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.”

Does the internet cause brainrot?

Are computers making us dumb?
Illustration: Kev Gehan -

In a world of ever-advancing technology, is every advance an improvement? Is forward always better than back? Is new always to be preferred over old? The last two decades have witnessed incalculable technological progression, and one device alone – the computer – has practically changed the world. But not necessarily for the better, says Professor Susan Greenfield.

Thirty years ago the boom in the personal computer market began. Computers, primitive by modern standards, such as the BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Sinclair or Amstrad were bought for children and adults by the million. But it was only with the mass popularisation of the Internet in the early 1990s did computers – by now, modern PCs and Apple Macs – begin to saturate society.

So today, at least one generation has grown up not with books, or playing in streets and fields, but knowing only an always-on, hyper-connected world accessible through their computer monitors. And it is this instant capacity to fill time, to communicate with others, and to sate desires and curiosity without the need to think that Prof Greenfield believes could threaten a child’s mental development.

Notable neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, Greenfield suggests that what she calls “screen life” is coming to replace life in three dimensions for young children and teenagers, with potentially disastrous results.

“The brain is very sensitive to the environment, and very good at adapting to it – what we call plastic. If the environment changes in unprecedented ways, so will the brain,” she tells The Big Issue.

An example of the malleability of the brain is shown by an experiment in which one group of people were asked to play scales on the piano every day for a week, while a second group were asked merely to imagine playing the scales, visualising using the same five-finger technique. While none of them could play the piano, the areas of the brain that control finger muscles improved in just five days. Most astonishingly, both groups improved by the same amount – suffused in an environment of piano-playing, their brains had responded immediately, with or without actual physical action.

Greenfield adds: “Modern life is now very different from how it has always been. Technology has now invaded and pervaded our lives as never before. According to one survey, children of between 10 and 11 are throughout the year spending on average 500 hours with their family, about 1,200 hours with friends and 2,000 hours on the screen.”

The extent of youngsters’ screen life, including computer games, internet browsing and social networking sites like Facebook, is in danger of “infantilising” the brain.

“Computers are not bad per se, but I am worried that the screen activities in which children spend their time are infantilising the brain, keeping it in childlike state of short attention span, literal images, no metaphors or abstract concepts, no sense of narrative, no empathy, no consequences – just sensations,” she says.

Greenfield is scornful of computer games as nothing short of a waste of valuable time – perhaps not surprisingly for someone whose jam-packed diary makes her probably Britain’s Busiest Boffin.

“It is sad that technology has given us longer lives and more free time, but that people waste their time and money playing games where you achieve nothing,” she says.

“If you read a book, you gain insight into others, you handle abstract concepts, use your imagination without visual queues. If you play to rescue the princess, you don’t care about the princess, you don’t gain any insight or learn anything.”

Social networking sites also risk replacing a child’s valuable understanding of communicating in the flesh with a screen-based simulacra, one that fails to offer social interaction skills such as judging tone of voice, body language or visual queues.

With the brain reacting and changing to accommodate the experiences and stimuli it receives, Prof Greenfield sees that without anything more than rapid-fire, visual stimulation children’s intellectual ability to perform abstract reasoning would corrode. In extreme cases, it could leave children unable to distinguish between ‘comedy’ violence without consequence in computer games and violence in real life.

The core of the problem is the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that grows as children mature into adults and deals with complex reasoning, moderating correct social behaviour, decision making and the expression of personality.

An underactive, or hypoactive, prefrontal cortex is often associated with obsessiveness, a lack of idea generation, and even problems with speech, and is also found in schizophrenics and the obese. The screen activities Greenfield criticises can lead to decreased activity in the cortex, and for the young whose brains are still developing, could leave lasting underdevelopment for the rest of the adult’s life.

“It will create a generation that are restless, live only in the moment, have less sense of consequences, take the world literally, and don’t have a sense of narrative or meaning, only of immediate processing and gratification,” she says. “They live in a solipsistic world where it’s ‘all about me’, which leads to a lack of respect or empathy for others, and a disconnect between cause and effect.”

One explanation, then, for the rise in violence among teenagers, whose sensation-rich screen life drives them to take increasingly extreme action in reality to provide comparable stimulation, without connecting the concepts of violence meted out and the pain it causes. Or for the obese, for whom the experience of eating is not controlled by an understanding of overeating, or overruled by a desire for instant gratification.

Even, Greenfield said, for the financial crisis. “If you climb a tree recklessly and fall out, you won’t do it again. But if you play a computer game and lose, then you just play it again,” she says. “It’s that short-termism and disregard for consequences that has been a contributory factor.”

This need not be entirely pessimistic, however. All that is required, Greenfield says, is research into what makes screen life so attractive, and how it can be improved so that it provides the cognitive training and concepts that it lacks.

“I want to see people with a strong sense of identity, feeling fulfilled and adding to a creative society,” she says. “It is for us to generate the kind of environment that help people to develop their brains along those lines to become creative people.”

ID: The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century by Susan Greenfield is out now published by Sceptre, £8.99


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2009]