How indie artists came to dominate the music industry
The biggest share of music sales is no longer being reaped by major labels
One of the biggest music industry stories of 2013 was the rise of music streaming. In the first half of the year alone, people listened to 50 billion songs on streaming services, like Spotify and Pandora, or on YouTube, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That's a 24 percent increase over the first half of 2012.
Revenues from streaming services are also increasing: Record labels and musicians got $1.1 billion from ad-supported and subscription streaming in 2012, a 40 percent jump over 2011. That's still a fraction of the $28.7 billion the global music industry pulled in in 2012, but as Hannah Karp at The Wall Street Journal notes that money will only grow as an explosion of new streaming services hits this year.
Music streaming is transforming the music industry in more ways than just turning sales to rentals. By the middle of 2013, indie labels — essentially everyone but the Big Three: Universal Music Group, Sony, and Warner Music Group — controlled 34.5 percent of the music business, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The biggest single label, Universal, had a 28.3 percent market share. In 2007, Universal had a slightly bigger slice of the pie, 28.8 percent, but the indies collectively controlled only 25.8 percent.
"The rise of streaming music services, where the major labels' control is weaker, and the decline of FM radio, where the labels' control is powerful, has had a clear effect on the power of indie," says Claire Atkinson at the New York Post. On Pandora, for example, 50 percent of the streamed songs aren't from a major label; on broadcast radio, that number drops to 13 percent. In 2013, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop" became the first No. 1 song not put out by a major label since Lisa Loeb's "Stay" in 1994.
Rich Bengloff at the American Association of Independent Music tells the Post that musicians can sense which way the wind's blowing, and the rise of indie labels — and streaming platforms that get that music out to new audiences — plus the success of successful boutique-label artists like Mumford & Sons, Bon Iver, and even Taylor Swift explains why so many up-and-coming bands are avoiding the majors.
Small labels can only take you so far, though, and "indies are still tied to the big labels for distribution," says Atkinson. And the major labels didn't become huge for no reason: They've been watching the rise of the indies and "gobbling up some of the more successful ones."
"Indie" artist doesn't always necessarily rule out a major label, either, noted Steven Hyden at Grantland back in October. The most celebrated indie album of 2013, Haim's Days Are Gone, was put out by Columbia Records, a Sony property. Lorde has been signed to Universal since age 13. Icona Pop's This Is... Icona Pop was released by Warner.
Just like the genre known as "alternative" kicked the bucket in the summer of 1997, Hyden argues, "now we're witnessing the death rattle of the current version of alternative, 'indie.'"
If this truly is the end of "indie," I'm fine with it. I have no attachment to indie as a sacred emblem, and welcome the push toward pop as a natural progression, especially when it results in records as enjoyable as Days Are Gone. Still, I do have one nagging concern: Where's the anger? You remember anger, don't you? It's this emotion that humans feel on occasion — it's often accompanied by spite, exasperation, and catharsis.... Anger has traditionally been used as fuel for independent-minded artists using music to critique the excesses of popular culture (rather than as a means of joining the party). Now, everything just seems so... pleasant.... Assimilation, not alienation, is what drives indie now. [Grantland]
Isn't that how it has always been with the music business? Maybe "indie" isn't winning after all. How could it? Once a genre wins, it's not "independent," it's popular.