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SXSW Panel Explores Whether Musicians Still Need Record Labels

By Sarah Ventre
Published: Friday, March 18, 2016 - 4:41pm
Updated: Monday, December 4, 2023 - 12:21pm
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(Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ)
Caren Kelleher, owner of Sister Management, a company that manages bands.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is known for the thousands of musicians who perform there, but it is also a conference on the music industry. Bands, record labels, managers, journalists and others converge to talk about issues affecting the music world. They also ask big questions like, “Do musicians still need record labels?”

In a time when musicians can record, produce, release, and publicize their own music outside of a recording studio and inside a studio apartment, the answer to that question is complicated. In some instances, a band can do for itself what labels have traditionally done.

“If a label were today to come up to you, and offer you everything you’ve ever wanted in your career, would you sign to a label?” asked Patti Silverman, moderator of a panel discussion at SXSW.

Musician Ari Herstand struggled to answer the question. Herstand is not signed to a label by choice.

“I had seen so many of my favorite artists signed to labels and then get shelved, meaning they would never release their album, or they would get dropped,” Herstand said.

Doing it on your own is not a simple or job, though. Some artists who are looking to avoid a label but still want to reach beyond their own scope will assemble a team of people to work with them.

“As a manager, I view it as my job to try and build up the team around a band such that we can have more options. We can bring in a great radio person, or a press team, an agent,” said Caren Kelleher, owner of Sister Management, a company that manages bands. She said signing to a label might not be for every band or a band just might not be ready for it yet, but labels can still have something to offer.

“There’s never been a time when it’s been easier for a musician to get their music out into the world, and yet that has also made it such that there’s so much noise,” said Kelleher. “Record labels can really still bring a lot of credibility and expertise in how to break through a very noisy market.”

That is a tough thing to do, especially if you’ve never done it before. Paul Dryden works for ATO Records and also sat on the panel. He said labels have lots of experience creating a strategy and approach to outreach and connecting with fans, which is something everyone agrees is key. Herstand maintains a grassroots approach, though.

“All you need is just passionate supporters that want to help out,” Herstand said. “I had a street team when I started out. They would put up posters around town, hand out flyers, but also get on all the social sites and rally up the troops to come to the shows.”

While the issue is polarizing, Kelleher said what it really boils down to is what an artist wants, and realistically understanding the best way to get there.

“More than anything for an artist it’s incredibly important you come up with your artistic vision and your goals and make that known,” said Kelleher. “And if having artistic credibility and a voice like that is important to you, defining that early and coming up with ideas of what kind of artist you want to be when you grow up are really important.”

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