Posted on: March 2, 2012 Posted by: Peter Burns Comments: 1

Indie music labels’ new global reach, alongside their 25% share of album sales in 2011, will worry the ‘big four’ record companies.

With six Grammys already crowding her mantelpiece, Adele may need to buy new storage units if, as expected, she takes home more gongs from Tuesday’s Brit awards. But the success of her album-of-the-year contender, 21, which is expected to sell its 20-millionth copy in the next month, also confirms that the independent sector has broken the once-unassailable grip of major labels on the UK charts.

Thanks to 21, as well as hits by Arctic Monkeys (also nominated, for best group), urban-pop singer Example (best single) and numerous smaller acts, independent labels – small companies not tied to the “big four” of Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI – had an unprecedented 25% share of the 113m albums sold in Britain in 2011. But industry observers say that what will perturb the majors more is the worldwide extent of Adele’s breakthrough.

“[Her label] XL have shown that the majors aren’t the only ones who can do global scale for artists. It used to be the big four’s USP. That changes the game a bit,” said Tim Ingham, editor of the trade magazine Music Week.

“Indies” were once cottage industries specialising in critically acclaimed, but often commercially unsuccessful, artists. They were perceived as more sympathetic to musicians, who were allowed to develop without the pressure of having to sell millions of record, but their ability to break acts outside the UK was limited. “But now Adele has screwed that thinking up. An indie can punch way above its weight globally,” said Ingham. “It’ll be interesting to see if top-selling artists sign with independents to see if they can do an Adele.”

Indies are also succeeding because they’re branching out from their former stronghold of guitar rock, he points out. Previously best known for the White Stripes, XL has proved with Adele that it can sell pop, while Example’s label, Ministry of Sound, focuses on dance and urban artists. Ingham said: “Pop-urban was typically a speciality of the majors, but Ministry have broken Example and Wretch 32, two of the biggest urban acts of last year.”

In archetypal retiring indie fashion, XL’s founder, Richard Russell, was unavailable for comment (“He feels he’s said enough about Adele already,” said the label’s press office).

But Martin Mills of XL’s parent company, Beggars Group, which also runs its sister label 4AD (whose Bon Iver is nominated for a Brit too), attributes the rise of indie to several factors. The most important is the internet having levelled the playing field. “You can be a little guy playing by little guys’ rules, but that doesn’t stop you from accessing the world market,” said Mills. “Bigger players are in trouble, because online challenges [illegal downloading] have harmed their businesses more than they’ve harmed us.”

He also suggests that the “small, family-oriented” image of indies is especially appealing to both musicians and consumers now because of the cultural and economic climate. “The kind of people who buy indie records tend to be arts and culturally oriented, more liberally oriented, so the popularity of independents could be connected [to the rise of the anti-capitalist movement].”

Visiting artists find his company headquarters, in a residential street in Wandsworth, south London, reassuringly unglamorous.

The health of the indie market is a contrast to the way things were several years ago. The sector was suffering because of the decline of record shops and the rise of reality TV stars. Alison Wenham, of the Association of Independent Music, said : “The majors had a stranglehold on distribution, and it became very formulaic, with The X Factor defining the sort of industry we were working in.” She also cites the internet as the crucial game-changer. “Independents are early adopters with low overheads.”

Even major labels agree that a robust indie scene is vital for the prosperity of an industry that has lost billions of pounds to illegal downloading in the last decade. Tony Wadsworth, former head of EMI and now chairman of the British Phonographic Institute, said: “It’s not healthy to have a few large companies having all the hits.” But he predicts that the majors will bounce back. “I am confident that all sectors of the recorded music industry will see a return to growth in the near future – from recent figures, it looks like it’s already starting to happen in the US.”


Caroline Sullivan –

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