Why Indie Labels are the Music Industry’s Creative Engine

Why Indie Labels are the Music Industry’s Creative Engine

By Tom Silverman

The rich diversity and greatness of American music owes a lot to independent labels.

Elvis, jazz, blues, R&B, rock & roll and hip-hop all grew out of the indie community. Even the Beatles are a product of a small indie label. Vee-Jay Records released the Beatles’ first record in the U.S. before Capitol Records picked up the band.

In the original Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction process in 1985, 39 of the 41 nominees got their start at independent record labels.

Indie labels continue to cultivate great talent, and we are in the midst of a Golden Age for indies. It is easy to look at the success of today’s “super indies” and think that their size has been the key to their success. But just about every indie you can name started with shoestring financing, limited experience and connections.

Beggars began with The Lurkers and now have Adele. Domino started with Flying Saucer Attack and later developed Arctic Monkeys. Dualtone went from Mark Olsen and the Creekdippers to The Lumineers. Glassnote began with Second Hand Serenade and later brought us Mumford & Sons. Hopeless started with Schlong and then took us to All Time Low.

Tom Silverman, founder of Tommy Boy, addresses the crowd at the New Music Seminar at The New Yorker Hotel in NYC on June 10, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Roger Kisby. All Rights Reserved

Indie labels don’t have unlimited access to capital, but they give music fans a wealth of great music. They often can’t afford to hire today’s superstar producers and top songwriters, so they become bigger risk takers. When you have less to lose, you take more chances, embrace the fringes and discover innovative new music.

Indies are passionate about music and are often just a little bit crazy – why else would someone launch a record label these days? They are visionary, creative and reject the status quo.

Many indies specialize in the fringe genre music they love, like Bruce Iglauer at Alligator or Brett Gurewitz at Epitaph. Indies pioneer new and developing genres before the majors are even aware those genres exist.

In addition to discovering new artists, indies cultivate new producers and develop new recording techniques, new sounds, new songwriters and new approaches to marketing and monetizing music.

They cleverly use their ingenuity to build a base for artists and their music and use their smaller size as an advantage. In the digital world, smaller is better. In a world where algorithms drive music to its highest potential and exposure, the flexibility, resilience, speed, diversity and vision of indies can beat the force and scale of the majors.

A2iM, Merlin, Impala and WIN help level the playing field by giving independents a collective benefit in deal making and exposure impact. SoundExchange includes three independent label representatives on its board. The royalties that flow through SoundExchange generate revenue for indies and their artists well beyond their historical market share.

Technology has helped indies cut costs and fuel innovation. Back-office functions like accounting, distribution, royalties and exposure tracking are becoming automated and accessible even to small indies. Affordable services are springing up to give access to powerful tools that formerly were only available to majors. In short, barriers that have made it hard for indies to compete with majors continue to come down.

While American music owes a lot to independent labels, major labels also are indebted to indies. Indies are part of the DNA of the major labels. Universal is an aggregate of amazing indies including Island, A&M, Geffen, Motown, Def Jam, Chrysalis, Mercury, Dot, Verve, Caroline, De-Lite, IRS, V2, GRP Duke, Peacock and more.

Warner Music Group was a collaboration of three indies – Atlantic, Elektra and Warner Bros. Records. It later absorbed numerous indie labels including Sire, Reprise, Roadrunner, Big Tree, Blue Thumb, Festival Mushroom, Delfi, Big Beat, Casablanca, Fueled by Ramen, Roulette, TK, Cold Chillin and many more.

Sony Music Group also collected a retinue of great indies including Arista, Jive, Okeh, Century Media, Ministry of Sound, The Orchard, TVT, Profile, Verity and more.

Many of the heads of the major labels cut their teeth running independent labels, including Warner’s Cameron Strang, who worked at New West; Universal Canada’s Jeff Remedios, who co-founded Arts & Crafts; Sony Music’s Doug Morris, who founded Big Tree; and Craig Kallman founded Big Beat Records before taking over Warner’s Atlantic label (which bought Big Beat in 1991).

With A2iM’s Indie Week having just wrapped up, it’s worth remembering that independent labels are as strong, bold and relevant as ever – and music fans across the globe are better off because of the indies.

Tom Silverman is the founder of Tommy Boy