One of the reasons mainstream music has become significantly less interesting in the past decade has been the major label’s embrace of the superstar marketing model. In previous decades, studios expended effort in building “career artists”, bands that would build a fan base who would buy record after record. This has given way to a “pump and dump” strategy, where debut albums are marketed aggressively and milked for a brief period, then the artist is abandoned. Superstar marketing is the pinnacle of this business model, where a single star is massively marketed in every way possible, almost to exclusion of the label’s other acts.
This sells a lot of the superstar’s albums and makes tons of money for the label. For the superstar, there isn’t much evidence that this will lead to strong career. In an analysis of long term successful albums Chris Johnson observes that, in spite of making millions, there is…:
…considerable evidence to suggest that when Britney [Spears] stops being pushed on the market by her record company, sales will fall off a cliff.…There are very few acts post-1990 that can boast platinum certifications more than a year after release.…The promoters will just as happily push Hanson as Bob Dylan, Spice Girls as Aretha Franklin: they are completely agnostic on the quality front.…In effect, the record labels cannot afford to build artist careers anymore. They can only afford to milk the current promotional mechanism.
I think this is fantastic because it suggests a way to hasten the demise of such record companies, which have become relics clinging to outdated methods instead of offering me the products that I want. The strategy to do so lies in the answer to the following question: If, hypothetically, Britney Spears were to vanish in some way (sudden retirement, injury, plane crash, etc.) what would that do to the financials of her label and the company that owns it. If such an event were unexpected, it’s fair to say that Jive Records would need to scramble to survive and would have a fair chance of collapsing. Sony would, unfortunately, fair better, being more diversified, but would take a financial hit as well.
By putting their eggs in one basket, record labels leave themselves open to attacks aimed at destroying the basket that don’t cost very much. All a dedicated group of people would need to is target the major superstars of a label all at once and bring them down with smear campaigns and/or industrial espionage (e.g. stealing and destroying master tracks before they can be published, injecting random signals into a CD production, etc.). Since the media largely no longer check facts, they would be useful accomplices. A clever group could probably do the whole thing without even breaking the law.