Wilco, Odd Future, Kid Cudi: Who needs a label when you can just start your own?
Wilco's got its own label now, Kid Cudi has Wicked Awesome Records, and Odd Future just launched Odd Future Records. Everyone seems to be moving away from the old model, where the majors handled everything, and have opted to do their own thing. Of course, it's all a bit of a misnomer: While all these folks (and plenty others) have started their own labels, it doesn't necessarily mean they're trying to compete.
This isn't exactly a new trend, but it's a bit odd that three major players have all gone through the motions in just four months. In relatively recent history we've seen OK Go, Cake, RJD2, Alkaline Trio, Aimee Mann, Nine Inch Nails and plenty of others cutting ties with the majors to forge their own ground. Hell, even the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Beatles did it.
Of course, the difference between, say, local imprints like Bocumast and Wilco's dBm is that Wilco is incredibly well known, so right off the bat, they probably didn't need to worry about distribution. For its part, Wilco's dBmp is being distributed by Anti- (which, in turn, is distributed by Universal), while Odd Future signed a deal with Sony/RED for distribution. As for Cudi, who revealed plans for his new label during a performance in New York, there's no word on who will distribute, but it's a safe bet that Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music, which is also distributed by Universal, might be able to lend a hand.
So what's the point of leaving a label to start a new one? For some, it's all about creative freedom, but none of the artists who announced their labels this year seem to be struggling with that. If artistic freedom was the main concern, we'd expect Lupe Fiasco to be talking about his new label any day now.
As for Wilco, that notion pretty much falls flat: We're pretty damn certain Nonesuch would have let Wilco release a drone album if it wanted to. Odd Future, of course, has just been self-releasing everything, so a label for that band is like a Trojan Horse, in which they can sneak their ridiculous ideas through a bureaucracy and come out looking all the more controversial on the other end. The problem there, of course, is deleting all their free records from their website. (For Cudi's part, we really have no guess as to his motivation for launching a new label, other than perhaps the split between him and former partners Dream On.)
In the past, creating your own label was also sometimes meant as a statement against the majors: Bands left because they were getting screwed, financially or creatively, and subsequently decided the best way to get content to the masses was through their own means. But now, the very idea of a record label is almost absurd, especially one run by a band.
What sets this apart from actions by bands like Radiohead, which releases its music directly to fans without a troublesome record label, is that the groups in question have kept the word "label" intact. It's possible that this involves the notion of curating, especially in the case of Wilco, a band that has put on its own festivals, booked bands, discovered stars. A record label, in this case, isn't just a place for the bandmembers to float their own balloon; it's also likely to be a place for others to come to. For Odd Future's part, we'd imagine its label will be a spot for the band to kick out jams from friends and side projects.
It's arguable that in the years to come, we'll see more of these types of artist-driven endeavors. Tons of labels throughout history were formed by a single dude looking to distribute his own record, and since then, they've become havens for a particular "sound" -- e.g., "the Epitaph sound" or "the Merge sound" or the "Motown sound." While the majors continue to try to appeal to every living being without offending anybody, these smaller labels will, like all those before them, provide a place for a particular aesthetic. It's the age-old "If you like this, you'll probably like this" trick to exposing new music, but at least when it's done this way, it feels a bit more honest.
Of course, these imprints could end up like countless other vanity imprints before them, releasing a record or two from the founding band and then calling it a day.