Of the many interesting discussions going on about the state of the music industry today at this year’s South By Southwest conference was a panel called “How Indie Labels Survived the Record Biz Apocalypse.”
Jason Reynolds of Fairfax Recordings moderated the panel that included Pat Carr of Infectious Music, Josh Rosenfeld of Barsuk Records, Chris Swanson of Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans, and music attorney Matthew Kaplan.
As the title of the panel would suggest, the discussion focused on how indie labels seem to be making out better in the current shifting music industry than their major label counterparts. Or, at least that is the perception.
And while it’s true that certain indie releases over the past few years have garnered acclaim in mainstream circles that have led to very high sales numbers (see: Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, etc.), this is not to say that indie labels are doing great and are sipping champagne as they watch the major labels’ ship sink. As Swanson succinctly puts it when it comes to releasing consistently high selling albums, “we don’t have the batting average we’d like.”
The great advantage of indie labels (and consequently for the independent artists signed to those labels) is that they are much more malleable than the behemoths that are the major labels. When the music industry began to shift with the start of the age of digital, smaller labels were able to take advantage of new opportunities immediately, whereas major labels – to continue the ship metaphor – were unable to completely change course in time to keep up with trends.
“Don’t leave any stone unturned,” said Carr when it comes to strategy of small labels, “every little thing can help [the label] along and maximize it.” Though he wasn’t speaking specifically of digital, this could easily apply to the new proliferation of streaming music services. Though the platform is still widely debated by those on labels big and small, most on the panel said they were currently happy with the money coming in from these services.
This is one of those questions that can in no way be generalized, so keep in mind that every situation is specific. As illustrated above, signing to an indie label may well bring you more freedom as an artist and may mean that the label itself has much more room to use creative marketing and other strategies to get your album heard. That said, this all comes with the caveat that smaller labels will inherently have less cash and other resources to put behind you and your music. It all depends on what works for you and what kind of contract you are offered.
As a final note, one more interesting thing mentioned in the SXSW panel is that Kaplan beves that “net profit deals” can be very beneficial to both artists and labels given that the label is smaller, but that the advantage begins to fade with larger indie labels. These deals split profits evenly between artist and label and are similar (but not the same as) the currently popular 360 deals.
What it comes down to is that you must recognize what is important to you as an artist in what is included in a record contract to determine if it is the right thing for you to do.