Evolution of Music Labels and the Quest for Ethical Data

Evolution of Music Labels and the Quest for Ethical Data

For centuries, humans have used signs and symbols to mark their belongings, ensuring they are distinguishable from others'. The old Norse had a unique method for this: branding their sheep and cattle with a brazing iron. This mark wasn't just a sign of ownership but a stamp of quality, indicating the animal's origin and the farmer's reputation.

This practice, called "brandr," evolved into the English word "brand.", and then into “branding”. Branding has become essential in differentiating products in today's competitive market, helping consumers choose based on their needs, desires, and lifestyles—not the least in music.

Labels then and now

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, a groundbreaking device that could record and play back sounds. Just 12 years later, in 1889, Columbia Records, the first music label, was established. This was shortly after the invention of the gramophone by Emile Berliner, which offered superior sound quality over Edison's phonograph. Berliner seized this opportunity by founding the Berliner Gramophone Company, where records featured physical labels indicating their superior quality and origin. Over time, consumers began associating certain labels with specific genres, quality standards, and artists.

Around the same period, the Consolidated Talking Machine Company emerged. It eventually merged with the Berliner Gramophone Company to form the Victor Talking Machine Company. This entity was later acquired by the Radio Corporation of America, creating RCA Victor. With radio's rise and the invention of vinyl records, the first major music label was born.

This might sound convoluted, but it's a testament to how the music industry has always adapted to new technologies. Today, music labels focus on producing, marketing, and distributing music. Unlike the past, we now care less about who manages or produces the artist and more about the artist's brand and fan base. Labels earn money through music sales, downloads, streaming, brand partnerships, master licensing, and sometimes touring and merchandise. The primary difference between labels today lies in their marketing and publicity capabilities.

Intellectual property and artificial intelligence

Labeling a music track or record no longer guarantees quality but serves to establish ownership. Major music labels fiercely protect their intellectual property. Napster's downfall and the success of legitimate streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music underscore this. Sony Music, for instance, recently sent notices to 700 AI music companies, warning them to stop training their models on Sony-signed artists' data, highlighting their determination to protect their assets. Universal Music Group similarly sent out a letter in 2023 to all major streaming services asking them to block artificial intelligence platforms from training on the melodies and lyrics of their copyrighted songs.

This raises questions about the future of AI in the music industry. Will AI companies stop using major label artists' songs, or will they strike agreements with labels? Despite the ease of generating music with AI, the human element remains crucial. Artists capture cultural moments and connect with audiences in ways that AI can't replicate. With over 80 million songs on Spotify as of 2022, it's clear that quantity isn't the issue; it's the quality and cultural relevance that matter.

How does the future look like?

Modern music labels thrive on IP protection. While labels today don't have the same consumer recognition as iconic labels like Motown in the '60s, they serve as digital monitors of music usage. As with streaming, labels will likely play a significant role in managing rights for AI-generated music. They must develop frameworks for licensing, royalties, and credits to ensure fair compensation for all contributors, including those involved in AI creation and training.

Generative AI might also lead to new business models. Labels could offer subscriptions to AI-generated music libraries, collaborate with tech companies on AI music tools, or create interactive music experiences where fans customize tracks. As AI becomes more prevalent, labels must address ethical concerns about authenticity and originality, ensuring AI music complements human-created art.

An intriguing aspect to ponder is the rationale behind AI music generation companies utilizing external data for training their models. It begs the question: why not leverage in-house data, which is not only ethically sourced but also readily available from music labels themselves? By doing so, labels could retain their relevance and influence within the music industry while providing fans with comparable solutions.

Consider this scenario: AI music generation companies, instead of tapping into external data sources, collaborate with music labels to access their extensive repositories of music data. This approach not only ensures the ethical sourcing of data but also fosters a mutually beneficial relationship between AI innovators and industry incumbents. Moreover, it positions labels as stewards of authenticity and originality in an increasingly AI-driven landscape.

Drawing parallels from case studies in unrelated industries, such as Stability AI, underscores the critical importance of responsible sourcing and training data for the sustainability of AI applications. As such, music labels have the opportunity to set a precedent for ethical data practices, safeguarding both their intellectual property and the integrity of AI-generated music.


In essence, by embracing ethically sourced data and collaborating with AI innovators, music labels can assert their relevance and influence while spearheading responsible innovation in the music industry. This symbiotic relationship not only ensures the continued evolution of music creation but also fosters trust and credibility among artists, fans, and stakeholders alike.

Latest articles

Download Overtune
and start creating.