What It Means To Be An Independent Artist Today

Mar 26, 2019
Originally published on March 26, 2019 5:02 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Independent artists now make up nearly 40 percent of the global music industry - the highest share of the market since the early 1990s. But what exactly does it mean to be independent?

RACHEL: I think of an artist that's constantly innovating and pushing the boundaries.

JOHNATHAN WAITS: Someone who's kind of grassroots, kind of does their own social networking.

LLOYD BLACK: You basically backing yourself financially, getting your movement started from zero, basically.

BROOKE: I think that somebody can be an independent artist and be with a label.

BLACK: No, not really - kind of defeats the whole purpose.

CHANG: The voices there were from the South by Southwest music festival. And that question of what it means to be an independent musician is pretty complicated. NPR's Christina Cala and Noah Caldwell were there in Austin to try to find an answer. They started by talking to one artist who has stayed fiercely independent over the course of her career.

ALICE PHOEBE LOU: All right. We've got a few more songs for you.

CHRISTINA CALA, BYLINE: Like many artists at South by Southwest, Alice Phoebe Lou is playing a marathon of live sets, ping-ponging around Austin to different venues.

NOAH CALDWELL, BYLINE: She's mostly performing songs from a brand-new album called "Paper Castles."

LOU: It was an independent release by yours truly.

(CHEERING)

LOU: (Singing) The moon was full and it left me howlin'.

CALDWELL: We caught up with her at the end of the week in a rare break between shows.

LOU: I've always kind of settled on doing things as independently as possible just because it feels so worth it to build yourself up without just taking something that is prescribed.

CALA: Lou is based in Berlin. She made this album and is now touring internationally without a label. She paid engineers, producers and musicians from her own pocket.

LOU: It takes a lot of time and a lot of money (laughter) which I have to find somewhere. But I've decided that that's an investment that I want to make.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OUTSIDE")

LOU: (Singing) Didn't want to be told what I'm supposed to look like, didn't want to be told what makes a woman look right.

CALDWELL: Lou is at one extreme of what it means to be an independent artist, a do-it-yourself model that avoids record contracts altogether. But the music industry itself has a much broader definition. If you're not signed to one of the three major labels - Sony, Warner or Universal - then you're independent.

CALA: So according to the industry, you can be independent and signed to a label as long as that label isn't one of those three majors.

CALDWELL: And the difference between major and indie labels - market share.

PATRICK FERRELL: If a label has more than 5 percent market share, then they're a major. No independent currently has that great of a market share.

CALDWELL: Patrick Ferrell is the head of label relations for the American Association of Independent Music. We caught him after a panel here at South by Southwest, and he says that even though indie labels have small slices of the pie, as a group, they're gaining ground on the big three.

FERRELL: I'm bullish that in due time we'll get to 50 percent of the market. And I think once we cross that threshold, the power shift is going to tilt.

CALA: Worldwide, the independent music sector is growing faster than the rest of the industry. That's thanks in part to streaming services like YouTube and Spotify. In the past, brick-and-mortar retailers would prioritize major artists since there was only so much shelf space. Now, in the digital world, shelf space is irrelevant.

CALDWELL: Streaming has also leveled the international playing field. It used to be nearly impossible for independent artists to break into overseas markets. Now an artist doesn't have to have the name recognition of Beyonce to build a fan base in markets like Brazil, Mexico, Taiwan or the Philippines.

CALA: Another difference between indie and major labels is their approach to an artist's copyrights.

ZENA WHITE: The recording industry has been built on owning copyrights of master recordings for, it used to be, in perpetuity.

CALA: Zena White is managing director for Partisan Records, an independent label based in Brooklyn. Traditionally, a major label would own the copyrights of an artist's songs.

CALDWELL: In the '90s, for example, Prince famously fought with Warner Bros. Records, which owned his master recordings. He appeared in public with the word slave written on his cheek - a slave to his label.

WHITE: Independent labels have had shorter terms on those copyright ownerships.

CALDWELL: Which can make indie labels more attractive to some artists. White points to the band Cigarettes After Sex, which her label signed in 2016.

CALA: The band retained ownership of their copyrights, and the label simply licensed the rights for short term.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "APOCALYPSE")

CIGARETTES AFTER SEX: (Singing) Got the music in you, baby. Tell me why. Got the music in you, baby. Tell me why.

CALA: So you can be an independent musician with a label, and you can be an independent musician without one.

CALDWELL: But the reality is that these two worlds bleed together all the time with unsigned artists handpicking the industry services they need like a buffet.

LOU: It's very, very possible to split up the services that a label would do for you and to understand what parts of those you need.

CALA: That's Alice Phoebe Lou again. She made a marketing deal just for Central Europe since that's where her biggest fan base is.

LOU: I'm a musician, but I'm also a businesswoman and a small business owner. And I really enjoy that side of what I do. I really enjoy the nuts and the bolts of all of it.

CALDWELL: Independent artists are still the underdogs. Universal Music Group alone accounts for almost one-third of the global market. But more and more artists are now finding ways to successfully work outside the world built by the major labels.

LOU: If you don't like the way something is done, you've got to make your own system, and that's what I'm trying to do.

CALA: Christina Cala.

CALDWELL: And Noah Caldwell, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.