Recently a reader called me out for repeatedly throwing around the phrase ‘independent artist’ or ‘indie label’ without explaining my definition (or if I even had one). Fair enough. Let’s discuss: what does independent mean in 2020?
The ‘indie’ tag has meant less and less over the past thirty years. There was a stark difference between indie and major labels until the grunge years of the early ’90s. The success of Nirvana triggered an ‘indie band’ signing spree that saw a lot of independent labels get into bed with the majors, both publicly and covertly. I remember insiders up-in-arms over The Smashing Pumpkins, whose Caroline Records debut was supposedly just an ‘indie cred’ warm-up to their already planned sophomore album on a major label. Caroline, at the time, was a subsidiary of Virgin, after all. Even then, there were debates over whether an act such as this could be considered independent.
Things seem less complicated now, but only at first glance. One can’t get any more independent than self-released, right? And bedroom labels are rampant, a far distance from the three major label behemoths. But the confusion lies in distribution, marketing, and the third party deals a label or artist signs in the guise of ‘label services.’ Is a self-released artist independent while using a distributor that also controls her publishing? While promoting solely through a social media platform that is the gatekeeper to her fanbase? And while relying on Spotify playlist placements for discovery and traction?
We’re likely splitting hairs. Some of the bands we considered the most independent in the ’70s and ’80s relied on corporate record chains to sell their music, or entered into deals with management agencies and live venue networks. But now there is an air of acquiescence that seems different. Is ‘selling out’ even an available option when the biggest corporations in human history are necessary for exposing one’s music?
This circumstance presents a challenge when defining ‘independent music.’ And this challenge is depressing. If we’re in bed with corporations because of the tools we use, then there’s not much hope for the punk rock dream.
Historically, we’ve looked at independence in terms of control. Who’s in the driver’s seat? I think that stands, even if we need to tweak things a little. It’s natural to call a label or artist who controls songs and revenue flow — traditionally through a distributor — an independent. But even that’s debatable, as Cherie Hu pointed out in a recent post:
… according to Billboard and Nielsen, copyrights owned by Universal Music Group account for a 29% share of the recorded-music market — but if you look at [indie label] catalog distributed by Universal, that share increases to 38%. On the flip side, copyrights owned by indie labels account for 35% of the market, but copyrights distributed by indies account for only 16%. This implies that many artists and labels who we categorize as “indie” actually rely on distributors owned by major labels to release their music — a nuance that can be complicated to discuss in the open.
Also, a difference from decades ago is that the current independent artist must also exert control of her fanbase. In other words, the audience interacts through the proprietary website, or an email list, or at live shows rather than solely through the corporate go-between of social media. As I’ve spoken about before, an independent artist uses social media as a mere tool, not a reliance.
Our definition of independent is increasingly subjective. If Taylor Swift managed to gain control of all her recording masters, publishing, and fanbase access, we could call her a sort of independent artist even when Universal distributes her music. Likewise, an emerging artist on a small independently distributed label, but who signed all his recordings and publishing to the label for perpetuity, isn’t exactly independent.
I believe the title of ‘independent’ now leans towards those who understand and control their rights. It used to hinge on the size and scope of the artist’s associated label, which made the definition easier to suss out. But as more and larger artists continue utilizing 21st-century tools to seize their rights, the meaning of ‘independent’ only gets blurrier.