Last week, the hyperpolarizing California hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All–or OFWGKTA, or Odd Future, or those 11 dudes who have become as much of a meme as a musical outfit–confirmed that they’ve signed a deal with RED Distribution/Sony. It’s not a record deal, per se; rather, it is the launch of a new, largely autonomous label beneath Sony’s enormous, multinational umbrella. Odd Future’s members will make the records and all of the decisions about them; if all goes well, RED will simply make sure they’re sold where and how they’re meant to be sold.
Whatever your opinion of Odd Future, it is, at the very least, a victory for a group who’ve gotten this far by saying (sometimes regrettably) exactly what they’ve wanted to say. By the looks of it, they’ll be able to keep doing just that on a much grander and potentially more lucrative scale. The flipside, though, is that it’s another indication that major labels–epitomized here by the ostensibly Internet-interested Sony–are eating whatever the Web serves them and hoping it makes them money. Late last year, Sony (or the imprint Columbia) signed Cults, a retro pop outfit of art-school kids from New England; their charming four songs, all distributed through their Bandcamp website, got a lot of attention, and they got a record deal out of the hubbub. Last month, Sony signed 2Cellos, a subject-says-it-all European duo who quickly clocked 5,000,000 YouTube hits with their cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” (It’s bad when a band makes you miss Alien Ant Farm.) In short, labels are looking for salvation in the same network that threatens to kill them; taking the long view, you have to think it’s the customer who’s going to suffer.
Labels, at their best, serve both as filters and fertilizers, selecting worthy bands and sometimes investing time and money to make those bands better. These roles aren’t always concomitant, of course. An excellent little experimental label like Family Vineyard, for instance, can’t really squander resources grooming Paul Flaherty’s beard for a press photo, but they do consistently seek out and release compelling music. It’s a brand you can trust. Major labels aren’t always the best at selecting compelling bands, but they can take a band with loads of potential and prepare their sound and story for the masses. The Avett Brothers are a recent Sony success story (also via Columbia) of just that. Signing viral bands–or acts that amass popularity and buzz via the Internet first–shortchanges that whole process a bit. The intended audience already knows what the product is all about; now, the label’s just have to hope there’s enough product to actually sell something. The consumer is no longer trusting a brand; the consumer is trusting brands that trust in the Internet. Typing that was scary enough.
Signing bands with a built-in fanbase is nothing new. A load of very popular bands that now call independent labels home once got a push from major-label bucks–Spoon, for instance, were on Elektra before finding sanctuary at Merge. And reality-cum-game shows like American Idol find fans by the millions for unknown teenage country boys like Scotty McCreery, who will, no doubt, find a label to call home no matter how the votes soon fall. But both of those models seem more diligent and demanding than simply going for whatever’s got Twitter all aflutter. Hell, Osama bin Laden isn’t even trending today.