Independent record labels thrived in the 1980s
Awhile ago, this post drew attention to a fact that many who study Hollywood quantitatively have known for awhile, but that has gone completely unnoticed in non-specialist audiences -- that the mid-1980s saw the peak of the independent film studios, 180 degrees away from the hegemony of the majors during the mid-century and again during the Millennial era.
Was there something similar in recorded music? There must have been. Pop culture had a real homespun quality to it in the '80s. Consumers were more willing to take a chance on unknowns, and the producers were more willing to give rookies the benefit of the doubt. There was no "brand loyalty" like you see to Apple these days, or IBM in the mid-century. Folks just weren't hung up on silly status contests like signaling which corporation you got your stuff from. As long as it was enjoyable, who cares where it came from or how much it cost to make, right?
It turns out that judging whether a record label is major or not is a lot harder than for the movies. I'm going by this history of record labels, and what it considers the big ones around the time that the songs were released. I chose the year 1986 because that was the single most fortunate year for independent film. Here is a list of the Billboard top 100 singles for the year, of which I'll study the top 20 to save time and space.
Sure enough, songs produced by independent labels were chart-toppers back then. Arista, Island, and Virgin seem to have been the record label counterparts of Orion, Carolco, and Touchstone in the movie industry. Nobody cared if there wasn't immediate "brand recognition" -- not only for the label, but for the artist either. For example, Mr. Mister were more or less unknowns when their album Welcome to the Real World came out, yet that didn't stop them from enjoying two spots in the year-end top 20.
That album was produced by RCA Records well after their hey-day as a major, and before they were eventually folded into the mega-label that would become BMG. Plus they chose a pretty dopey name for a band, though again listeners were too carefree to worry much about weird band names back in the '80s (like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark).
Below are lists of songs by major labels (7) and independent labels (12). The one uncertain case is Prince's song "Kiss," recorded for his vanity label Paisley Park, which was partly funded by Warner Bros. -- I'm not sure how heavily funded it was by them, how much say they had, etc., so who knows exactly where it goes.
"That's What Friends Are For" (Warner Bros.)
"I Miss You" (MCA)
"On My Own" (MCA)
"Party All the Time" (Columbia)
"Glory of Love" (Warner Bros.)
"West End Girls" (EMI Music / Parlophone)
"Say You, Say Me" (Motown)
"Broken Wings" (RCA Records)
"How Will I Know" (Arista)
"Burning Heart" (Scotti Bros)
"Kyrie" (RCA Records)
"Addicted to Love" (Island)
"Greatest Love of All" (Arista)
"Secret Lovers" (A&M)
"Friends and Lovers" (USA Carrere)
"There'll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)" (Jive)
"Alive & Kicking" (Virgin)
"Higher Love" (Island)
"Kiss" (Paisley Park)
I suspected that the indies would have done well, but not having nearly twice as many top 20 hits for the year. If you look at the major label songs, on the whole they're definitely not as cool and fresh-sounding as the indie ones either -- Dionne Warwick and Eddie Murphy vs. Whitney Houston and Steve Winwood. Get real.
As with independent movie studios, the independent record labels bit the dust as the '90s began. They're almost all now subsidiaries of the Big Three -- Universal, Sony, and Warner. Indeed, turning to the year-end singles for 2012, we find only two from indie labels: "Somebody That I Used To Know" (Eleven) and "Set Fire to the Rain" (XL). All the others are controlled in one way or another by the Big Three.
The brief history of record labels linked to earlier says that indie labels began gobbling up market share when rock 'n' roll first blew up in the late '50s. My take on that is that the mid-century was generally a period of domination by the majors, closer to today's climate than to the free-wheeling Eighties. The rock music explosion was one of the first pivotal shifts away from that whole zeitgeist of hive behavior and mass society.
When people come out of their cocoons, they don't demand the security of mega-corporations regulating society's affairs. They can accomplish a lot of that on a more local level, and in a more face-to-face fashion. Big business is still there, but the enthusiasm for it has deflated and it's kept on a shorter leash than in cocooning times, when people outsource social regulation to corporate efficiency experts rather than have to interact with others themselves.
Critics often use the term "indie" to refer to a style rather than an economic organizational stance. It's the style of music or movies that defiant or independent-minded artists are supposed to make, in the critic's view. But in real life, it turns out the opposite -- truly free-spirited folks like Whitney Houston, Steve Winwood, and the makers of Platoon and RoboCop would rather engage the audience and give them something catchy, enjoyable, or memorable to hold onto. Not emotionally muted, whispery-mumbly songs that have no musical motifs or instrumental solos. Borrring...