Independent record labels: born of love

Some of the independent record labels leading the scene

When EMI’s new boss announced that the firm was to axe its A&R talent scouts and hand control over to the suits in marketing, it seemed like a confirmation of what every musician always believed about the major labels putting sales above creativity. So was it because of or despite this that EMI this month sank into administration with £4bn debts?

The digital revolution of the past 10 years has hit the ‘big four’ major labels – Universal, Warner, EMI and Sony – hard. The ubiquity of the internet and communication channels such as MySpace, Facebook and off-the-shelf blogging platforms has given independent labels – and every bedroom DJ, musician, author or artist of any kind – the ability to reach audiences without relying on the established old media groups and methods of distribution.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reported in 2005 that independent labels generated 19 per cent of the world’s music sales, divided up between tens of thousands of small labels and a handful of large, established independents – for example, in Britain, Beggars Group, Domino, and Warp.

However, while the major labels account for almost 80 per cent of sales, those sales represent barely a fifth of releases. In other words, the independent sector is very busy selling not very many copies of a lot of records.

If that thriving independent sector and its music didn’t exist, would only the back catalogues of established artists, marketing-driven tie-ins with television franchises and slick pop or hip-hop acts remain? It is a chilling thought. With the existence of so much great music at stake, how do these mostly tiny labels survive? How do they cope with recording, distribution, marketing and booking? Does it pay, or is it just a labour of love?

“I’d say about 99 per cent of them are labours of love,” says Simon Singleton of Pure Groove, a label specialising in vinyl releases. “It’s about building the label into some kind of brand, something to attach to a gig night or blog to gain some recognition. It’s pretty rare to get to a point where you can make money just from selling records.”

There is certainly an element of luck: Australian label Modular Recordings’ first three releases were all hits, including The Avalanches’ award-winning album Since I Left You in 2000. Beggars Banquet, the largest UK independent, hit gold in 1979 with Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army and Are ‘Friends’ Electric? Stephen Bass, co-founder of Moshi Moshi Records, discovered Hot Chip – its first runaway success – after meeting band member Joe Goddard at work.

Singleton says: “If you can get in on a scene as it’s happening then you can beat the bigger labels to it and ride the wave. It’s much harder to take an artist and develop them into a big name.”

Stephen Pietrzykowski, of Tough Love Records, agrees: “You find that labels with a certain sound and aesthetic do better than those that don’t. It’s about a signature sound, something people can grasp,” he says. “That sort of specialisation by micro-independents is essentially doing the groundwork for larger independents, who are in turn doing it for the majors. It’s about getting the music heard. If a band plays a few shows, gets a record out, plays a festival, we’ve done our job.”

Pietrzykowski, who has released 40 records in five years and still has a day job, says up to a point contracts, fees and advances make no sense. “If you take on an artist and give them an advance, that’s a big responsibility. We make an agreement, put out a record, see how it does and split it down the middle between us,” he says. “It’s never been about the money,” he adds, “which is just as well.”

When margins are so tight – 500 vinyl singles might return £1.50 per record – a run of good releases can be affected by one that doesn’t sell, or an unforeseen event. “We nearly went under after a pressing plant went bust, taking our £1,500 with it,” Pietrzykowski recalls, ruefully. “We’ve lost money on most of our releases. We’re constantly on the brink of bankruptcy – or the next big thing.”

So, to keep afloat, labels have to not only offer the kind of personal service that the majors cannot, but to be creative in the way they generate cash from other sources.

Gigs and festivals are important, but so is providing band management or securing publishing rights to license. Moshi Moshi Records’ subscription scheme is an example: for £30, subscribers receive every single and album the label releases in a year. Building a recognisable sound is essential, says co-founder Michael McClatchey. “After all, you’re asking people to pay for singles they haven’t even heard yet,” he says. With a few hundred subscribers since November, it’s an idea to watch.

It was five years before McClatchey could quit his job in the music industry and work on the label full time. “Actually, it was a decision taken for me as I got made redundant,” he laughs. “It was an excuse to put out the stuff we couldn’t work with in our day jobs, but we’d taken it as far as we could by then as a hobby.”

Martin Brimicombe has a partner, children and a day job, but that hasn’t stopped him from running, and largely paying for, I Blame The Parents Records. Brimicombe started the label to release music by the band Extradition Order, whom he had seen live and was impressed with. “I had no idea, but there’s quite a punk, DIY way about it, it’s quite easy to find advice and get things done cheaply.” With no distribution deal, he takes records to independent record shops by hand, or sells them at gigs. Despite losing money on each of his 20-odd releases, he remains optimistic, if cautious. “After four years, I’d need to see some shift this year to carry on, but the bands I’m working with now are hard-working live acts that may do better,” he says.

At the other end of the scale is Beggars Group, which grew from a record shop in the early 1970s to the largest independent label in Europe. It is still owned and run by its founder, Martin Mills, who says: “It was done out of love then, and now, but it was much easier to sell records then.” Despite employing hundreds of staff in Britain and the US, Mills has never been the sort for spreadsheets. “We’ve never borrowed, and I’ve never really done business plans,” he says. “You have no idea how a record will do – you can only wait and see.”

For Mills, the music industry “ecology” means independents are as much a part of an artist’s success as the major that may eventually sign them. “Everyone starts on an independent, and to seem real to your fans you have to have come from somewhere and have grown organically,” he says. “It is a food chain, and it is important that food chain is supported top to bottom.”

He has no problem with staff running their own labels on the side, for example: “As labels fold or bigger independents get bought out, the sector needs to regenerate itself.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly Mills believes independents are the future, and predicts a resurgence of independent record shops whose fortunes are “bound up” with the less centralised, less corporate mechanisms of the independent music scene.

“Big labels will get smaller, and small labels bigger,” he says. “It will operate in a much smaller and more fragmented, but viable, way. It’s hard for musicians now, but you have to believe the industry will mature to encompass many ways of getting paid that don’t involve buying physical product.”

Perhaps Pietrzykowski puts it best as to why some are keeping the independent flame alive, even when all the signs are grim. “Being in music is great,” he says. “You meet interesting people and have great times. It might not be sustainable, but it’s something I love doing and one way or another it pays for itself. It doesn’t have to pay for itself in money.”

On Egypt and hypocrisy

No one can have watched the events in the Arab world unfolding this month and not been moved by the sight of spontaneous uprisings, people power, and the fall of corrupt and authoritarian regimes.

I had not paid such keen attention to the news in as long as I can remember as over those 18 days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, as 30 years of Egyptian anger and resentment boiled over and forced out the deeply unpopular president Gamal Mubarak. To see the running battles in the streets, the bravery and sheer bloody-blindedness of the protesters in the face of police violence, thugs, beatings and live ammunition used on unarmed civilians was extraordinary. To see that it worked, in some fashion, is more extraordinary still.

That a committee of military generals should be welcomed over an elected government, albeit one elected in a discredited poll, demonstrates the depth of disgust at Mubarak’s ‘revolutionary’ regime. It also shows Egypt’s unusual relationship with its army, no doubt made up itself of young conscripts not far in attitude from the protesters themselves. I was moved by the army’s statement early on that they would not fire on protesters. But the reports of army arrests of journalists and activists, of secret beatings and intimidation, and the troops’ failure to intervene between pro-Mubarak thugs and protesters revealed that everything is not as it seems. The army has an agenda of its own, and clearly decided that remaining popular — practically sanctified — in the eyes of the people was more important that backing Mubarak, whose position looked less credible by the day.

The wave of dissent has crashed down upon the sandy beaches of Libya, Algeria, Bahrain and Morocco. Whether Egypt’s neighbours can wrench freedom from their dictators’ hands remains to be seen, but even if this is possible, the true test lies in winning not the battle, but the peace that follows. The North African states historically have little in the way of civic society institutions to turn to, and those that exist are often severely compromised. They have their work cut out for them to build a new society, and the world will watch with keen interest at what follows.

What is readily apparent is how, as Libya too begins to crumble and burn, the extraordinary hypocrisy of the West is laid bare. Gaddafi’s status as a pariah was unshakable in the years since Pan Am flight 103, the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher, and supplying arms to the IRA. And yet suddenly in 2007 Tony Blair is shaking the deranged octogenarian’s hand in a desert tent. The quid pro quo was that BP got its hands on Libyan oil, Gaddafi got his hands on British weapons, and the Libyan people, despite empty promises to the contrary, continued to enjoy the absence of civic freedoms they had become accustomed to since he took power in 1969.

The US gave more than $1bn a year to fund Mubarak’s army and militias — around $50bn since 1979 — and Tunisia’s ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was also the benefactor of American largess in respect of millions of dollars of military aid and sales. In Obama’s inauguration speech he said to “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit” that he was willing to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”. Instead, American interests were best served my armouring that fist further. Both the UK and US have spent millions — whether legally or illegally — to win favour for military contracts in Saudi Arabia, one of the worlds most oppressive, conservative regimes, and still an absolute monarchy in the 21st century.

Britain, Europe and America already find it to their advantage to support weak or sham democracies such as in Algeria and Egypt, or the absolute rule of sheiks and kings in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The government, by bringing Gaddafi into the fold alongside all the other authoritarian rules in the Middle East that already enjoy the tacit or explicit support of the West, ended the only principled bit of foreign policy in the region.

It has been a century in which the West’s approach to the Middle East is stained by the most blinding hypocrisy: from the betrayal of the leaders of the Arab Revolt in 1916, to the partition of the Middle East and ousting of elected civilian governments for despots, as in Iran in 1953, to the policy volt face that saw first Iran and then the Iraq armed against the other as the winds changed. The West has always found a way to support the region’s murderous dictators in defence of a status quo that suited it, all the while espousing democracy and civic freedoms that we knew to be illusionary.

So really it should come as no surprise to find that scant days after Mubarak is ejected in favour of Egypt’s generals, our prime minister is quick to make a visit. Not only to congratulate the country on it’s new found freedom, but for Cameron to drop by in the company of Britain’s finest arms manufacturers to try and drum up some sales.

Democracies have a right to defend themselves, he retorted — which of the countries in the Middle East might he have considered truly democratic? It has barely been a week since British and American-made weapons stopped killing people on the streets of Cairo. Today, they’re still in use in Tripoli.

Perhaps the Arab world — their people, if not their governments — would be wise to find their own path to democracy, and sculpt their institutions in their own fashion rather than looking for guidance from Britain, America, and Europe — countries frequently so morally bankrupt that they will back both sides at once while at the same time selling them the means to kill their own, or each other.

A novel approach to freelancing.

I received this the other day at work, into the email account normally filled with club/gig listings requests (we have no listings), work experience requests (we don’t have room), offers of illustration (occasionally used) and the rantings of lunatics.

From: Camila-Catalina Fernandez
Subject: A Blog for you?

I am an unemployed, highly educated (Bachelor and half a masters) very young girl, living in London. I spend my days walking around Kensington or Buckingham Palace with my iPod which only has one earphone that works. I am a Swedish Latina, highly attractive, but that’s not the point. The point is that I kind of like need a big break or some publicity or even some love. If you would read my blog fablefoods.blogspot.com and maybe laugh a little or recommend it to a friend, you would make one beautiful melancholic girl very happy. Maybe you could even feature it? If you don’t, at least I know I tried.

Now, while this is rather sweet (“at least I know I tried”) it’s not exactly a professional approach. And yet, stick in a quick reference to “Swedish Latina, highly attractive”, and lo and behold, we’re checking out her website just in case. Turns out it’s militant veganism, with a side order of poorly researched opinion.

This article is one example – complaining that “Silicon Dixoide, Caramel Colour, Citric Acid and Maltodextrin in your meat” is like “buying a crucifix from the devil” is a bit like suggesting that lemons (citric acid), starch (maltodextrin), and sugar (caramel colour) are going to kill you stone dead. As for the silicon dioxide, well… I’m sure it’s really, really finely ground.