If Content is King, what’s it like to be a Prince? Indies on the State of the Music Union
by Neil Turkewitz
This past weekend I participated on a panel at the Oregon Sports and Entertainment Law conference at the University of Oregon Law School entitled Music in the Digital Age, along with the Gang of Four’s Dave Allen, where one of the questions we were slated to discuss was how changes in the ecosystem over the past 20 years had affected indie labels. Much of the press tends to revolve around the declining, and now rising, fortunes of the majors, and the implications for the indies is less well understood. In part this reflects the preference of tech interests, and tech journalists, to portray recent battles over copyright as a battle between shiny, new innovative companies and legacy media industries (disparagingly referred to as “Big Entertainment” notwithstanding the fact that they would be minnows in the world of tech) desperately trying to preserve outdated business models, and the experience of indies and artists doesn’t fit neatly into the mythology underlying this narrative. In preparation for this panel discussion, I reached out to some of the leaders in the indie label community to ask them for their views on changes, and their answers were so interesting — and diverse, that I thought it would be useful to post them…with their permission of course. So here you are: unedited, reflecting both perceived opportunities and challenges, cultural and economic.
Mark Kitcatt, owner of Spanish indie label Everlasting Records and Chairman of IMPALA, the European association of indie labels:
“In a market where new releases were worth more than catalogue and where the thing driving the market (recorded music) was the thing people paid for and took home and kept, there was a greater engagement and more excitement around what the musicians made. When there’s a degree of removal, as in your remuneration coming from advertising on free services, or tours financed by beers — I feel that that mitigates against being able to take risky decisions and develop careers. That said, it is all we know how to do — and we are much more awake to alternative sources of revenue for our artists and more aware that we are looking after their rights rather than just selling their records.
As I said I come from a market that’s been hard hit, but looking everywhere, the music scene seems to me to be more conservative. The comparative value of catalogue copyrights has obviously increased, a Duke Ellington track is worth the same as an Idles track on YouTube or Spotify or Apple, we can’t window or decide what is available when because it is all always on YouTube. It is harder now for a brilliant working class artist like the Beatles or the Fall or Creedence or Coltrane to attract risk investment. The money is in catalogue, the four or five year investment is coming from musicians’ Mums and Dads. Mumford and Sons or the Sex Pistols?
How can we change all that? I honestly feel that streaming services can not have everything available on their free tier all the time. We need to be able to develop sensible launch and promotion strategies designed to maximize exposure and monetization, including by windowing it. But until YouTube negotiates on the same terms as everyone else, I don’t see the path.”
Blake Morgan, artist advocate, creator of #IRespectMusic, and owner of ECR Music Group:
“Throughout music history, running a truly independent record label has always been challenging. The challenges — — to get one’s artists the recognition they deserve, to win them the audience they require, and to fund them and their art so each can thrive — — are ones we sign up for when we start an indie label.
However, today’s “challenges” for the independent music world are not ones we’ve signed up for: falling per-stream rates year after year, no payments for artists at US terrestrial radio, and a glutted indie-tour market where artists and bands are desperately trying to turn “exposure” into income are just three of the many examples.
If you think the indie-music world is thriving thanks to our tech-utopian gatekeepers, just remember this: it now takes 380,000 streams per month for an indie artist to make minimum wage on Spotify. Meanwhile, the average Spotify employee makes $14,000 per month.”
Bruce Iglauer, founder and head of the independent blues record label Alligator Records, and member of the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame:
“Digital distribution has lessened the hold of the majors over the industry. All files are created equal and digital stores and streaming sites don’t care what the label is (for the most part.) The label’s role has moved from “pay for the creation of the music, package it, get it distributed, do the promotion and handle the money” to “sometimes pay for the creation of the music, package it, and then do the heavy lifting of informing the public that there’s music they want to hear.” We can still reach traditional media and have more inroads to online media than self-releasing artists do. With each medium meaning less and less (because there are so many), Alligator’s role has turned more into being the publicist/media outreach for the touring artists to make every gig a success and promote sales at the gigs. In the old days, we struggled against the power of the majors to control what was featured in retail stores and what music was featured in the media. Now we struggle to get noticed in a jam-packed marketplace where vast amounts of music are being released and music is one of many mediums competing for consumer attention. To make things more difficult, the world is turning to streaming as its main way of hearing music, and streaming is not yet generating enough money to make decent income for artists and labels. As a result, we are witnessing a return to a hit-oriented singles business where album-oriented labels and artists and non-pop genres have a hell of a time getting any attention from the streaming services. We are constantly badgering them to notice our non-pop music and artists. Many adult genres — blues, folk, jazz classical, world music — are suffering because the streaming services aren’t oriented toward these genres.”
END NOTE: Professor Eric Priest served as the moderator of this panel. He has, in my view, the distinction of having written one of the most astute articles ever about the impact of negotiating asymmetries in markets distorted by unfair competition. I summarized it here, but encourage anyone with an interest in this subject to read his article in full. Out To Sea: Safe Harbors & the Unmooring of the Foundations of a Healthy Online Music Marketplace