The following MBW blog comes from Matt Brinkworth (pictured), who is Head of Digital at Omnian Music Group – home to a record label family including Captured Tracks, Sinderlyn and 2MR. Omnian’s labels are, or have been, home to the likes of Wild Nothing, HOMESHAKE, DIIV, Juan Wauters, Drahla, CULTS, Chris Cohen, Molly Burch, Beach Fossils, Mac DeMarco and more.
“Which competing indie label should we start a Twitter feud with?”
So read a joke recently tweeted into the rollercoaster world of social media from the account of Captured Tracks. It was antagonistic in the name of fun, but a couple of responses were particularly telling.
“Wait, are you guys indie?” replied a Californian post-punk band.
Another came soon after, from a smaller record company: “We are an indie label. Supporting GOOD bands you’ve never heard of. You are corporate…”
Perhaps these people were just playing along with the ‘feud’ joke. Yet, when it comes to social media, the accusation of Captured Tracks being some kind of faceless corporate masquerading as an indie label is not a new one.
Of course, anyone that knows anything about the label – from its basement beginnings to our current office and warehouse in “East Williamsburg” (aka Bushwick), Brooklyn – know we are most definitely independent.
We’re a team of 15 like-minded individuals, motivated by our love and passion for music, taking creative risks and working for a company that has solely been sustained through hard graft and reinvestment of profits by its founder, Mike Sniper.
“The point of me writing this is to explore the definition of ‘independence’ and/or ‘indie’ in the modern industry.”
However, to a much smaller or newer operation – say, independent labels operated by teams of three or less (of which there are many very good ones) – I can see why we could be viewed as no longer one with the indie struggle. (“The biggest small indie or the smallest big indie” – that’s how Mike casually described Captured Tracks the first time I met him.)
A large portion of our roster is made up of young and emerging bands but, ten years into the game, some of our artists and releases are also household names (depending on how cool your household is).
The point of me penning this blog is not to defend Captured Tracks’ place at the indie table, however. It’s to explore the definition of ‘independence’ and/or ‘indie’ in the modern industry.
Recently, Johan Svenberg, the CEO of Swedish digital distributor Record Union, called on the music industry to sign a well-publicised open letter to digital streaming services, requesting that independent content on their platforms be clearly tagged as such.
I’m all for increased DSP coverage of independent music, but unfortunately I found this to be a fairly shallow campaign. It did, however, raise some interesting questions.
Aside from the unnecessary villainization of major label artists, singling out and tagging “indie” content on streaming services is a murky endeavor. Where do we draw the line as to what counts as ‘independent’ – and who is going to verify the rules?
“Is independence clearly and simply defined as ‘anything not on a major label’? Surely, in the fragmented world 2019, it’s more nuanced than that?”
Is independence clearly and simply defined as ‘anything not on a major label’? Surely, in the fragmented world 2019, it’s more nuanced than that?
Many independent labels are distributed by majors and their subsidiary companies, alongside many independent artists who are signed to label services deals at the ‘Big Three’.
Furthermore, does the definition of ‘independence’ apply to an artist that is paid a very large sum of money by a streaming service, or a tech giant, fashion brand or airline, to create their music?
If we plan on truly modernizing this once-unifying term, we better figure out the rules.
A strong romanticisation remains out there which suggests that the ‘indie’ music industry is a utopian level playing field.
Yet when there are artists on indie labels whose budgets likely dwarf those of new acts on major labels, can we approach the independent sector with such a blanket mentality?
“Within the independents claiming 39.9% of the global recorded music market, some ‘indies’ are afforded better opportunities than others.”
Do we feel an artist who has ascended to the heights of, say, Adele is in need of more support on streaming services due to being signed to an independent label?
The indie music industry is its own unique tiered ecosystem – with its own disparities between tiers. The hurdles faced by a label like Captured Tracks are very real but very different to those faced by a new label starting out, and the same goes for much larger independent record companies than us.
Identifying this fact doesn’t have to lead to community infighting or snobbery, but we do perhaps need to be better at addressing the fact that, within the independents claiming 39.9% of the global recorded music market, some ‘indies’ are afforded better opportunities than others.
We talk a lot about the growth in global revenue for the indie sector, but we rarely discuss the distribution of it.
So, can one label be more ‘indie’ than another? Is there a line that one can cross in terms of revenue, team size or real estate that causes us to relinquish our membership to the real indie world?
The success of an independent label or artist is certainly something that should be celebrated. And perhaps all of these other factors are put aside if one thing remains: the indie mentality.
Speaking broadly, I believe ‘independent music’ represents that which requires protection and support. Putting aside their jab at Captured Tracks, maybe that disgruntled tweeter put it best: “Supporting GOOD bands you’ve never heard of.”
“attempting to convincingly define all non-major label content under the ‘independent’ term is becoming increasingly fraught with complication.”
That’s the true ‘indie’ ethos; an ignorance of commercial viability in favour of pure belief in art. Indeed, this is what attracts many of us to working at an independent in the first place. The infinite supply of tote bags is just a bonus.
Then again, adding to the confusion, there are certainly independent labels out there that don’t subscribe to this mentality, yet who have no affiliation with a major corporation.
The further the music industry moves away from a major label monopoly, the better. Yet attempting to convincingly define all non-major label content under the ‘independent’ term is becoming increasingly fraught with complication.
Is a tag which now covers such a broad range of organizations and artists really something to get romantic about?Music Business Worldwide