Where do you see Independent Record Labels heading in the future?

Do you see more Independent labels looking to involve themselves in an artist’s merchandise, branding or sponsorship deals to cover the declining costs of CD and digital music sales?

I have no idea where other Independent record labels are headed in future. Perhaps I can give you an idea of where I may take Iron Man Records if anything goes to plan. Which often, it doesn’t. But the quote “When all music is digital, all independence ceases” continues to permeate my thoughts.

I want to keep the record label focused on releasing records, digitally and also on Vinyl. I want to leave the artists to work on writing, rehearsing, touring and recording. I’m not interested in getting more involved with the artists beyond releasing their music. I don’t like the idea of taking more control or involvement in what they do, that’s down to them. I think most artists have enough to deal with already, they should seek out their own solutions to their own situations, away from the record label. I want Iron Man Records to be able to do the same.

Despite declining physical and digital revenue, I like the idea of the record label finding additional sources of income, away from the artists themselves, to help fund new releases. I wish to pursue the idea of taking on more artists but having a more cost effective way of testing out the relationship before committing greater funding in future. This means the artists still get a good deal, with the pressures on funding spread across not only the artist and label, but other sources of income too. I think some system of subscription, patronage, or donation could work. Income could also be sourced from transferable skills applied away from the label itself, as well as selling stuff that has not necessarily been produced by the label or it’s artists. Let me try and explain what I mean.

Iron Man Records chooses to operate a long way from the mainstream of popular music consumption and this niche economy currently appears to be in decline. I don’t think going after additional ways of earning money from your artists is going to solve much of the problem. The solution to me appears in generating income in addition to the existing record label, artist, release schedule. Many labels in this situation would probably look to branding or sponsorship but I don’t like that approach at all.

Streaming seems to be some good news at the moment, appearing as a dominant entrance point for most new music, where physical sales and paid downloads, in general terms, are in decline. But streaming generates very little actual income. A suitable rewards based subscription scheme, rather than sponsorship or branding might generate funds. This could work where subscribers are given a number of rewards including early access to streaming or “subscriber only” content in exchange for a subscription fee.

Record releases in a purely digital format gives the record label a chance to work with more artists, and take a chance, to see what happens. Purely digital releases have much lower front end costs and less risk. The label could offer purely digital distribution deals or digital only release deals and a subscription scheme could help fund that. Digital releases could be set up to offer the buyer the option to “pay what they want.” This might bring additional sales, income and subscribers in the absence of a physical product for sale.

I have never liked the idea of choosing one artist over another, based on whether or not their work will sell. Success is hard to define and for me it certainly isn’t calculated on just sales figures. I have always tried to choose bands whose work I like, who are easy to work with, who have something to say musically or artistically, and have a realistic long term expectation both of themselves and others.

I think the deal that the label offers in future might change. I have always liked the 50/50 deal, shared responsibility, shared risk. But in my experience, if the record never breaks even, if the initial costs outweigh the sales income, then no one gets any money at all, and both the label and the artist has to withstand losing money. It can cause a breakdown in communication and all sorts of blame. I don’t like that. If something doesn’t sell it is not necessarily down to one person or a specific reason. It can be complex and often requires everyone to work together, rather than apportion blame.

I like the idea of working with artists on releases taken on a case by case basis, in a number of stages. For example, Stage 1: it may be possible to release a record in a purely digital format and give all of the revenue over and above basic set up and running costs to the artist. After a period of time the deal can be reviewed. If the artist wishes to continue the record is released at Stage 2: in a physical format. Rather than trying to split money after costs, I like the idea of just giving a certain percentage of all physical copies to the artist to sell at shows. Perhaps 30%. That way there are copies for the artist to sell, copies for the label to sell and also copies for press and promo that neither generate money for the artist or label. If the relationship works and the deal works out the label and artist can choose to do it again at Stage 3: another pressing. Perhaps in another format with a split of physical copies between label and artist and so on. Accounting for both parties can be a waste of time and effort when such small amounts of money are involved. I prefer the idea of getting the work done, splitting the physical pressings and then it’s up to the label and band to sell their share of the copies without worrying about one party owing the other one anything.

In the same way that a label can do individual deals with artists for digital and or physical releases, I suppose merchandise could be included where required, perhaps to coincide with a release or a tour. I’ve stated that I have no interest in branding or sponsorship, the artist can deal with that (should they wish to) it’s not what Iron Man Records chooses to get involved with.

I have some transferable skills that can help fund the record label. I generate income as a Tour Manager and spend what I earn funding the management and logistics of Iron Man Records. I build websites for individuals and organisations where opportunities present themselves, and I drive film crews and tv production companies around when I’m not touring with bands. In the past I have done some teaching/lecturing at a University and I’ve set up various projects with funds from local council and regional development agencies. I don’t do much of that these days as it can be time consuming and depressing too. Occasionally I do speaking, consultancy and music management but income from those activities can be hit and miss at times. I much prefer to help artists rather than commercial businesses or government. But I remain open minded on all opportunities as they appear.

I expect most bands I choose to work with, generate their largest amount of income from playing live and touring. Most artists fund their management and logistics in this way. Where suitable, the record label could help music groups out with tour management and merchandise but wherever possible, I try and keep the record label working around record releases, distribution and marketing and promotion.

Iron Man Records offers legal advice via Kevan Tidy who is one of the directors. Funds raised in this way support Kevans involvement in the label and he tries to keep costs to a minimum to ensure his expertise is accessible to as many individuals as possible.

Iron Man Records also offers engineering, recording, production and mastering via Framework Studios. Funds raised in this way tend go back into the running costs of the studio. Where possible, artists working with Iron Man Records may get a better deal, but in general, funds from the studio go back into the studio to ensure its availability for work on future Iron Man Releases.

The label runs an online shop selling all sorts of music, merchandise and other items that have nothing to do with the label’s roster itself. The funds generated from the sale of these items can help generate funds for the next release on the label. What happens with the online shop in future is still uncertain but it may become more involved with a subscription scheme.

In addition to pursuing a number of alternative funding streams to keep the label afloat, some of which are productive, others less so, Iron Man Records has set up a page on Patreon. Patreon is a membership platform that allows subscribers (known as Patrons) to give a fixed sum each month, contributing towards the next vinyl release on Iron Man Records. Patreon can be used for anything creative. You can get paid for each creation, or for each month.

Iron Man Records always struggles to assemble funds for a release, and Vinyl is particularly troublesome. Patrons, who are supporting the label through Patreon, can help to raise funds specifically for Vinyl record releases. Patrons are not expected to help with the label’s activities in general, just making Vinyl releases possible. Patrons understand exactly what is being asked of them, what their money is going to be used for, and what the end results will look like. With each release they see a tangible, physical demonstration of what their support has helped to manufacture. I don’t think Patreon can solve all the problems, but it can help contribute towards a more reliable Vinyl release schedule. It also informs where the Iron Man Records online shop may go, it could end up as a Patrons only reward base.

The label is involved in a number of other projects which do not necessarily generate money, but do generate interest, traffic, and activity around the record label. These projects include but are not limited to: 111hz, events including Ritual Sacrifice, Money Burning, Art Exhibitions and The Anchor Gallery. Also, Gimpo’s M25 25 Hour spin, and opinion pieces like this one, loosely based around “The State of the Music Business this week.” Some of these projects help attract additional subscribers looking for rewards or exclusive and early release content. But, some of these projects can only be defined by the trail of the unsubscribers. I’ll leave you to guess which ones. There are swings and roundabouts in all things but these Iron Man Records “projects” continue to go on anyway.

Whichever way you look at it, Independent Record labels are fucked unless they can come up with income streams that don’t involve directly selling downloads or physical product. Record Labels used to be, in my opinion, the platform through which most bands accessed the market. These days record labels are lucky to be rights holders, and the streaming platforms are the best way that most bands access the market. If I could have my time again, or if I could have seen the future as it is now, I would probably start a streaming platform rather than a record label. But then again, I did try that some years ago, and after the local council and regional funding people got a hold of it, and ran it into the ground, I had to just let go and walk away in despair. Never mind eh? There’s always something else along next to take up all our time…..But I live in hope of finding a way through. As Spinal Tap will tell you, DON’T QUIT (even if Nigel quits). Love your local independent record labels, and local independent self-releasing bands and artists who run their own label for the purposes of releasing their own work. Because if you don’t, it might just be the death of all private music ownership. The death of ownership at the hands of pay for access. Think about it. Now we can’t have that now can we?