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What Is Indie? Can An Artist Top The Charts Without Help From A Major?

Macklemore-Thrift-ShopBy Kevin Erickson, Communications Associate, and Olivia Brown, Intern, at The Future Of Music Coalition.

Let’s look at some stats: Jack White’s Blunderbuss, number one debut on the Billboard 200, Third Man Records. Taylor Swift, worth $165 million, Big Machine Records. Adele, 21, more than 26 million records sold, XL Recordings. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”, Grammy for Record of the Year, Eleven. Macklemore, a number one single on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, no label.

With financial success stories like these, many music industry pundits have been quick to celebrate the new “reality” for independent musicians. A quick glance at some media outlets might lead you to believe that all the old gatekeepers have fallen away, or that independent musicians have the same shot at stardom as major-label backed artists. However, these narratives can be misleading.

Take, for example, the artists listed above. Jack White’s Blunderbuss was released on his own imprint… in association with XL Recordings (a large British independent label), and Columbia Records (owned by Sony Music Entertainment.) Taylor Swift has been with Big Machine Records (a Nashville-based independent label) since her debut… but Big Machine is distributed by Republic Records under the Universal Music Group umbrella.

Both of Adele’s records were released on XL Recordings in England, but she depends on Columbia for distribution and promotion in the United States. Gotye is on Eleven, an Australian independent label, but his music is distributed in the United States by Universal Republic. And Macklemore may not have a label, but as NPR recently pointed out he and Ryan Lewis chose (as many notable indie labels do) to work with Warner-owned Alternative Distribution Alliance for physical distribution, and partnered with Warner Music Group to help promote “Thrift Shop” to radio.

The point of acknowledging these arrangements isn’t to call these artists’ integrity, authenticity or accomplishments into question.  A distribution deal or marketing partnership hardly invalidates the time, creativity and ingenuity required to succeed in today’s marketplace. Rather, the point is to acknowledge that contrary to what some pundits are saying, mainstream chart success still usually requires the resources and reach of certain industry powerhouses at some stage.

An artist may be able to build a successful career through extensive touring, online platforms or other means. But when it comes to clawing your way onto commercial radio or onto the shrinking shelves at big-box retail outlets, a major label partnership can make all the difference.

While each artist’s business model is their own, we should be realistic about what these arrangements mean in terms of the average musicians’ ability to reach audiences. Commercial radio airplay remains the number one outlet for discovery, and big-boxes account for far more music sales than dwindling record shops. Which is to say: we’re still dealing with a deck that seems stacked against smaller players; that hasn’t fundamentally changed in the digital era.

FMC’s own research backs this up to a considerable extent. Our artist revenue streams study found that significant commercial radio airplay remains out of reach for all but a tiny handful of artists.  And our earlier radio-centric research demonstrates that commercial playlists tend to be repetitive and narrowly focused on major-label artists. (This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why it’s important to support Low Power FM and non-commercial radio, as these formats offer indies a better shot at airplay. It’s also a reason to oppose further ownership concentration in commercial broadcasting which is likely to worsen this problem.)

Still, there are many gray areas. Where does a “spec deal” – where you remain unsigned, but the label pays for you to record a few tracks – fit in to today’s picture? And how about distribution deals, where the artist pays to record their own music, but a label handles many of the other chores, including promotion? Or distribution and manufacturing deals, where the label is *only* responsible for getting your record pressed and on shelves, but not marketed? What if an artist has no label, but has a major publishing deal? In many instances, independence is clearly not a binary phenomenon.

Hypebot’s Clyde Smith says he’s no longer going to use the term “indie” at all, for a whole host of reasons. We would argue that, at a time when marketplace concentration is becoming more pronounced, it’s good to have some differentiators, even if they are based in business approach rather than sonic aesthetic. The merger of EMI and UMG means that just three companies will control 75 percent of the domestic recorded music industry – how can anyone accurately describe unfair marketplace conditions without a blanket term to describe the  competing 25 percent of the industry (which actually translates to a much larger percentage of the overall pool of artists and releases)?

Perhaps the best way to deal with these grey areas is simply to talk about them more, and with a little more precision. Instead of simply saying “an indie artist,” try saying “an artist on an independent label with a major distribution deal,” or “a self-released artist with a publishing deal,” as the case may be. This may be a tall order at a time when many fans still confuse “indie” with a set of aesthetics rather than a business model. That said, the more consumers understand the intricacies of the artist experience, the closer we are to creating a future where more artists have a fair shot at success, whatever path they choose to get there.