D.I.Y.

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.

 

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11 Comments

  1. Well, it should be simple enough to differentiate; if you’re discussing the aesthetic, say “indie”, when you’re talking about Indianapolis, say “Indy” and if you’re talking about the the business model, say what you mean: “independent”. You could also use “non-aligned” or “unsigned” for artists without any deal at all and DIY for self-published artists.Is nomenclature really that big a problem? 😀

  2. Why top the charts or even rank on them at all? The real question is, why bother making money from music at all? Getting radio exposure = making more money. If you are cool with just being an “artist” and making music on the side, then sure, don’t promote to radio, care about charts, etc.

  3. Distribution and the actual label are two totally different things that this author lacks to understand. Taylor Swift LABEL is distributing her material via Universal through Big Machine, but everything from budgets, funding, and promotion comes solely from the label. all the deal with Universal means is that everyone who released with Big Machine records gets their music on iTunes, amazon.com in wal-mart, best buy, target, etc as well as TV licensing OPPORTUNITIES (not guarantees) such as TV shows, movies, etc. but it doesnt mean people will actually buy it.
    Any person or company can ink a distribution deal. There are available everywhere because the major labels see it as well if they get popular, they’ll find their own way to get their music out. We better step in and get our hands in their pocket so we can still survive. That’s why so many labels in 2011-2012, including the big gun Jive Records, folded. Because they arent bringing in the money that they used to with their artist, and they’re losing money with promotions. So they opted in to signing independent and self release artists/labels through distribution so they don’t have to put all the money into making the artist/music, but they’ll still benefit if that artist sells well.
    Taylor Swift is so big mainly because of endorsement deals. She gets a lot of facetime and that is all because of PR under Big Machine and that her music is generally appealing. She started with small deals, and worked bigger (Cover Girl, Pepsi). Like Cody Simpson,for example, is an up and coming artist a lot of people are just starting to discover. He’s been around and has had endorsement deals/sponsorship since 2010 with Pastry’s and PopTarts when he only had about 8,000 followers on twitter. It has nothing to do with Universal or the bigger label. Its all management, PR and how their market their brand/product. Taylor Swift is a viable, and likable brand/product so people use her for co-branding.
    Not a cent of her marketing and promotions come from Universal. The same thing goes for the others you listed in respect to their label and their label’s distribution deals. I know people who own record labels locally, who have barely even $10,000 project budgets (recording, mixing/mastering, website and graphic work, marketing and promotions, etc) for an artist, and their artist probably have like 2,000 followers on twitter, and they have distribution deals via Universal or Warner Brothers. Why? Because all these deals mean for the bigger labels will put at least digital media and TV/Movie licensing opps for them which cost them virtually nothing, but if they somehow blow up, the will provide physical distribution and the bigger labels get a cut without the big labels having to do nitty gritty work. All the effort and work comes from the independent labels and the artist. So to discredit their work and efforts is pretty insulting.

  4. Distribution and the actual label are two totally different things that this author lacks to understand. Taylor Swift LABEL is distributing her material via Universal through Big Machine, but everything from budgets, funding, and promotion comes solely from the label. all the deal with Universal means is that everyone who released with Big Machine records gets their music on iTunes, amazon.com in wal-mart, best buy, target, etc as well as TV licensing OPPORTUNITIES (not guarantees) such as TV shows, movies, etc. but it doesnt mean people will actually buy it.
    Any person or company can ink a distribution deal. There are available everywhere because the major labels see it as well if they get popular, they’ll find their own way to get their music out. We better step in and get our hands in their pocket so we can still survive. That’s why so many labels in 2011-2012, including the big gun Jive Records, folded. Because they arent bringing in the money that they used to with their artist, and they’re losing money with promotions. So they opted in to signing independent and self release artists/labels through distribution so they don’t have to put all the money into making the artist/music, but they’ll still benefit if that artist sells well.
    Taylor Swift is so big mainly because of endorsement deals. She gets a lot of facetime and that is all because of PR under Big Machine and that her music is generally appealing. She started with small deals, and worked bigger (Cover Girl, Pepsi). Like Cody Simpson,for example, is an up and coming artist a lot of people are just starting to discover. He’s been around and has had endorsement deals/sponsorship since 2010 with Pastry’s and PopTarts when he only had about 8,000 followers on twitter. It has nothing to do with Universal or the bigger label. Its all management, PR and how their market their brand/product. Taylor Swift is a viable, and likable brand/product so people use her for co-branding.
    Not a cent of her marketing and promotions come from Universal. The same thing goes for the others you listed in respect to their label and their label’s distribution deals. I know people who own record labels locally, who have barely even $10,000 project budgets (recording, mixing/mastering, website and graphic work, marketing and promotions, etc) for an artist, and their artist probably have like 2,000 followers on twitter, and they have distribution deals via Universal or Warner Brothers. Why? Because all these deals mean for the bigger labels will put at least digital media and TV/Movie licensing opps for them which cost them virtually nothing, but if they somehow blow up, the will provide physical distribution and the bigger labels get a cut without the big labels having to do nitty gritty work. All the effort and work comes from the independent labels and the artist. So to discredit their work and efforts is pretty insulting.

  5. Very well said, Misa, virtually every line of your story is true. Indies always have to struggle to get a little bit of attention to their music and very often they produce it at their own cost and efforts which takes in some cases about half a year or even a year to produce an audio content for an album. People don’t know about the cost a one man labor in a private studio, an arduous, “prison camp work” as I usually put it. If an artist comes up with his or her own video ( not every artist can afford having his or her own half decent video) that still is not enough to deliver their art into the heart of their target audience. And promotion on a radio and TV takes the funds that can be only affordable by big time labels. Of course the content has to be likable and viable, that’s the must for starters. But on the other hand indies are free to write and produce whatever they think they should, whereas labels dictate the “trends” and direction in moods and contents. For instance that latest scandalous video of Miley Cirus (“wrecking ball”) was a typical case of a rigid dictatorship of a trend to get the needed popularity. Miley got quite a few bucketfuls of dirt on her poor head on youtube, but I can almost see how she hated the idea of this video to go public and how much she resisted it deep down in her heart, and perhaps that was the reason why she expressed her bitterness in tears so naturally in that video.
    Indies have their full freedom but they don’t have an exposure. However they get in a return a chance to be themselves, genuine and sincere.
    Labeled artist would appear to me as a product of an “unnatural selection” everything wise, including audio and video content (although the technical quality of them are in most cases awesome without a doubt, the high level of label based technologies have their last say). Whereas indies stay there as a pure result of a quite natural selection I would say.
    I don’t know what it is to be wallowing in the oceans of light and attention. I believe it’s a drug as they say, but the drug substitutes the internal functional gears of the system, shutting down the latter, and not everyone is able to pass the testing with the fame drug with at least a C+.

  6. BTW, I am also an indie and I was writing on behalf of my own life experience. Thundy (September, 2013 release of “Blue Skies”, country folk genre, on iTunes, eMusic, Amazon and others)

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