What does a record label mean to you? Throughout the history of recording, a label has served two key functions. It’s been the public face of the business behind the music: the funders, the artist contracts, the mastering process, pressing plants and distribution networks. Companies like Columbia and HMV would compete musically, commercially and technologically as the industry emerged and such competition was a catalyst for some of the greatest triumphs – whether the development of ever-improved recording techniques such as stereo, or the creation of projects such as the rival Ring cycles from Decca and DG. For collectors, however, a label has always been more than a marketing badge. Great labels came to be a guarantor of great artistry and sound. A powerful level of trust would develop which labels rarely took for granted.
Last month I travelled to two labels’ anniversary celebrations. In Arles, in the South of France, Harmonia Mundi marked its 60th birthday with a festival which wonderfully emphasised the creative ‘family’ nature of the label, not least in an intimate concert by Kristian Bezuidenhout, Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov at which I felt like a privileged observer of music-making at its most informal. HM’s fine and exploratory catalogue – celebrated in two box-sets reviewed on page 99 – is a perfect example of how, if a listener places their trust in a label, even when artist and repertoire might be unfamiliar, they can be taken on a richly rewarding journey.
A week or so later I was in Berlin, where Deutsche Grammophon doubled HM’s threescore years and marked its 120th – a longevity which takes us back to the real infancy of recording. Few record labels – few cultural brands of any sort – have the iconic status of DG. When I interviewed the label’s newest signing, Chinese conductor Long Yu, for Gramophone’s podcast, he said that ‘As musicians we have the dream that we can one day have the chance of working with Deutsche Grammophon’, a label which represents ‘great artistic achievement’. This from a musician in a country where the popularity of classical recording, indeed of Western classical music, is a relatively recent phenomenon. And he’s right. Which artist, even from outside the classical genre, hasn’t relished an opportunity to have an album emblazoned with the famous Yellow Label’s cartouche?
Labels, then, are an eloquent expression of creativity and quality. But how will this work in streaming, where instead of a label’s iconography being expressed through a CD sleeve, an album’s visible presence might be at best limited to a small thumbnail on a phone, at worst mere metadata? And with smart speakers, music might have no visible presence at all. Where once a label was both hallmark and calling card, online it might be barely noticed. Who searches by label in a streaming service? Are many online listeners even aware of what label an album is on? And if not, how will a label serve that once precious role of encouraging a listener to take a chance on a release which might unlock a life-long musical passion? I hope solutions will be found, so that labels can play a similarly important role in the life of listeners of the future, as they have for all of us.