I’ve been thinking about the concept of indie record labels all week after an article on the Guardian about everyone’s favourite currency-related rapper 50 Cent signing to “independent distributor Caroline”. Now for those that don’t keep up to speed with the coming and goings of the many, many major imprints Caroline is Universal’s entry into the much burgeoning “Label Services” sector (which it isn’t anything at all like Co-Op was previously so I don’t know why you’re thinking that), and offers a range of services from distribution to marketing to publicity and all the other things that a label does.
They’re a fine bunch of people and I’m sure they’ll do well, but does that sound anything like something you could call independent?
No I thought not.
Now this isn’t really the Guardian’s fault as looking around the same phrase is picked up elsewhere, so I imagine was on a press release. On reading it I was, as I’m sure you are now, apoplectic with rage (insert sarcasm emoji here) but it got me thinking – ok, they’re obviously not indie, but what exactly is the definition?
Wikipedia has a fairly reasonable definition:
An independent record label (or indie record label) is a record label operating without the funding of or outside the organizations of the major record labels. A great number of bands and musical acts begin on independent labels.
(I love the inherent slight on indie labels saying that bands “begin” on independent labels.)
I was originally thinking that the funding side of things might be the differentiator – get money from a major, then you’re not indie. Easy. But these days, it’s actually a bit tricky to know if that’s the case – with a label services deal, who’s to say that Universal have actually stumped up any cash for ol’ fiddy; it could be a straight distribution deal, or distribution and some paid services. And confusingly, you could have some artists on a label that you might define as independent, and some that get funding from a major.
So after further thought just thinking about it in terms of funding seems… Less then ideal. So how about distribution then – that’s always how it used to be defined, right? Oh, but quite a few significant indies go through major distribution.
Ok then, how about…
Well actually how about we totally forget about the term indie completely?
Why, exactly, does it matter whether a band is putting out music through a “major” or an “indie”? And in the modern industry, with a vast range of different models and contracts what does the differentiation even mean anyway?
It seems like a relic from a bygone era, and worse then that I think it damages people’s perceptions and outlook, both inside the industry and as fans. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being signed to a major, and there’s nothing inherently better about being signed to an indie. It’s a pointless separation of music into two camps.
You are not a hard done by indie label, not getting breaks because you’re somehow not part of the right club.
You’re not sticking it to the man, breaking out of the system.
You’re just putting out music. So is everybody else.
If you want to have sides – and let’s face it, everyone loves to back a team – then we should revise what it means to be indie to better represent the music market in 2014. It’s actually pretty simple:
If the artist retains the rights to their music, then they are independent.
It doesn’t matter who’s releasing it, major, indie, distributer, whoever – they are an independent artist. If they don’t control the rights to their recordings, then how on earth could you were ever say they are independent? Independent of what exactly?
It’s simple, makes sense and, at least to me, feels “right”.
Long live the new indies.
I hate writing about music.
Chiefly I, myself, take great displeasure in writing about the stuff, but then also quite frankly – and with no disrespect to anyone reading who does write about it – I am no fan of any writing about music.
I mean, what is it good for?
Permit me to backtrack and clarify slightly; I do not mean any writing that has anything to do with music. Interviews: fine. Features: fine. News: fine. What raises my heckles is writing that is actually about the music itself.
If I never read about a “hypnotic baseline” or “x band meets y band” or “difficult second album syndrome” again it will be too soon. Can you remember the last time you read an album review that didn’t resort at some point to some formulaic cliche? And again: what is it good for? Gone are the days where to decide whether you wanted to buy a record you had to read a review and hope that the journalistic reinterpretation actually bore some relation to what the bloody thing sounded like.
Now: just listen to it. Decide for yourself.
Of course, you need a filter, and reviews still provide some vital sense of filtration, even if the words they contain are frequently padded with twaddle. My favourite reviews currently are Pitchfork’s reviews – not the full length ones, don’t be silly, but the ones presented in their Spotify app – you get probably 30 words at most, the rating and a link to start listening. Job done.
End of year lists are simultaneously the most useful – from a discovery point of view – but also most horrendous – from a writing point of view – pieces of music journalism there are. The linguistic hoops that you inherently have to jump through to give some indication of why this record is ranked better then that record leave no room for anything of quality, but yet frequently people feel the need to do a couple of lines (or more) about each.
Now, it’s quite probable I’m just tilting at windmills; the industry has too much set up feeding the review cycle, so we’ll have to put up with it.
Bands will forever sound like x meets y.
But it does feel like there’s got be a better way of doing it.
Anyway, here’s my yearly dose of music journalism entitled ‘What, right now, were my favourite records in 2013 (excluding Beyoncé as I still haven’t listened to that yet)’:
1. Arcade Fire – Reflektor (Best thing they’ve ever done. Yes including Funeral)
2. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (First Daft Punk album I’ve liked enough to buy)
3. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (More like Hannah Hunt please)
4. Kanye – Yeezus (Shame about the lyrics)
5. Daughter – If You Leave (Sorry, just got something in my eye…)
6. Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana (Wish MTV2 still existed to play stuff like this)
7. Mount Kimbie – Cold Spring Fault Less youth (Really great)
8. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold (Hardly original but who cares?)
9. Arctic Monkeys – AM (Didn’t think they still had it in ‘em)
10. The National – Trouble Will Find You (A weak National record is still a good record)
11. Atoms For Peace – Amok (Better live then on record but still great)
12. The Strokes – Comedown Machine (Best thing they’ve done in years)
13. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe (Good vibes)
14. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito (Still got it)
15. Haim – Days Are Gone (Brilliant)
16. Sampha – Dual EP (Who says I can’t put an EP on this list?)
17. Gold Panda – Half of Where You Live (Turns out I like electronic music now)
18. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt (Spellcheck nightmare)
19. Darkside – Psychic (Blade Runner soundtrack)
20. Savages – Silence Yourself (Probably should be higher on this list, really)
21. Lots of other stuff. It was a good year, wasn’t it?
The Internet is fatigued.
Or, to be more accurate and a little less snappy; people that work on the Internet are fatigued. Tired out. Bored.
We are in an interesting time when it comes to working in digital. Digital used to be an exciting wild west, where new completely revolutionary sites, apps and devices would materialise out of the either on an extremely regular basis. We used to be the trail blazers, getting glimpses into a future that was once the preserve of science fiction books and films.
I remember trying to explain Twitter to people when it first came out – why it was worth participating in – and it was practically impossible. It was a whole new concept, and that was exciting.
But now Twitter is 6 years old. It’s still just as interesting and useful a medium now – if not more so – then it was at the start, but it’s not exciting any more, is it? If you’re working in digital yes, advances in ad targeting, or photo previews in the timeline, or any of the other features Twitter have added recently might be useful to your job but they’re not going to get you out of bed in the morning, are they?
Same applies to Facebook, where I’ve seen countless people working in digital saying it’s becoming less relevant, whereas I think that in truth that really means it’s becoming less exciting.
There has always been a boom and bust cycle online. Yahoo gave way to Alta Vista which gave way to Google. Friendster, MySpace, Facebook. Countless other niches that follow a similar pattern. The industry is obsessed with that pattern, billing everything as an “[insert category leader] killer”, and that continual churn is what so many people are used to working towards. Looking for the next big thing, to jump on it first and to ride that wave. Not necessarily for personal gain or anything quite so crass, but because that’s what makes certain types of people – who there are lots of in digital – tick.
Going back to Facebook, everyone at the moment is looking to messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat as the next step in the cycle. “These apps are massive with the youth” they say “they’re going to be Facebook’s downfall”. Et cetera, et cetera. But there’s always an assumption that the pattern must continue, that Facebook will fall and something else will rise to take its place.
But that isn’t inherently true.
We are entering a point of maturity online and digitally. It is inevitable that at some point things will settle and stabilise, much as any industry does, and I think we’re beginning to see the start of that. The Wild West days are over, and we’re starting to see the state of play settle down.
Innovation and change is driven by technology, and technology adoption, and people working in digital have got used to this as the norm. But there are certain areas that are seeing the pace in technology innovation slow. The web is one of them, where adoption is incredibly high and new, significant browser features are low. Hence, the cycle slows and sites and companies become more persistent (how long now have you been using Google to search for things?)
This of course doesn’t mean innovation is dead, far from it. Mobile devices are still changing the landscape as they become more fully featured; there is still so much more to do with things like location services, wearable computing and the like. But these are new categories that don’t necessarily destroy the old ones. They add, complement maybe, but no more destroy then TV did with radio.
Back to boredom, then. People working in digital are bored because, in short, some of it is just not that exciting any more. But that really hits on the real problem – “digital” doesn’t exist any more. Maybe this is obvious; we’ve got to a point where digital is as inherent in everything as electricity is. Those who started working in digital did so when it was a specific field you could work in (I’m sure some of you remember the phrase “new media”, for example), but now working in digital doesn’t mean anything at all – saying you work in digital is as ridiculous as saying that you work in physical. So by working in “digital” that really means you’re flailing around trying to find something exciting in a field that is no longer by definition exciting, because it’s a field that no longer exists separate from anything else.
Up until this point it’s been the technology that’s been interesting, but ahead of us we need to refocus on back on creativity, and what we can do with what is now established. It’s no longer a race to find the next thing, but a race to do the best thing.
Innovation in content, not technology.
Sounds pretty exciting to me.
Stats are dangerous.
You know how your parents would tell you off as a child if you tried to stick your fingers in a plug socket? Yeah, stats are like that.
There’s an obsession in certain parts of the music industry, particularly in digital marketing, with stats. Metrics. Percentage increases. Growth.
Mostly this is like sticking a light bulb in your mouth, poking around the socket with a screwdriver and then flicking the “on” switch. You might think you’re going to get some illumination on the situation, but you really really don’t.
There are two key reasons why stats in the music industry are misleading to the point of self harm: luck and magic.
Firstly, then; luck. The tricky thing about how the whole music game works is that no one actually knows what they’re doing and why anything really happens. Sorry if this comes as a shock to anyone, I don’t mean it personally. It is true though. To break an artist there a million and one things that have to happen, most of which no one has any control over. You can certainly make it so those things don’t happen of course, and you can increase the chances that they do (a little), but you can’t actually force it.
My favourite example of this is Adele’s second record. Just how on earth did that sell so many copies? Well, I can exclusively reveal that it was solely down to…
There is, of course, no one reason, but a million little bits of luck that all added up into the perfect storm. In the UK, for example, late in the summer the year before it came out the most popular song for prospective X-Factor contestants to sing was ‘Make You Feel My Love’ from her first record. This song – strangely, looking back now – had never been a big hit when it was first released, but because of the bombardment of attention it received on mainstream TV it was transformed into a top 5 single.
Just at the point where the new album was being launched, she was propelled back into popular consciousness. There’s no way you could have predicted that, or engineered it. It was just luck, and that campaign was full of lucky breaks time and time again.
Every release has luck like that, in a smaller more everyday form. Luck that a live agent came to this week’s good gig, rather then last week’s stinker. Luck that a radio producer picked this track to play out rather then that track. Luck that a TV show had a last minute drop out so had a slot to fill.
Stats and data don’t know about luck.
They don’t know about magic either.
Magic is why marketing music isn’t quite like marketing anything else. Magic is why people will queue up to buy gig tickets overnight, or why one track can be on an advert and sell loads of records, where another does not. Without getting too hippy about it, music resonates with the soul in a way that transcends traditional commercial reasoning. It moves people in big ways and little ways, in subtle ways and life changing ways.
Posting an image of whatever to Facebook because it gets better reach then a link to an interesting interview misses the point. It misses the opportunity for magic, and the opportunities for luck that magic creates.
Clicking from a banner ad directly to iTunes because it reduces the amount of steps from view to purchase misses the point because it too misses the opportunity for magic. Who sees an advert and there and then thinks “I must buy this right now”? Whereas if you aid people in discovering the music, in getting deeper into it then the magic will do the rest.
Digital stats often miss that music is not a closed system. Buying from iTunes or Amazon is not the only option. If you see a pre-roll on YouTube and the next day walk into Rough Trade and buy an LP where, exactly, is your conversion data? Or see a tweet and then open up Spotify?
This is not to say that all of this data is useless, just that it is significantly unrepresentative of what is actually happening. Don’t let them lead you, or be your decision maker, because as solid and analytical and smart as they might seem, they are only a small window onto a tiny world.
Stats are dangerous. Make sure they don’t mean you lose the magic and miss the luck.
I've been watching books.
Or rather, not.
For the last week or so on my daily zig-zag across the capital I've been trying to spot people reading books. I think for the purposes of informal but informative data collection I've got a good sample size, across morning commutes, day time train jaunts and late night bus rides. The full spectrum of people reading in public except, say, a lazy lunchtime spent underneath a tree disappearing. But close enough to do.
And how many books did I see?
One lonely, battered copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on a dank and humid tube carriage. I suppose if you were to see a book in the wild there must be a not insignificant chance that it would be from J K Rowlings' repertoire.
One book then, but that's of course not to say that their weren't people _reading._ And in a multitude of different ways and forms. I was originally planning to count up all the assorted devices being used but I lost count, for shame, but the key word is "devices" - in this very modern tip-of-the-iceberg sample group, the book is dead. Not dying; done. The knife is firmly in the hand of the Kindle - that much almost goes without saying - but it's also a death by a thousand other cuts with the proliferation of an assorted variety of iPads, tablets and e-readers.
For books, this is a new. The Kindle was born in 2007, but didn't become available on these shores until 2009, a scant 4 years ago. 4 years to leave a dogeared edition of a story about a wizard as physical literatures last ambassador. But despite that, there's still so much obvious scope for innovation and revolution - where's the Spotify for books? Or, say, the equivalent of a free promotional MP3? Less than half a decade is long enough to completely change things, but it's phase one of something wholly new.
For books, the fun is just getting started.
TV and film are further down this road, but it's also - due to the entertaining mess that is the field of global video rights - a twisty one. A twisty one, with some significant potholes in. In fact, you know in the film 'Speed', where they somehow successfully jump a bus over a impossibly large 50 ft gap in an unfinished highway? Imagine that with potholes, no run up and it happening in the real world where there's actually physics.
I may have stretched that metaphor a tad too far, but you get my point. Video rights are tricky.
Countless words have been bashed out of late on the rise of Netflix, and with good reason - it's interesting and what they are doing there is interesting. They are taking the medium in a direction that is modern and casts off the existing tropes of video distribution, of TV shows coming out week by week, or paying a la carte for films.
Netflix though, is by no means "it". There are countless players, and this is all still a niche that is only now starting to impact on the mass market. And those countless players also means countless fragmentation, of certain content being only available through certain places, and the all the problems with piracy and consumer confusion that comes along with. It's an area that's innovative, disruptive, ever changing but ultimately still a mess as anyone who has ever tried to watch a new episode of Game of Thrones will tell you.
When placed next to books and video, music is the older, wiser brother. The revolutions that other forms of media are only going through now happened years ago for music. It's a story we all know well, of course, but the transition from Napster to iPod to iTunes to mass-market digital consumption is easy to take for granted now.
The digital music market today is a mature - while still ever changing and adapting - market. Singles are digital now, and roughly 50% of albums sales are as well. Out of all media - ignoring for the moment video games, as that market is far newer in relative terms and less entrenched - music has handled the ongoing transition from a physical business to a digital one the most successfully.
Of course it's all still shifting, but that speaks to its maturity and health. Streaming is obviously the hot topic at the moment, but then you look at the streaming market and see quite a few distinct players, all with slightly different feature sets, and all carrying significant licensed music. You don't get the patchy issues of catalogue you get with video, for example. There's no equivalent here of the "Game of Thrones problem" - in the large part, all the services have roughly the same content. Yes, there are some noted streaming holdouts and ongoing conversation surrounding that, but that feels like a short term blip, in the same way that the noted holdouts from iTunes were (which, don't forget, included Radiohead).
Whether you want to file it alongside other streaming services or not, YouTube is probably the most fascinating platform at the moment for music, as even more so then subscription-based services it's something completely different. It's completely open and self service, democratic and deeply "Internet" in it's philosophy. Yet it has the most sophisticated revenue system that the music industry has ever seen. Someone can upload a video they've made using an artist's music, and that artist can choose whether that's ok and also if they'd like to make money off it, all in real time, all taking into account the vagaries of global rights ownership, and all whilst being surprisingly simple.
Take a step back and think about it for a minute and it's pretty staggering what they've achieved.
Piracy too, seems like a solved problem. For as much as it can ever be solved, of course, but it certainly seems quite irrelevant now, and that's not because of draconian anti-piracy programs or DRM (remember DRM? Hey, guess what - it's still all over ebooks and video!), it's because there are easier and better ways of consuming music. It's incredibly simple to buy a single through iTunes - way easier then pirating it and wading through dodgy file download sites - and if you want to listen to an album but don't want to pay for it, there's countless licensed options for doing it that are again easier and more reliable then piracy.
The future of music, then, is exciting. I'd say it's more exciting now then it has been in recent memory; gone are the concerns that many people shared that the whole concept of recorded music being sustainable was dead. I think it's been conclusively proved that digital purchasing of music is attractive, and also that streaming music can be monetized. And the future is for both of them to coexist, alongside other forms of digital music consumption (like YouTube), and to ebb and flow in popularity, with some genres suiting one type of service and model, and others another.
All of this is good.
No one is sitting on their laurels, nothing is stagnating, no one is getting rich quick. There is change, and there are solid foundations upon which to build this change.
10 years ago people used to think that the music industry was doomed.
Here's to the next 10 years.
Part of the MusicTank 10 @ 10 Series