Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The State of independents #1

In eight years working in the music business I never attended an AIM meeting, until this week’s 10th Anniversary AGM. I have to say I rather took to it. There was an informal and certainly collective, feel to the proceedings. And a celebratory feel too but in a modest, nicely understated way. Nothing seemed too staged or rehearsed.

Hearing Alison Wenham reflect back on the ten years since AIMs inception and give her ten wishes for the new era, it wasn’t difficult to get a sense of just how much AIM has managed to achieve, against the odds I suppose, when the job in hand is basically herding cats. And what cats. Alley cats that’s for sure. As Chris Blackwell says in his forward to the AIM Anniversary brochure “The indies will always be the lifeblood, usually started by misfits who are passionate about music and the excitement of youth culture”.

Having worked on a project lately that has required partnership with a number of indie labels I can see the spot they’re in and it’s a very sticky one. If we assume a future scenario of gradual continued devaluation of recorded music (can you see any other?) then the only means to long-term survival for record labels is diversification into other revenue streams and rights ownership. In which case, only the Majors (& not all of them!) have the muscle to wrestle their way through, surely? If you run an indie label, record sales are your lifeblood – not gigs, T-shirts etc. And that means that soon enough, you’ll be relying on the true misfits of society – record buyers – to keep you going.

But surely, someone somewhere will come up with a more effective platform for indie music than those currently on the market. There are so few around, most notably e-music – the world’s number 2 music service by value. The others – Bleep.com, Beatport – are small – smaller than the sum of their parts basically.

The indie scene in the USA is a little more dynamic, but mainly due to the proliferation and popularity of music blogs – Stereogum, Aquarium Drunkard, Brooklyn Vegan et al. including my own favourites Daytrotter.com and Ear Farm. But blogs are also less than the sum of their parts. Blog aggregators like Hype Machine and Elbo.ws do a good but perfunctory job of corralling blog content, but these hardly make compelling music store experiences. The indies could do with a branded platform (digital and physical) to help them do exactly what these others fail to do – punch above weight, not below.

There cannot be a more marked indicator of indies punching below their collective weight than a glance at the annual best-seller lists. The IFPI publishes the top fifty best-selling albums worldwide each year. Over the past two years (i.e. out of 100 slots) indie label albums have featured just four times, with all of those from one label in one fanatical marketplace – Japan (Indie label Avex is basically a Major in Japan).

Small Labels, Big Ideas

At the AIM meet, board members sponsored individuals to shout out their big idea for AIM and the indie sector going forward. This was both intriguing and engaging, and the ideas were pretty good too – many of them pragmatic – like an industry database of media contacts to assist indies with their low-cost marketing efforts (a tie-in with The Guardian Media Guide perhaps?).

My favourite big idea was ‘Death to the CD promo’ – an industry wide switch to promo streaming. This is one of those no brainers for the modern age – creating a greener and more secure network for digital distribution of all promo tracks to media and brands. Not only that, but the flow of information from this network could be so much more effective than now, i.e. phoning around in vain to see if anyone in the media received or has listened to, your tracks. Not only that, with services like SoundCloud on the market, this could be achieved within a year. I’m sure it would be supported by the Majors but would be a nice one for AIM to lead. However, the idea was voted number 2, runner up.

Number 1 was this: ‘Lobby the BBC to encourage them to play a wider range of independent music on Radio 1 and Radio 2’. Now it’s easy to see why this got the most votes even in the absence of knowing what the other eight big ideas were (they’ll be on the AIM web pages by now if you’re interested). I’ve no doubt that if I switch on the radio right now (lunchtime basically) I’ll get one of Take That, Pixie Lott or if a commercial UK radio channel, inexplicably, ‘Halo’ by Texas. Either those, or (Still) Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol (aren’t they really an indie band though?).

I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog in the past how radio has a lot to answer for, in the UK and even more so in the US. Radio is still the number one music discovery platform according to surveys (though I’m convinced the surveys are wrong and that radio’s position as tastemaker is secondary to its role as background music for people who can’t be bothered to like music that much). And because of the huge audiences radio reaches it remains priority 1 for record promotion.

However, the strategic dilemma for indies is whether AIM should bother lobbying the BBC about the R1 and 2 playlists or whether it is better off working with alternative promotional platforms to get a greater presence for indies on those. To my mind it’s the latter, because I can’t see a huge audience of indie music buyers regularly tuning in to R1 and 2 during daytime, but I can see them streaming more alternative radio shows via digital channels or reading about new music in Clash, or streaming new music on Spotify.

And so to the other great dilemma of the day for indies – to license or not to license (or perhaps more how & when to license and at what price) – new digital services like Spotify. This was also a big idea: to ‘persuade digital service providers that independent music is essential for any complete, compelling and successful music service’. This idea didn’t get such a big vote on the day, but probably only because AIMs members felt this is already very much in hand – which it is, through licensing body Merlin and through digital distributors like The Orchard, IODA and Vital.

However, speaking with my strategist hat on, I’m not sure if the indies collectively aren’t missing a trick with digital licensing. Fighting your corner on deal terms is one thing, but AIM should consider if it’s worth licensing to digital streaming services at all. I’m not advocating that the indies don’t license, I’m saying that it would be a valid strategic decision not to, on the basis of unquantifiable net value (i.e. after substitution effects and relative assessment of deal terms compared with Majors).

It would be an even more valid strategy if the indies could create an alternative platform to the current crop of streaming services. On the day, several members emphasized the exclusivity and ‘quality’ of indie music and I can’t help but think that there are better ways to leverage this than licensing to a slew of services as second fiddle to Majors catalogues. They could opt to support e-music more proactively, giving it another push, though it seems that with e-music now actively courting Majors, the opportunity is lost. Or the indies could look at creating a platform of their own – perhaps working with more innovative technologies like Songbird or similar.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to an alternative platform strategy for indies is the music itself. Yes it is exclusive and of quality, and comes from a place of passion first, above commercial priorities. But that’s true of plenty of the repertoire on Major labels too. One out of 2 of my own favourite ‘indie’ bands are in fact released on major labels. While there is still a gap in the market for an indie music platform, consumers simply don’t divide music between Major and indie labels in that way.

So finally, to my big idea (with the benefit of a review of the ten presented on the day of course) as follows:

Launch a new branded platform for independent music (not exclusively indie label music, but it could begin there) that focuses on emphasizing the passion behind the music – the exclusivity, the quality etc. - everything that isn’t just availability, basically.

A boutique brand for indie music is what springs to mind. By necessity it would have a digital presence (downloads, streaming, radio and a licensing platform for blogs), but also very much a physical one as well – after all the brick & mortar space is somewhat less competitive these days. This could be through a small network of new stores or through a network arrangement of indie shops.

It’s contrarian, sure, but that’s the essence of indie culture, isn’t it?

The AIM meeting was the culmination of a week of events celebrating the tenth birthday and ‘Independents Day’ – when we are all meant to flock to our local indie music retailer to buy CDs & support the biz. I didn’t get around to shopping for indie music from an indie store on Independents Day, sadly. In the end I was too busy and not near an indie record shop – and in truth I would not know where to find one. Besides I suspect they wouldn’t be stocking my current wish-list of music. If I could have though, I would have!

My current indie music wish-list is the entire back catalogues of Spoon, Dinosaur Junior, Death Cab and Laura Veirs (only two of which are on Major labels).
Newsflash for latecomers: Glenn Peoples from Billboard (and formerly Coolfer of course) has alerted me to exactly what I refer to above - a new indie platform - in the US, called Thinkindie, here...http://digital.thinkindie.com/...which is interesting innit?
Nice use of the black sheep mascot too. One to keep an eye on.


Anonymous said...

I'm biased - I work for AIM - but excited that the AGM sparked so many ideas for you and really like your thoughts about taking the indies forwards. Cheers!

Indie said...

Great post. I support AIM, because even though they are apart from the ThinkIndie Empire, they're Indie, so that's all that matters, eh? Thanks for noticing - the site and my BlackHeadedness....spread the Gooness! Cheers mate! XOXO, TheBlackSheep

Thirtyseven said...

This site is awesome, just wanted to thank you for it. It's a huge breath of fresh air to be reading about this stuff in depth from someone with a context for it all...Hypebot is just junk food. I really appreciate the fact you're sharing all this, man.