Indie Music’s Big Identity Crises

(photo © live4ever)

(photo © live4ever)

To fit the description of a music business mogul, no one could be more suited than Tom Silverman. One of the prominent and seminal self-made figures in the industry, passing enthusiasts will undoubtedly be familiar with his name and, of course, his company that became one of the most successful of all independent labels, Tommy Boy Records.

At the recent (Feb 2010) New Music Seminar in LA – a yearly event which also takes place in New York and Chicago, and which Silverman originally launched and later revived in 2009 – the Tommy Boy CEO was sharing his knowledge and vision with the eager masses, and brought to light the current state of the record business – most importantly the current state of the independent sector.

The common misconception is that the rise in media and information technology over recent years has benefited the small indie artist that had previously no means of exposure. Recent industry analysis has shown that there is even a smaller chance of success for low-budget acts. The Internet (specifically the Myspaces, Facebooks, CD Babys and plethora of music-sharing sites) was seen to have put a fan-base at the fingertips of small-time hopefuls. But in areas where results count, it has been proven otherwise – by a significant margin.

tom-silvermanInterviewed on Silverman was reciting figures from Nielsen Soundscan, the sales tracking company for the US, Canada and UK, which monitors shop sales (through cash registers in 14,000 outlets) as well as sales in the digital domain. For the data that was just released for 2009, the overall figures were good: though album sales were down 12.7%, total sales were up 2.1%. Digital and online sales grew by 8.3%, which was roughly 100 million extra tracks when compared to the previous year.

But in order to track the state of independent sales, he drew attention to figures from 2008. This year saw 1500 releases sell over 10,000 album units, but only 227 of them were from acts that had reached the 10,000 mark for the first time (this figure is what is referred to as the “obscurity line” – the point at which an artist or group, who by no means will be considered successful, will have their first foot in the door).

lady-gagaSilverman chose to dig a little further and discovered that just 14 of the 227 were unaffiliated, wholly-independent artists, while a little over half were on independent labels. “And that includes Lady Gaga in that number of 227”, he was clear to point out. Circumstances proved more bleak when he discovered that two of the 14 did not qualify: one was a case of mistaken identity (the distributor being confused as the artist) and another, a hip-hop artist, had received substantial funding to promote their career. The remaining number – mainly alternative rock acts – were on small labels with big budgets, and two had gained exposure on reality TV shows.

So in 2008, twelve new independent acts had albums that sold over 10,000 units – that’s twelve out of 105,575 commercially-released albums for the year. The biggest success story was Bon Iver, whose meteoric rise came with the debut album, “For Emma, Forever Ago” (a record that was made with one of the most basic of recording setups, consisting of a Shure SM57, a Silvertone guitar and a borrowed drum kit). Another independent name to make a splash in 2009 was the school teacher from Atlanta, Georgia, Corey Smith, who by July of that year had made over $4 million in music, ticket and merchandise sales – all of which grew from relatively humble beginnings.

Silverman drew from his own experiences and those of Bon Iver and Smith for his new music industry manifesto. What both these artists share in common with Tommy Boy’s founder – and has separated them from the rest of the pack – is his relentless tenacity and exceptional skill in making the most out of nothing.

houseofpainThe young entrepreneur launched Tommy Boy Records in 1981, after starting out with a $5,000 loan from his parents. Breaking acts such as De La Soul, House of Pain (photo) and later Coolio, Tommy Boy became one of most brand-focused independents to ever shake up the music business and soon the big boys wanted a bite of the cherry. 50% of Tommy Boy was sold to Warner Bros in 1985, but the mid-90s, Silverman bought back a share of the company and, by 2002, had made Tommy Boy independent once again – this time re-branded as Tommy Boy Entertainment.

But now Tommy Boy wasn’t just a record company, but a “strategic artists positioning company”, as its CEO likes to put it. “How we used to make money was selling records; but we don’t see it as the way we can make money now. It’s one of the streams of revenue that we can make money from, but it’s no longer the most significant or even the second most significant way”.

At the LA seminar, he also brought great insight into the tumultuous state of the modern industry. Silverman knows that artists have to think of other revenue sources if they are going to make a serious career in music – one such ploy being to release more singles/ EPs more regularly, rather than the outdated bi-annual approach – “more of a periodical than an album-making business”.

If this is how Americans are trying to solve the rubrics-cube of the current music business, it would be fair to say there is a lot more going on here than in the UK or Europe. The UK independent scene has – just like the majority of the US – has succumbed to the financial pressures of breaking an artist. There are currently no Bon Iver or Corey Smith success stories to report and, with the diminishing UK market, there is even less room for one to come around.

According to the British Phonographic Institute (BPI), album sales fell by 3.5% in 2009, but more mainstream single sales rose an incredible 32.7% (making this the best singles year to date). However, the biggest sellers – Susan Boyle, Lady Gaga and Michael Bublé – couldn’t be further from indie stock.

This singles shift has mainly come from the rise in online outlets. And even though the digital market was up 12.5% on album sales, after major high street music stores were hit by recession (notably Woolworths and Zavvi), the traditional LP suffered.

vampire-weekend_smallBPI’s indie album chart also mirrors the statistics used by Silverman to highlight the plight of the self-reliant artist: Powerhouse independent label XL recordings has cordoned off the top two positions, with Vampire Weekend’s “Contra” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “I’m New Here” being the biggest sellers of 2010 so far. Next in line is Temper Trap – the latest hype released from Infectious records – while the usual Domino Recording trump card of the Arctic Monkeys have their third release, “Humbug”, as well as their four-year old debut sitting firmly in the top 10 – two albums distributed by EMI and Warner in other territories.

All this evidence is proof that the self-made ‘indie’ artist is often just a simple marketing tool for labels (and majors hiding behind the credibility of their ‘independent’ subsidiaries). Before the Internet dictated our cultural focus, the self-made musician could go farther with far less. Now we could be in even more danger of facing a musical identity that has financial prowess as the protagonist and great music resigned to a cameo appearance.

Conor O’Brien

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