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Lily Allen: ‘Record labels are terrified of taking risks’ – Does she have a point?

According to Lily Allen, the record label originality meter is at an all time low. Most of the major labels are all but, refusing to stray off the beaten track. Looking at things generally, I can understand the sentiment but I do have one problem with her argument. Major labels are not in the business of making music, they are in the business of making money through music; and anyone who thinks otherwise is basking in the shade of naivety.

The creative end of the industry is there to be the risk takers. Creating new sounds and starting new movements (see fads) that we consumers will either get hooked on beyond all realms of sanity (One Direction), or go cold turkey when it all comes tumbling down (Vanilla Ice?…[snigger]). Trends are not set in boardrooms and corner offices. These are the places where the bean counter’s bark and the accountant’s bite reign supreme. Where the shareholders and investors are taken care of, and so they should be.

Being edgy and alternative is how up and coming artists stand out from the crowd. It is what propels them to the front of the major label queue. Talent of any form in any walk of life will always get noticed by those that seek it out. But that talent then has to be utilised and the new sound maximised. That talent has to be turned in to a money maker and for that to happen, that talent has to be brought to the attention of as many consumers as possible. Which means targeting as big a demographic as possible. Which means further manipulation of that talents sound. Which means compromise.

There is very little room for risk. Risk could mean alienating a new audience. Risk could mean losing the fans that were so hard to gain in the first place. Risk could mean less coverage by the media. Risk could mean far too few units being sold. Our banking systems were once given a virtual free reign and look at the outcome. Thousands of people have jobs and careers because of the way the industry works so why would a mogul chance that, and his own livelihood based on a risk. Risk can be saved for tracks seven, eight and nine of the album and if one of them gains favour so be it.

If an artist has built up a following and their sound is either current or the next big thing then any initial risk involved with their debut, is greatly diminished. There are a million and one examples of artists (particularly ‘urban‘ ones) making themselves household names by forcing what was once underground into mainstream consciousness. If a global superstar decides to change their sound the risk is minimal, as long as the change isn’t too drastic. Although there are one or two who have bucked that trend (Pink being the best example).

Don’t let Beyoncé fool you. Her plan was genius, and I have already stated my beliefs on the coming changes due to her latest long player. But don’t for one minute think that there was any risk involved with it. As long as the music was of a high standard (which it was) she was always going to sell plenty of records regardless of her marketing strategy (or lack of it). She has elevated herself to a position where ‘risk’ is no longer a factor. Her husband is in a similar position if he so chose to, and there are a few others who are so high up the musical food chain that risk, is not a consideration. Those in the lower echelons however, have no such luxury unless they possibly find themselves without a label to call home if that risk doesn’t pay off.

Risk is relative. I will happily risk one pound on a lotto scratch card but I’m not about to buy one hundred of them. The same principle applies to record labels. They will take a risk here or there but they are not about to risk it all by giving free reign on the all important first single, or album to their entire roster. If The Notorious BIG was allowed to release his choice of debut single (‘Come On‘) I strongly suspect that he would not have become the global phenomenon he was when he left us prematurely. For the artist it is about the opening line, but for their bosses it is about the bottom line.

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