Curation vs Commercialization

So, I just finished a week’s worth of interviews in Nashville, TN, with folks in the music industry. It was fascinating for me, and I learned a ton about how the record industry works from many of the good folks who work there: in radio, in A&R, creative and so on.

And one of the questions I asked almost everyone I met was: what are you doing, working in the record industry right now? I asked the same question of folks at majors that I did of folks at independent labels.

My interviewees offered a really interesting take on the record industry right now. Many explained that record labels are even more important now than they ever were because there is so much music out there — too much for any person to reasonably listen to — and that record labels play a curatorial role in the quest for the next great song.

As anyone who studies the challenges of the “information society” will tell you — the problem now isn’t necessarily a lack of information, but too much of it. And the challenge now is how to help people wade through the information they uncover to find the information they need. The commercials for Bing emphasize this over and over again, as they try to distance themselves from Google.

These record label professionals expressed a similar role for labels: how would you know what is good or bad, if not for the curatorial role of record labels, deciding which songs are recorded, which bands are signed and which albums are produced?

Its interesting, but its missing one important historical dimension: record labels started not to produce the best music they could, but to produce the most popular music they could. The idea was not to create a cultural standard of musical worth, but to make recordings that they could sell.

The “brand” of a record label speaks to a certain kind of product that they make. Sub-pop is different from numero group is different from EMI. And while they all claim a kind of curatorial relationship between themselves and their products, one of the obstacles in the future of the record industry may lie in its over-inflated sense of itself as a curatorial venture rather than the recognition that its only ever been a commercial one.

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