“We’ll put you out there,” reads the logo on the Reputation’s Records. While the message is for musicians and their managers, it carries an important message for music fans and listeners as well. The idea behind the mantra symbolizes the way in which the music industry as a whole is changing, a problem reflected in the first few years of RepRecords.
RepRecords, Boston University’s first student-run record label, was started three years ago by then-freshmen Julie Hirsch and Sony Salzman. The two had experience working in the music industry in their native California, and felt that BU lacked a strong music industry base.
“We realized we weren’t ever going to be on the other side, so we decided to try the business side,” Hirsch said.
“We had absolutely no idea what we were in for,” Salzman said. “Julie and I were both freshmen and big-eyed and bushy-tailed.”
One thing RepRecords has “strived for” from the beginning, said Salzman, was more music industry education. Their initiative has led to a ripple effect, including the foundation of the Music Business & Performance Club, which hosts events such as last Thursday’s the Modernization of the Music Industry Panel.
As RepRecords grew, Salzman and Hirsch realized their initial approach was flawed. Although they founded the club to actually sign and record bands, the co-presidents wised up quickly to the fact that even on a micro-level at BU, their record label would have to move with the times.
“We’re a good little litmus test for the industry,” Hirsch said.
A good litmus test for the industry, indeed. RepRecords changed their initial goal from signing bands to simply representing them. Technological advances have driven changes in the way people produce, consume and access music.
Salzman explained, “We’ve seen an increasing number of industry-savvy bands declining to sign onto a label at the early stages of their success; instead, they often hire a producer or a manager and promote their own online presence.”
Instead of signing bands, RepRecords does just what their name and their motto suggests: they represent bands through social media and networking. Since each band has different needs, RepRecords represents them in different ways. One of their more well-established bands, Gentlemen Hall, contacted RepRecords in hopes of getting more exposure at BU. Another band, No Soap Radio, is made up of college students and sought help with social media sites.
“The bands that are rising to the top are those that are self-promoters, know exactly what they need and are willing to be flexible,” Salzman said.
Salzman and Hirsch compared their approach to a 360 deal, in which the label “does almost everything for the band,” Hirsch said.
At the Modernization of the Music Industry panel hosted by the Music Business and Performance Club, several of the speakers spoke against such deals, which they argued gives the label more control over the musician’s work.
“The only artists that make money off 360 deals are major artists… it’s a way for companies to lock down what they’ve already made,” said Caitlin Miller, one of the panelists.
Now the question facing the music industry, and by extension RepRecords, is how to make sure both labels and musicians are making money.
“Although the future is uncertain, I hope that artists will begin to see a greater cut of the profits from digital distribution because they are putting in so much money into the up front costs of production,” Salzman said, explaining that this will only happen if digital distributers such as iTunes begin making better deals with artists.
In an op/ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, journalist Eric Felten argues that the structure of iTunes and similar distributers – the promotion of singles over entire CDs – represents the closure of a circular evolution of the music industry.
“The pre-LP era was one of astonishing musical creativity,” Felten says. “The last time singles were the uncontested format for delivering recorded music, Count Basie, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman were popular artists. We should be so lucky.”
Felten goes on to point out that singles are advantageous for bands’ creativity. With the singles’ rising importance on the marketplace, artists will focus more time and money on individual tracks. This effort will theoretically allow artists to be more creative with their singles, resulting in greater sales.
Many of the panelists at the event on Thursday evening took a different tack, asserting that musicians will need to focus more on live performances to draw fans and sell merchandise there. The panelists argued that fans are becoming increasingly attached to the atmosphere and experience of live performances, and thus more willing to spend money on that while getting the recorded music for free. Alternatively, bands could put out recordings of their shows for free and charge consumers for high-quality professional recordings.
One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that major record labels need to change their business models.
“There’s no way a label is going to be obsolete, because musicians need professional guidance and support, but major labels need to starts creating more holistic contracts,” Salzman said.
As major labels begin learning what models will work best for their business, RepRecords also looks at the process as an experience with a steep learning curve. Although they had to try a variety of methods before experiencing success, RepRecords now has over 40 members and continues to grow and influence the Boston music scene.
“[We kept] banging our heads against walls until we eventually broke through. Really, that’s what it’s about: screw this, I’m just gonna do it,” Salzman said.
“Which is what the music industry is,” Hirsch agreed.