What is a Record Label?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The term record label may be difficult to define since it can actually refer to several different things. Furthermore, record label has to be viewed as an outdated term, since typically, recording artists no longer make records. They make CDS or recordings of their music that are downloaded. Initially, when records were the main means by which people listened to music or heard it played on the radio, the term record label made more sense, and in the most straightforward term, it referred to the label pasted on the center of the record that identified the company producing the record, the artists, and the title of the particular record.

A record label may refer to a brand of a specific recording studio.
A record label may refer to a brand of a specific recording studio.

When records were first recorded, they were often made by small and independent companies each with a name. Each company then represented a specific “brand” or trademark, and the label usually referenced a contractual relationship between certain artists, and a company. “Labels” worked hard to get their contracted artists airplay, which might in turn lead to people purchasing records. Labels profited, and so occasionally did artists, but they might instead be paid a flat fee for their recording.

Record labels sign recording artists to contracts and distribute their music.
Record labels sign recording artists to contracts and distribute their music.

Today there are still small independent companies that work with either one artist, and are generated by the artist, or that work with just a few artists. These independent labels frequently encounter difficulty when it comes to promotion and distribution of music, because they have nowhere near the presence or advertising budget of major music production companies. This is changing somewhat with the ability for any band to record their own music or videos and release them on the Internet either for free or for small fees. In some cases, band or artist self-promotion is seeing a rebirth because of this ability. Bands like OK Go have become famous worldwide without distribution or advertising by a major recording studio.

Typically, a record label tends to mean a brand of a specific recording studio. Some of these major studios include: Warner Music Group, EMI, and Sony. These studios and a few others control about 70% of all record labels. Each of these large studios may have small subdivided studios that work with certain kinds of artists. These may sometimes be called sublabels.

Sublabels work for the larger studios, but the actual larger studio still works to promote and advertise any record label it owns. Sometimes larger studios will also snap up an independent label that is constantly finding hit performers or producing terrific records. At other times, the larger recording company forms a contractual relationship with an independent label to aid in distribution and production for part of the profit.

The Warner Music Group, for instance, has about 50 record labels, either completely owned by the group or that have a contractual relationship with Warner. Each record label may have its own unique brand or type of music to record, and the amount of control Warner can exert over a single label largely depends on the terms of the contract.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


There's a reason country bands who wanted to produce their own sound and play their own kind of music have started their own labels, or gone to small, indie labels.

What we called "country" when I was young is now "Americana" or "roots music." Consequently, it has no place in the mega publishing houses. I was shocked beyond belief when the Alabama Shakes did so well. They're innovative and don't sound like anything else on the market. How in the world did they manage to get a contract and any kind of promotion? They're home folks, so I'm thrilled. But it's still amazing that it happened.


Yeah, the label was always primarily responsible for promotion and distribution. I remember seeing the records in my mom's collection, and in my own -- there were so many labels, each with a different history and background.

It's sad now that there are no more labels, per se. It's a real illustration of the homogenous nature of popular music. All pop sounds alike, all country sounds alike and all R&B sounds alike. And they all sound like each other. The proliferation of the labels helped keep music diverse. When the labels started merging and buying each other out, the music really suffered. It's all about the bottom line, now. Half of the garbage out now would never have made it when labels ruled the world of music. No one would have picked it up.

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