution and analytics, handling these parts of the work that is beyond the creative perspective is not always easy to do—especially if one is to do it on a more consistent basis.

A veteran in the business, Bhushan Kumar, Chairman and Managing Director of India’s largest music record label T-Series, believes that the label’s role is beyond managing logistics. It boils down to a soft skill, not every label has managed to capitalise on- An ear for success.

“Today many music composers have opened their own label, or artist-centric brands (not a full-fledged label). All one needs in a YouTube account these days. Where the record label comes in is in the astute decision-making of selecting what song has the potential to draw in an audience and what doesn’t. Every music director can have a lucky draw and see that if they have 20 songs on hand, at least one will be a hit. But 19 others will flop.

I have worked with so many generations of musicians for 22 years, I have seen how musicians can get too involved in their work, and rightly so because that is their process. But sometimes it becomes hard for them to see the market value just as they can see the artistic value. When a composer makes a song with a lyricist, he thinks it’ll be amazing.

Artists, you see, can get possessive of their work. Yet, somebody should have the ability to choose the song that’ll make the inroad with the audience. By the grace of God and my father, I’ve had the good fortune in doing so,” says Bhushan.

With up to a 35% share of the Indian music market, T-Series also owns and operates the most-viewed and most-subscribed channel on YouTube, with over 164 million subscribers and 132 billion views as of November 2020 (according to analytics site Social Blade).

Changing roles

Not everyone is on-board with the figures and analytics that determine the success of a song. Fundamentally, how a label views a song as successful (in terms of economics and popular appeal) and how an artist views a song as successful (musically and emotionally) are often tangential.

Rudy says,

“Just look at the way music is being manufactured and shoved down peoples ‘throats, eyes and ears’ to feed the multitudes of young people who don’t really have the time to sit down and listen to a whole album because the world is moving too fast for them and they’re afraid they’ll miss the bus… which wasn’t really there in the first place! If record labels trust an artist, the least they can do is to support them by first, getting them studio time (and paying the studio) so that the band can make a good sounding record. Then of course, the marketing and supporting tours. Most musicians and bands, as we know from a long time, haven’t really earned their keep by recording albums. Their money has come in from constant touring and playing ‘Live’ all over the place.”

If the ideological discrepancy affects artists like Rudy then apart from going independent, what all does it take for an artist to make it big in India today?

Adds Ritnika,

“A good marketing plan! I don’t think you need a label to get big in India. You just need to have a good business and marketing plan. Most artists like to think only short term. They want their music out right away, which is a problem. You must plan for the future, release music in a systematic way with a proper marketing plan.”

After finding fame solely based on his talent, DIVINE is now associated with a major label that has great potential to take his work to every corner of the world. Despite that, Vivian has set up his own label Gully Gang Entertainment to source and mentor local hip-hop talent.

“Back in 2018, we (my manager Chaitanya Kataria and I) saw that the movement was really taking shape in a cultural context but also saw the shortcomings in the industry, especially from an artist’s perspective. There wasn’t really much of a structured company/advisory for hip-hop artists so we had the vision to build an ecosystem of rappers, producers, writers, filmmakers, and designers who could work together to put out music and art. That eventually took shape of the label, production house and apparel company under the banner of Gully Gang Entertainment.”

With the world of music changing ever so rapidly, record labels too have found the need to reprioritise their attention and rework their strategies for success and revenue. Bhushan has seen the label move its success yardstick from sales of cassettes and CDs to now streaming and virtual viewership.

He says,

“Our responsibilities remain the same but how we optimise our music has changed. We will continue to keep with the times and track various evolving platforms to ensure the widest possible audience listens to our music. At the same time, we are custodians of a massive catalogue of music. By way of re-releasing albums, remixes, entering decisive creative partnerships where music can be used and ensuring that artists get their dues by way of tracking licensing infringements, etc., we are keeping their music alive even as consumptions trends have changed.”

Text by Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

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