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Name: Adam Bernard
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It’s Time for Indie Labels to Step it Up
Wednesday, February 04, 2009

For decades all the indie labels out there have essentially been the Little Mac’s of the industry and when it came to the big fight they had to dodge every jab thrown their way and wait for the Mike Tyson’s of the music world to blink so they could finally have a chance to get a punch in. Now, however, with major labels failing to adapt to the internet and budgets for big releases shrinking by the day, the indies finally have a real chance at a fair fight. This is why now is the time for indie labels to step it up. How can they do this? Well, I have a few ideas.

Obviously I’ve never run a label, I’ve only seen how things work from the outside. That being said for the purposes of this article I’m going to put myself at the head of my own fictional record label and go over how I’d tackle this situation.

First, I’d make sure my artist roster is small. Just because the majors have less money doesn’t mean the indies have more. This is why indie labels can’t go dividing their funds up among numerous artists. If they want their artists to actually compete with the artists on the majors they need to try to both fund and work them as similarly as possible. Rather than giving everyone a small budget, I’d find the two to three artists I felt had the best chance to make the biggest impact and put all my time and effort into them. History has shown that once a label has a flagship artist, an artist the blows up in the mainstream, they will have a loyal fan base for a number of years. Just look at how Def Jam and Rawkus started as examples. A few artists blew up and their imprint became known as a symbol of great Hip-Hop for years to come (even when they were in the process of falling off).

Once I’d chosen the select few artists I wanted to work with I’d really work their albums. One thing I’ve noticed with the majority of indie releases is that the labels feel that putting out the album and sending one single out to college radio is all the promo they need. While this may generate enough sales to cover expenses and possibly even turn a minor profit (does anyone know if it actually does? If so, please leave a comment), it doesn’t work to create a long lasting awareness of the artist or the label. It creates more of a passing awareness. You’ll get your artist known for a month or two but then DJs and listeners will move on to whatever is sent their way next. This is how I see indie labels doing things now. They send out a single for one artist, get awareness for them for a month or two, then send out a single for the next artist on their roster. Why not send out a second and a third single for that first artist? Is his or her product not still on the shelves? Doesn’t he or she have more good songs on their album people should hear? Can’t you generate a lot more in profit this way rather than enduring the costs of having another artist record an album and having to put that entire package together?

A number of artists have proven that sometimes it takes more than one single to generate the buzz necessary to make an album a hit. Even Usher had to release a number of singles before getting the buzz he needed for the release of Confessions in 2004. By releasing a number of singles a constant awareness of the artist is created, which is something that should lead to more album sales (and concert ticket sales). By investing the money you were going to spend on another artist’s studio time to instead release another single or two and continue the promo push for your flagship artist you’re not only potentially reaping an equal, if not bigger, reward sales-wise, you’re making your flagship artist bigger and more well known, which in turn makes the label bigger and more well known, which should generate more interest in all your future releases.

I know, there’s an old adage about not putting all your eggs in one basket, and for the most part it’s a really good rule to go by. In these times, however, if an indie label wants to make the push to take it to the next level they may have to take this substantial risk to do so. The fact of the matter is all the indies out there need to realize right now is one of the few times in history that all the Little Mac’s out there have a legitimate shot to beat the Mike Tyson’s of the industry and if they don’t take advantage of it they might not see another opportunity like this ever again.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:35 AM  
  • At 12:21 PM, Blogger Thirtyseven said…

    Capital and scale: still cock-blocking every indie label on Earth in 2009.

    I agree with everything here in principle. (You actually did a great damn job of stating a lot of concepts very concisely.)

    The problem is, though, the big guys know -- and have known all along -- that the burden of innovation is not on their shoulders. They have the captial and they have the network. They only need to wait and see what innovations the little guy comes up with...and then buy them.

    This is a very old problem. Still working on a solution -- not saying this is a Law of Nature, just the way it goes...for now. We will figure out the magic bullet.

  • At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    According to Pocos Pero Locos, one artist I know who got college play was 805's The Earthquake Institute. They had a single called "Swerve," which not only did well regionally, but got video play on MTVU (which is very weird for a Latin Hip Hop duo).

    You might want to interview them as well - their sound is futuristic west coast G-funk. The lyrics, however, are very constructive - old school loyal, classy pimps who have a tendency of going nerdcore, but not to the point where their brawn brains bore the listener. I have a few songs from them if you're interested.

  • At 2:01 PM, Blogger Adam Bernard said…

    Thirtyseven - Thanks for the added insight. Sad, but true, innovators get bought a lot of the time. Bought and then controlled.

    Red - I actually have that single and the album that it's off of! I gotta get in touch with those dudes again.

  • At 2:13 PM, Blogger Paul Gargano said…

    I don't think the indies will ever replace the majors. I do, however, think that the business model the majors stubbornly adhere to is long past. With the viral spread of music via the internet, the indies are in a role that is extremely conducive to promoting talent, and breaking talent. At which point, if they choose, they can either partner with the majors to bring an artist to a higher level, "sell" the artist, or build the best they can. Until majors lose their capitol (don't forget, most are publicly traded with huge financial backing), the indies will have the hardest time competing at radio and in stores, as stations are limited, and so is shelf-space at Wal-Mart. The indies, though, have the advantage of creativity, because they don't need to sell 10,000 CDs first week to prove viability.

    I don't agree that they need, or should try, to deliver a knockout punch. I prefer an analogy to the latest Rocky Balboa movie. The indies are Rocky, and the majors are the champ, Mason Dixon (is that his name)--Now is the time for the indies to prove their mettle.

    They don't need to knock anyone out, they just need to demonstrate that they can go the distance with the majors, and the relationship will blossom from there.

  • At 9:08 AM, Blogger Whitemist said…

    And as people started to point out, this is why The record company industry has been so adamant about shutting down internet "sharing". the big thing about Napster (yes, that far back) was not the file sharing, but it allowed a promotional platform that was excellent for new bands. The old model in use is pretty bad and indi bands and others do try to work around it and maybe much more responsible for the major labels loss in sales than they will admit. Maybe I do not know what I am talking about, but maybe I have heard enough information from people who might know to know this.

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