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There’s little doubt that today’s independent music artists are more empowered than ever before. Thanks to the internet, social media, streaming and the subsequent rise of distributors and artist and label services companies, independent artists in 2020 no longer have to pass through the doors of multiple gatekeepers in order to get their music out into the world and build a fanbase. This ease of access is resulting in a thriving indie music business that includes a diverse group of artists who are able to make a living from their work on their own terms. In 2019, Midia Research says that artists without record labels represented the fastest-growing segment of the global recorded music business, generating $873m in revenue — a figure that’s up 32% from 2018, counting for a 4.1% share of the global music industry.

At the same time, the companies that service these artists are thriving. Digital distributor and publishing admin service TuneCore, which operates under Believe, tells us that their active user base has doubled over the last five years. In addition, the US-born company has expanded into Germany, France, Italy, the UK, India, Russia and Brazil. Revenues at Stockholm-based independent label and distribution company Amuse increased 209% in 2019 to reach $9.5m and CEO Diego Farias says that hundreds of thousands of artists have signed up to use the service for independent music distribution over the last few years. And the artist and label services division of independent German music company K7 now services around 100 labels — up from 20 in 2012 — while boasting a multi-million pound turnover. There are a wealth of success stories beyond these.

 

The democratisation of the music industry

The variety of opportunities for independent music artists that these services offer have created a new business model for the music industry. Once upon a time, artists had little option but to sign away their master recording rights and enter into deals that Kanye West described as “modern day slavery” earlier this year. Today, those who are willing to put the hard work in can build a career whilst maintaining control over their creativity and vision, and own their own rights too.

One of the perceived barriers to entry for musicians is lack of investment and marketing might — which traditionally was only gifted to the chosen few by labels. However, thanks to innovation from independent companies, that’s no longer the case. Amuse offers DIY artists distributing through its service advances on future earnings through its Fast Forward programme and Farias says this is a key example of how the music industry is becoming more democratic. Amuse isn’t the only self-serve distributor to offer advances — DistroKid, Stem and TuneCore do the same. These advances can be used on marketing, which, as Farias explains below, is also an area that’s also become far less reliant on gatekeepers over the last decade.

He says: “One of the reasons why you would go to a major in the past was their incredible ability to take your song, put you on the David Letterman show, the front page of Billboard, radio, whatever, in an instant and just break you into stardom with very proven methods. Consumption patterns of media have completely changed over the course of five to ten years and it has become more and more difficult for majors to guarantee those types of results from their marketing. The other reason to go to majors has always been money, the capital to be able to invest in a “WAP” style video — it takes a tonne of dollars to do a video like that. But the emergence of more independent services that have money in their pockets is perhaps eroding that need to go to a major just because of that capital.”

One of the reasons why you would go to a major in the past was their incredible ability to take your song, put you on the David Letterman show, the front page of Billboard, radio, whatever, in an instant and just break you into stardom with very proven methods – Farias

As well as empowering artists at all levels, what this results in is a whole middle tier of independent music artists who wouldn’t usually get picked up by the major players but are still able to make a modest living from music. Farias points to the increasing globalisation of the music industry as one of the reasons why these kinds of artists can survive. “They could have global audiences which means they are doing hundreds of thousands of streams every day but because of how wide the audience reaches, or how spread out it is, they might never pick up a gold album anywhere,” he explains.

 

Artists in control

For those that do decide to enter the doors of a label at some point, TuneCore Chief Revenue Officer Andreea Gleeson says artists also have the power to maintain control of their career and creative output while signed to a more traditional deal. She explains: “You hear this all the time from a lot of artists — labels would say, ‘Hey, you have to fit in this box, you have to sound this way’. That is not the case anymore because a lot of artists have been able to make those decisions and get their sound. At the end of the day, if they put out music that’s their art, listeners are the ones that actually make the decisions and say, ‘This is what we like.’” Going forward, Gleeson predicts that artists having an increasing level of involvement in their career will “change the dynamic of how label deals are structured and how that support happens.”

According to the manager of British rapper AJ Tracey, Andy Musgrave, that shift is already happening. Tracey’s career was first built by playing small shows and reinvesting money made through them into music videos, mastering and artwork, while distributing music through Ditto and keeping overheads low by working with up and coming directors, engineers and producers (it also helped that Tracey still lived at home). They later signed a distribution deal with ADA, allowing Tracey to keep the master rights for his recordings, and he hit #3 on the UK’s albums chart with his debut last year and has released four Top 5 singles to date. As a result of that impressive traction, the deals Musgrave is being offered from major companies are now on vastly more favourable terms than those that would be offered to an artist without an audience.

There are two fundamental differences — actual master ownership has become less common, major labels now are wary of even asking for ownership, and licensing terms – Musgrave

“There are two fundamental differences — actual master ownership has become less common, major labels now are wary of even asking for ownership, and licensing terms,” he told the Guardian. “For an artist like AJ, the fundamental terms that we’re seeing is owning his rights and decision making process, and getting the lion’s share of the income. The long licence term for recording is more like short term and the 80/20 royalty split in the label’s favour is completely reversed and more in line with the distribution model.”

 

Tips for success

So if you are a DIY artist, what’s the difference between one who is able to maintain a living, and one who remains relatively unknown? Adrian Hughes, who is Head of Artist and Label Services at K7, says: “There needs to be a lot of drive from the artist side. We can compliment what’s already happening and build campaigns around that, but it helps if there’s a clear creative direction, an established fanbase and for the media and radio and everything else to be working well already.”

Farias says while it is possible for a track to take off in the streaming age and take an unknown artist into the stratosphere, the route that’s always existed and has hard work at its core, is the only one you can control and therefore should be focusing on. He says that being an independent music artist “entails being really savvy about the market and working your arse off, like in any other job. You sit down, really create a plan for what you’re doing and go after it. Rely on your talent, your artistic skill, present it to people, make sure that you partner with the right people, figure out exactly how the marketing works and what works for your track, and start working the song, never giving up.”

The other thing I’d say is work at it and be consistent and don’t be afraid to fail. Just dig in and learn about it… If it doesn’t work, move on and test something else – Gleeson

On the subject of how to market your music independently, Gleeson says the key ingredients are authenticity and a will to learn from your mistakes. She explains: “Number one is be authentic, be yourself and don’t try to be someone you’re not. Do things that make you feel comfortable and in line with your artistry. For example, if you see that it’s a trend to do a TikTok dance challenge, but that’s not who you are, don’t do it. You have to find the things in your marketing that really resonate with what you are comfortable with, what you’re about, what you’re passionate about and have that come through.”

Gleeson concludes: “The other thing I’d say is work at it and be consistent and don’t be afraid to fail. Just dig in and learn about it. If you need to learn about paid media and how to run ads, do it, then do some tests. If it doesn’t work, move on and test something else. Eventually you’ll find the thing that gives you traction. At the end of the day, keep iterating, evolving, learning. That’s usually the secret to success.”

What’s next?

 In future, Gleeson expects the independent market to continue going from strength to strength. She says: “I think it’s going to be a continuation of what we’ve been seeing, with DIY artists being more in control and more involved in their career.” TuneCore is focused on supporting artists through education via blog posts and guides that Gleeson says they are working to improve with a programme that will offer more sophisticated education for artists hitting certain levels in order to help them advance their career even further. “Our goal is to get artists from that entry-level state up to the highest levels possible, as quickly as possible,” she says. “That’s where we see a lot of opportunity.”

I think this year has seen a bit of a change back to the value of recorded music with corona and the live sector taking a bit of a hit – Hughes

Hughes sees the artist and label services sector evolving with technology and offering a wider range of services to assist artists in building their careers. “I think this year has seen a bit of a change back to the value of recorded music with corona and the live sector taking a bit of a hit,” he says. “So that’s helped in creating a renewed focus on the sector as an important part of an artist’s livelihood. Now it’s about trying to stay ahead of the curve, helping artists to navigate new technology, and offering a range of different services that continue developing their access to contacts and creative vision.”

Farias also expects continued growth in the independent sector and says that the goal of Amuse is to become “the biggest hybrid service that we are in the world.” He continues: “I’m seeing strong indicators for that too — we are growing at a fast pace across multiple territories, Latin America, Asia, we are seeing new talent from Vietnam doing incredible numbers, the US continues to be a very strong driver of growth for us and the same goes for the UK and the rest of Europe. Amuse has become a global player in this space through our super easy to access services, the value proposition that we’ve created, our technical innovation and the reputation we have of being super artist-friendly. I think that’s the model that’s going to conquer the world.”

 

Top Image: Getty Images – MEDITERANNEAN


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About Author

Rhian Jones

Rhian Jones is a respected journalist and author who specialises in writing about the music business. Titles she regularly contributes to include The Guardian, Music Business Worldwide and Hits Daily Double. Born into a family of musicians, Rhian studied music at college before training as a writer after realising performing was not her forte. She started her professional career at trade title Music Week, rising through the ranks to news editor, before embarking on a full-time freelance career in 2015. Other titles where you'll find her byline include The Independent, Vice, The Sunday Telegraph and Billboard. Her health-focused career guide for musicians co-authored with Lucy Heyman, Sound Advice, will be published in January 2021.

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