Learning from labels

Learning_from_las_vegas Why can’t brands be more like bands…or at least labels?

This is the last day of Music Week here and at Knowledge Problem.  My "guest artist" has been John Galvin, a friend from Boston.  John and I have been emailing back and forth, and a couple of days ago, in a longer message, he talked about about one way he keeps track of music.

[M]ore than, I think, at any time in the past, LABELS are fine ways of keeping up on music these days.  […]  Pick the label that covers music you like, get all the bands from the label, and you’re doing OK in terms of covering a certain slice of music.  Labels [serve] as music consultants, [we] pay to "cover the waterfront" ….

Interesting!  With a plenitude of musical choices, we are forced one level up the production hierarchy.  We go looking not for individual acts/artists/bands/projects but for the "long tail" labels that represent them.  (John mentions several including Kill Rock Stars, Blood Shot Records, Matador Records and Secretly Canadian.  Lynne Kiesling at KP mentions Polyvinyl, Kitchenware Records, and Merge Records.) The number of these studios is roughly equal, I expect, to the number of acts/artists that existed 15 years ago.  So we stay about even in our search costs.  (Of course, we sacrifice acuity for coverage, but in a culture as innovative and profuse as our own, it’s a good, or at least a necessary, bargain.)

These labels are acting as aggregators and editors.  They act a little like favorite radio stations.  We choose them to do the choosing for us, and a stream of new music pours through our lives as a consequence.  People like me will still people like John but people like John will be well served by Kill Rock Stars.  (My place in the hierarchy of knowledge is probably one of the magazines that John suggested this week, Magnet, perhaps.  Or maybe I’m kidding myself.  Perhaps Blender or Rolling Stone is more my speed.  There are levels higher than this.  I think the system scales right up to American Idol, and God help you if this is your cultural conduit.  Talk about a Knowledge Problem.) 

I found myself thinking whether brands could be more like Blood Shot Records.  The trouble with brands is that they are still much too static and too broad.  Most of them are still caught in a  mass marketing game.  They are trying to be "one thing to many markets" and this becomes increasingly implausible as the markets splinter ever more finely.  Some  brands do stream with design novelty.  But this is devoted mostly to positioning tags and tactics: "good source of whole grain," "helps lower cholesterol," "dipped in peanut butter coating and bursting with peanuts."

One way for the brand to speak to long tail markets is to open themselves up to the product and the stylistic innovation of lots of  little teams.  These might be in-house "skunk work" teams of innovators.  Or, in an ambitious act of cocreation, they might be teams of consumers working feverishly in suburbs around the country.  The brand would work a little like Blood Shot Records which, I assume, does not direct the creative efforts or outcomes of the bands they represent.  They merely corral them, give them the blessing and the distribution, of the Blood Shot brand, and send them out into the world.

The label strategy would have the advantage of allowing the brand to survey a vast amount of innovation and, on a just-in-time basis, choose the formula and look that works best for the market and the moment.  The brand remains stationary but a river runs through it. 

There was an influential book some years ago called "Learning from Las Vegas" in which Robert Venturi argued that architects could learn something from the great sprawling iconographies of a gambling town in the middle of the desert.  I’m wondering whether marketers couldn’t learn something from another of the far margins of capitalism.  Marginal markets have something to teach mainstreams one, because, well, they have seen the future, and it’s time we learned to see with their blood shot eyes. 


Galvin, John.  Personal Communication.  April 5, 2006. 

Kiesling, Lynne.  Has the death of the music label started?  Knowledge Problem.  April 3, 2006. here.

Venturi, Robert, Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown.  1972/1977.  Learning from Las Vegas.  Revised edition.  Cambridge: MIT Press.  available here.

5 thoughts on “Learning from labels

  1. Peter

    I have used this method for world music (eg, the Luaka Bop label), and, of course, small book publishers have been understood this way by book buyers for a century or more. It’s how the Book-of-the-Month club and Oprah both work.

    For music, can I recommend Pandora (www.pandora.com), a music referral service, which uses the audio characteristics of songs (tone, pitch, speed, rhythm, instrumentation, etc) to link songs and artists to one another. I’ve only tried it for jazz, but it was very good there, indeed much better than listener-referrals (as in Amazon).

  2. Grant

    Peter, thanks! I don’t know it seems to be Book of the Month club is different from Kill Rock Stars. I think I might use the former for convenience and some selection, but really I believe I can do this sort of thing myself. In the case of KRS, I understand that there is no hope that I could survey the possibilities in the new music witihout quitting my job and taking up that task full time. Thanks for the Pandora ref. Best, Grant

  3. Matt

    That’s because you choose to focus your energy on books more than the typical BoMC member naturally would. If you ignored books and focused all that time and headspace on tracking the music world, you’d be just as well-informed there.

    Not that I would ever _suggest_ such a course…but it remains _possible_.

  4. user

    yeah, matt is right… for me, it’s the opposite- the world of books is a massive, daunting juggernaut that i couldn’t hope to parse on my own. so, i turn to other sources for recommendations (in my case, the Claremont Review of Books). on the other hand, music is a world that seems small and easily digested- i have no problem finding the latest and greatest.

    so, for other brands, the question is what world can we parse on behalf of our consumer? how can we be the “reader’s digest” of, for example, the peanut butter market?

  5. Ashish Banerjee

    Grant, as usual, you’re on the money.

    If I may piggyback a bit and submit that in addition to the label, DJs are also brands now, and serve as filters for music across bands.

    In our youth, we thought of Floyd, Tull, CSNY, the Stones, the Dead etc. as bands-as-brands. In today’s mix ‘n’ match world of club/dance music, the individual artist or band has ceded prominence to the Oakenfolds, van Dyks, Martinezes, etc. Dmitri from Paris was possibly the first of the lot.

    And before that, Weather Report and Steely Dan pioneered the concept of changing the mix of musicians around a core duo, to create a distinctive “branded” sound (as opposed to a constant 4-some/5-some of a band as it was widely understood).


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