Since the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) award nominations were released last week much of the talk has been about how 80% of the nominations for album of the year were released “independently”.
Historically, the only artists able to get enough support to generate the exposure necessary to garner an award nomination were those with major label backing. But it appears that alternative ways of independently producing and releasing albums are now viable enough to make the indie dreams of many musicians a reality.
With the record industry in a state of flux at the moment, what do these new approaches mean for a sector that’s been struggling since fast internet speeds allowed widespread music piracy?
Cost of entry
In the past, when there was only analogue technology available, producing music was expensive. It often still is. This meant that record labels, who used to control the production of music, could also control the distribution of recorded music, as well as setting the price the consumer paid to have access to the material.
The result was a sort of musical hegemony, and while there was room in this old model for independent musicians, record labels, and distributors (especially in niche genres such as punk, reggae, dance, and metal), it was very much dominated by what are termed the “Major Labels”. Tellingly, while there were six of these major labels in the 1980s and 90s, there are only three left now – Sony, Warner and Universal.
Due to the high price associated with the production of albums, record labels would sign an act using a sort of speculative investment model. This would usually mean a lengthy multi-record contract and an amount of money known as an “advance”.
As with any investment, the label would want to see a return. All costs associated with the production and distribution of the album, along with any advances, would need to be recouped before the act would see any money from record sales.
Very few albums actually recouped their costs, and even fewer yielded great profits for the artists themselves, but the hits more than made up for the misses - at least to the bean counters at the record labels.
It was a model that many independently minded musicians were not necessarily fond of. Musician and audio engineer Steve Albini’s 90s essay The Problem With Music, though not for the faint-hearted, is a succinct summary of many of the problems associated with major label record deals of the day.
From the late 80s to the early 2000s this model began to change. I believe a lot of this change can be attributed to the sudden influx of cheap recording tools developed as a result of digital technology advances.
The recording studio was no longer an expensive, elite, hard-to-join club; suddenly it was in everyone’s bedroom. Furthermore, as the internet became faster and more widely available, these DIY productions were able to be made available to a worldwide audience.
Musicians suddenly had independent means of both production and distribution. In smaller, more geographically isolated markets such as Australia, this also meant acts could have immediate exposure to the much bigger markets of North America and Europe.
What constitutes independent?
The term independent, or more commonly “indie”, label is used to basically denote a record label that is in creative control of their output, with no interference from a major label.
But the term can be misleading. While most indie labels operate without the major labels influencing their artistic vision, most still use the large business infrastructures of one of the “Big Three” to help distribute and promote their releases.
A quick look at the ARIA nominations for album of the year show indie releases by Chet Faker on Future Classic (which is distributed by Warner) and Dan Sultan on Liberation (distributed by Universal). Many indie labels are actually wholly owned subsidiaries of Warner, Sony, or Universal. These are often referred to as “imprints”.
So while some of these labels might be independent, they still rely on the market penetration that can be provided by the publicity and distribution departments of major labels.
It’s a sort of symbiotic relationship, where the major label no longer needs to spend time and money developing artists (therefore having much less risk in the investment) but still stand to profit when an act sells a truckload of records.
Meanwhile, the indie label can access the promotional capabilities and large distribution networks that the majors offer while maintaining artistic independence.
How indie labels benefit the Australian music industry
There’s a lot of negative talk around the future of profitability in recorded music. Speaking from experience, working in the record industry can sometimes feel like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
But there are a lot of positives about the current state of the industry, especially in Australia. Recorded music is now primarily an internet industry, and we’re at a point at which Aussie acts such as Flume, Gotye, Chet Faker, and the Kite String Tangle have leveraged exposure generated from online buzz to play sold-out shows not only throughout Australia but also across the USA and Europe.
With the income stream from record sales alone never likely to buy you the yacht, having a strong live show means that success of these acts’ records can be translated to an exportable and profitable product.
Cheaper music production costs have allowed artists complete autonomy over their product, from inception through to sale, which is allowing a more even distribution of wealth between the creators and distributors of the content. When it comes to recorded music, the pie might still be pretty small, but everyone’s getting a more evenly sized slice.
This is not completely true where streaming services are concerned. They have dealt far more favorably with the major labels than the indies, but this is still a very new section of the market and will most likely under go a lot of change in the coming years.
Hopefully that change will result in a more equitable profit-sharing system for the independent labels. Crowd funding has become a viable way to fund recordings, videos and even tours.
Crowd funding campaigns also narrow the gap between artist and fan, creating a sense that music is more than just a commodity to be purchased; rather, it’s a form of cultural capital that is a necessary and important part of society.
Musicians are also teaming up on commercial agreements more than ever under the assumption that remaining independent requires an income stream – so long as that income stream doesn’t interfere with artistic values, then it should be considered.
The push behind all of this has come from independently-minded musicians and label owners who ultimately just want control over their output; what’s being released, when it’s released, and how it’s released.
They might not be afraid to use the major labels when it suits them, but ultimately they’re calling the shots.
Judging from the ARIA nominations, those independent artists are calling them right and it’s an exciting time to be a part of the Australian music scene.