After decades of ruling the music industry, major labels have seen a vast decrease in prominence since the rise of the internet. From Radiohead self-releasing “In-Rainbows” in 2007 with a pay-what-you-can model, to Chance the Rapper winning three Grammy awards off his mixtape, “Coloring Book” in 2017, the last decade has been one of the greatest eras for the independent musician. But not every musician has the starpower to guarantee their independent release will be successful. This is where the independent label comes in.
An independent label can range from a couple of teenagers in their garage to an office with a small team of dedicated professionals. The team can usually ensure small to mid-scale distribution and promotion on a release. They might get a record placed in a small shop in Milwaukee, but don’t expect a poster on every street corner and a stack of CD’s on the front rack at Target. World tours aren’t really an option with an independent label, in fact most artists are going to have to find a separate booking agent just to tour America.
The main upside to independents is the care and drive they put into supporting the artist. Because tons of money isn’t being thrown into every album, artists usually have more control and get to see a larger percentage of royalties. Independent labels get to know the artists personally, and ensure the album focuses on quality and appealing to niche audiences rather than just making a record that’s gonna get played on pop radio.
The main difference between an independent label and a major label is that a major label is usually owned by a large set of parent companies. For instance, Interscope Records are owned by Interscope Geffen A&M Records, who are owned by Universal Music Group who are owned by Vivendi, a media conglomerate all the way over in France. Because of this mass flow of money, a typical major label usually has a large staff and budget to ensure a release has proper distribution, publicity, and touring behind it.
But as everyone knows, nothing in life comes for free. While this is great option for the average superstar who makes millions of sales on any given release, smaller musicians usually end up in debt to major labels when their investment flops. Because of the amount of money the label pours into a record, musicians can see as little as ten percent royalties on their tracks. So, if you’re Drake (and if you are thanks for reading my article dude) your songs will see so many sales and streams that you’ll still somehow walk away with a livable income. But let’s say you only sell five-thousand records (which is pretty impressive in the digital age), you’re probably gonna walk out in debt.
I spent the summer of 2016 interning at Merge Records, an independent label in Durham, NC. Famed for releasing Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea”, The Magnetic Field’s “69 Love Songs” and every Arcade Fire album to date, it blew my mind that these influential records were coming out of an office 15 minutes from my parent’s suburban home.
There I got to experience part of the process of physically releasing a record, from putting the records in sleeves and shrink-wrapping them, to shipping them to college radios and music publications across the nation, to distributing them to record stores and directly to people’s homes. Some days my duties were to update the tour pages, send out posters, meet the artists or even play with the office dogs (I wish I was kidding). Overall I felt like my experience there really taught me the basics of the music industry, and enhanced my respect for all the time and effort put into every album I’ve ever listened to.
If you’re interested in supporting local independent record labels, I recommend checking out Merge Records, Phuzz Records, Trekky Records, Jamla Records, Hometapes and Cardigan Records.