Indie Labels on Sharing, Streaming and Giving It Away

I’ve been interviewing people involved in the Swedish indie music scene these last few months. Today I thought I’d dive into them a little and share a few quotes from people running labels that I think represent a real shift in the way indies are doing business as well as how they differ from the major labels. I’m not going to identify the interviewees because I didn’t get their permission to quote them by name for this purpose, and I’m not sure it matters that much right now.

First, though some are making money on CD sales, they don’t seem to expect to and have other ideas about where the money is going to be made: live music, clubs, and sponsorship. They are high on giving their music away, or at least the singles. Says one label guy:

As a label, simple things like giving away every single as an MP3 helps a lot. If you’re a small label you have nothing to lose by spreading your music. Having a record label isn’t the best way of making money anyway… but coming from a very indie background, most 7″ singles I bought when I was younger sold 500 copies or less. Albums around 1,000 perhaps, I’m sometimes surprised the music we release sells as well as it does. [...] There are a lot of records stores closing down. But the ones closing down are the ones which aren’t niche-stores. And there’s an increase in venues to play and clubs I think. Everyone has their own club nowadays. Having your own fashion brand or starting a club is the new starting a band.

And another:

I’m giving up on selling CDs, but we’re making CDs and trying to get them on elsewhere, we can’t make money from selling them. I’m trying to figure out different ways to earn money and get artists to be professional musicians: Setting up clubs, trying to get people who have money to pay for the music. Like companies pay for using your music because then you can rip some fuckers with money off, like sponsorships. I have nothing against that. If the sponsorship thing is good and you feel like both parties are winning on it. Companies realize they can’t get their logo on everything.

I was particularly interested in how a third label person articulated what I see as a major theme in my interviews, the use of free music to create not just a buzz about your band, but a cultural scene around your kind of music. One could argue this has always been the case with indie music, and certainly the scene has always been important, but where the scene used to be built primarily through touring, it now can be built through file sharing, and that seems new:

If we didn’t put out mp3s, we wouldn’t get the attention we need, so it can only be positive. I view file sharing as a positive. It’s affecting the culture, listeners who are into our kind of music, they are more music fans than the general listener. That kind of person has increased in number over the last 5-6 years. In Stockholm now there are tons of clubs that play our kind of music. It’s 100% file sharing and the internet that we have to thank. All people involved in indie music have known that if we could only get exposure we’d be huge. The majors had marketing and budgets, but the internet made it easy for the independents.

He goes on to talk about the importance of active online fans and mp3 bloggers:

It’s a big thing. A lot of our fans share common values with the whole file sharing, the culture benefits. It’s a very important factor, it translates some kind of interest that we share a common value — shared music taste, discontent with the dominant major labels. mp3 bloggers are important in the development of mp3 culture. In the beginning there weren’t many mp3 blogs, it had very big impact if we put up our own site because everyone would go to the site. Nowadays mp3 blogs have taken that place. The label isn’t enough of a filter anymore. It’s great for us. If a big mp3 blog puts up a track by one of our artists it gives it credibility. It makes it easier for people to like it and accept the music.

Says the first label guy quoted above:

Hopefully, MP3s, MySpace, internet, blogs and all that changes things so that we more and more have to put our trust in people’s good taste in music (and our way of of presenting our music I suppose) rather than big muscle marketing.

Some key words in there: trust & common values. No wonder I like these guys :)

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