Is There Independent Music in 2021?
7 min read

Is There Independent Music in 2021?

Hello, folks! Last week, Common Wealth, a UK-based think tank, published an interview with me that covered a wide range of topics on music financialization. I’ve written about several of these topics over the last year, but this felt like a nice synthesis of those thoughts. If you enjoy this newsletter, please do forward or recommend it to a friend! Now, let’s examine what the word “independent” might mean for the music industry in 2021.

Earlier this month, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) announced its advisory board, which included Dave Grohl, Killer Mike, the longtime producer/songwriter Jimmy Jam, and even industry legend Quincy Jones. The group was founded last year to represent the interests of independent venues (read: No Live Nation or AEG) across the United States and in rather quick fashion helped pass the Save Our Stages Act to provide relief for struggling small businesses. Now in working to get that bill passed, the group partnered with large recorded music interests. That may explain a few other members of its advisory board: Lyor Cohen (YouTube), Amy Cranford (Sony Music Publishing), and Michele Suzanne Ballantyne (RIAA).

In 2020, Spotify donated $500,000 to NIVA’s venue aid fund while continuing to drag its feet as Gimlet, Parcast, and the Ringer workers negotiated their first union contracts with the Writers Guild of America East. YouTube also helped NIVA put on a virtual concert to raise money for the group’s relief fund and increase awareness of the Save Our Stages Act. Thus, these execs getting a spot on NIVA’s board solidifies many of its professional partnerships, and considering the bill’s successful passage, this horse-trading did pay off. However, when I read that the “National INDEPENDENT Venue Association,” a group explicitly standing against Live Nation and AEG, appointed representatives from major streaming platforms, it raised an eyebrow. A look back at the early days of other small music business associations might help shed a bit of light on this tension.

During the peak and collapse of the CD-bubble, a number of trade groups with the explicit goal of representing the small record label owner started to pop up. The Association of Independent Music (AIM) was formed to represent the sizable contingent of British indie record labels (Beggars Group, Domino, XL Records, etc.). A few years later, in the United States, the Merlin Network emerged to help with independent labels adjust to the rather sudden digital economic shift in music (see: iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify). While the term“independent” may imply a separation from the mainstream record industry, the streaming era has brought with it a similar dynamic. The new model, largely shaped by the major labels, ended up corralling these small businesses into arrangements over which many owners, much less their artists and employees, had little say. Instead of dealing with the Apple Store and similar digital stores, the shift to streaming forced everyone to compete in a market share-based business model. Even the new labels that emerged post-crash claiming independence need to examine whether such titles are applicable.

A few weeks ago, Sony made a couple of noteworthy purchases. The company bought AWAL and Kobalt Neighbouring Rights, leaving Kobalt Music Group to operate primarily as a music publishing business. Henry Semmence, founder of Absolute Label Services, lamented the purchase of AWAL by Sony and the further consolidation of the music industry in Music Business Worldwide . Yet, Semmence doesn’t mention that Kobalt Music Group, who bought AWAL in 2017, raised millions of dollars from the private equity firm MSD Capital and Google Ventures, only a few years earlier. AWAL may not be a major label, but it’s firmly within the center of the financial world powering the contemporary record industry. (YouTube, owned by Google, generates billions for major labels.) The limits of independence rear when we look beyond major labels and consider other financial backers, or even tech firms that are key drivers of major labels profits. The freedom these small businesses claim to have is often fairly fleeting.

Last year, Mark Mulligan over at Midia Research wrote a couple of pieces exclaiming that “independents” are doing really well in streaming. He pointed out that “independent” could include “AI-generated music” and library music companies like Epidemic Sound, which shares an investor, Creandum, with Spotify. Again, the term independent implies freedom from the three major labels without addressing whether the new companies have different goals or financial backers than major labels and streaming platforms.

Numerous organizations appear to represent the “independent” sector of music, but they often end up acting as small business trade organizations. As a result, they advocate their commercial concerns, not those of their workers or musicians, with larger industry players. The goals of a Merlin are the will of its most powerful members, and though those goals may not align with a Universal Music Group, their methods (e.g., playlist promotion and marketing spend) still benefit this self-selecting group of labels. The increased discontent of musicians, seen in nascent efforts to unionize or push towards ideas like non-fungible tokens, points towards certain communities' refusal to accept agreements made by big indie labels and streaming platforms.

In 2003, labor historians Stanley Aronowitz and Mike Robert wrote a report for the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802 of Greater New York detailing that since the late 1970s, American major labels used subsidiary labels, or “indies," to undermine labor contracts. The ideological slipperiness of the “independent” concept predates the formation of Merlin, AIM, and many other groups. Still, over the last couple of decades, these small businesses banded together not to reject music’s tech-intermeshed future but to pull up a proper seat at the table in their own interests. If it isn’t independence from major labels or major tech financing, it becomes unclear who these small businesses define themselves against. Instead independent better shows one’s reluctance, not rejection of the current record industry.

Unheard Labor

SAG-AFTRA announced an “Influencer Agreement” that applies for contracted advertising work done on Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, etc. This agreement builds off previous work with YouTubers, and lets the union recruit new members and provide them access to the union’s pension and health care plan. I’d like to research this topic, but certainly what kind of creators may be joining the guild. Always excited to see unions tackling more digital labor issues, though I also want the workers to be set up for success within vast union bureaucracies.

In more regional news, the Music Workers Alliance, a relatively newly formed group of musicians primarily based in New York, is rallying support behind a state-based bill that would help provide public funding for the arts during this pandemic. If you’re in NYC and would like to support this effort, there’s a rally on February 25th at noon EST in Manhattan.

A Note of Financialization

Earlier this month, the Hipgnosis Songs Fund announced a $100 million investment led by Morgan Stanley Investment Management Inc. and previous investors. Music Business Worldwide noted this was the first US-based firm to invest in the UK-based company. Speaking of the United Kingdom, Round Hill Music bought the back catalog of Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall for an undisclosed sum. Round Hill Music’s other big headline is that the company’s co-founder Richard Rowe is stepping down after ten years, another high profile departure in this space after Sherrese Clarke Soares left Tempo Music Investments.

Primary Wave purchased the publishing and master royalties from two of the songwriters (Chynna Phillips and Carnie Wilson) from the successful 90s country trio Wilson Phillips. For the closing bit of news this week, Neil Jacobsin’s The Music Acquisition Company (TMAC)  is looking to raise $200 million on the New York Stock Exchange and received backing from Citibank and Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services firm. Certainly waiting to see what, if any, unique approaches TMAC will bring to this increasingly crowded market of financialized song rights.

Universal Music Group Pulls Catalog From Triller, Says TikTok Rival Has ‘Shamefully Withheld Payments’ to Artists / Triller: We Don’t Need Universal Music Group to Run our Business / TikTok and Universal Music Group Sign Global Licensing Deal - Music Business Worldwide

I could’ve included a dozen stories about the tiff between Universal Music Group and Triller. My quick read on the situation is that Universal Music Group is playing hardball with Triller over negotiations. The fact that it’s gotten so public is more funny than it is substantive. Still, that UMG, an alleged Triller investor, got into such a public spat shows that tensions can still bubble over in negotiations between a record label and a tech firm. (Also, Triller admitted to lying about user numbers in case anyone didn’t read me laying out that exact point last February.)

Investment funds forcing artists to name their price is… not a great idea. - Music Business Worldwide

There is an increasingly skeptical eye on the Hipgnosis Songs Fund’s business practice of not disclosing how much it pays for song catalogs. Tim Ingham pushes back a little bit, mentioning perhaps artists themselves don’t want a price tag put on their sales. Further, he suggests that if it were such a problem, Hipgnosis would likely not continue to raise capital and make acquisitions with such ease. I wouldn’t advocate against transparency, but the sheer obviousness of why Hipgnosis and nearly every other firm in this market are cagey with exact numbers is funny to me. Don’t spoil the fun folks, gotta have a little bit of mystery to keep the prices going up!

Free Flowing - Real Life

Liz Pelly is back with a sprawling essay, musing on proposals to democratize music culture, well beyond the methods of accessing songs. Also, happy to see my friend Henderson’s idea of the American Music Library get a little more attention, because it’s becoming my north star for music’s future.

A Field Guide to Music’s Potential Crypto Boom - Rolling Stone (Subscription)

A fairly comprehensive report on the state of cryptocurrency and the record industry. I remain curious, if not still skeptical, about how the record industry will absorb working with cryptocurrencies. This piece, however, certainly helped clarify just how many folks are interested in exploring this topic.

on diminishing newness - something old

Miranda taps into conversations about the value of music, fetishization of newness, pandemic-induced time flattening, over-reliance on nostalgia, and a broader discontent with isolated music consumption. She mentions that live music won’t be a cure-all for this, which I do agree with, but I’ll say the distorting effects of the lack of live music continue to pop up the longer this pandemic persists.

UK Parliament Member Presses YouTube Exec On Artist Payments: 'You're Not Being Transparent' - Billboard (Subscription) / YouTube and SoundCloud testify at UK’s streaming economics inquiry - Music Ally

A couple of write-ups on the recent UK Parliamentary hearings, where YouTube received a much harsher raking over the coals than most other groups and companies so far. I covered this a couple of weeks ago, but the defensive stance YouTube took in their written submission to Parliament came through during the hearing, so it will be interesting to see how that potentially contrasts with other streaming platforms put under the light.

Mention Medicare 4 All Week II - Death Panel

Last week, the healthcare-focused podcast Death Panel did a series of interviews on the proposal of Medicare for All in the United States. Considering the highly fragmented nature of music labor, which isn’t afraid to lean onto contractors, the question of whether to provide healthcare for all people should be a higher-tier music industry concern.