The need for Independence

Sheppard winning the Breakthrough Independent Artist Of The Year at last year’s Carlton Dry Independent Music Awards Image Credit: Aleksandar Jason
Stuart Watters
| July 30, 2015

Freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like, of others.

The independent recording sector is an increasingly sophisticated player in the success and growth of Australia’s music scene. AIR’s Stu Watters explains the contribution, role and opportunities independent labels offer for Australian music.

The notion of the independent label is one that is very familiar to anyone who works in the music industry. Beyond that, other than the true music punters, very few people have any notion of what that means and why it is even important. While it would be unfair to say that the majors are not interested in the development of music – they clearly are – their business is geared towards creating an industrial outcome that is predicated on selling or monetizing content – and by the bucket load. The direct result of this monetization provides major record labels with enormous muscle and the ability to maintain a significant advantage over smaller record labels.

In recent years, the notion of the independent “record label” though is less accurate and we tend to frame this more aptly as independent “music companies” as these businesses, while still trading in the exploitation of sound recordings as their currency, are also required to maintain numerous other arms of their business outside of the traditional “label” model.  They serve a multiplicity of roles that extend to tour promotion, management, festival development, merchandising operations, synchronisation, publishing rights, publicity and so on. While this often requires the indie label to be a jack of all trades, it also affords them the right to be the centre piece of artist and industrial development due to their strong localised relationships in the local market. It is the indies who underpin the development of a local industry in a way that the majors simply cannot ever hope to achieve. As a result, their ears are close to the proverbial ground which, in turn, rewards them with the signing of phenomenal independent success stories.

Let’s have a quick look at the success of Australian artists released through independent labels – specifically  in support of that notion.

  • In 2014, 11 Australian Albums hit the top of the ARIA charts, with 7 of them released by independent artists
  • At the 2014 ARIA Awards, 14 of the total 18 local Awards went to independent artists
  • Including the most coveted awards – Album Of The Year (Chet Faker – Built on Glass), Best Group (Sheppard), Best Male (Chet Faker) and Best Female (SIA).

It’s no accident and is testament to the enormous commitment and passion of an independent community that supports their own. It’s also not an anomaly – trawl through several years of awards and charts information and you will see the pattern. Australian music companies know how to identify and develop talent that Australian audiences, and International ones for that matter, love to support. It is why we need independent music companies and why they need continued support and patronage from government, commercial industry and most importantly, punters.

So with that industrial précis of the situation as we know it, what then of the needs of the sector?

There have been a number of critically successful programs championed by both Government and Industry Bodies in recent times that should not only continue but we should look at meaningful ways to build on their success.  Those programs that should continue to be supported are as follows:

  • The RELEASE program considered applications from twenty-four individual labels across Australia and New Zealand; fifteen labels were invited to participate in the program comprising of two residential workshops supported by self-directed course work over the duration of six months from November 2013 to April 2014.
  • The Indie Week Trade Delegation supports 10 labels to participate and attend Indie Week in New York managed and facilitated by American Independent Trade Association, A2IM. The event provides a critical opportunity for commercial outcomes and network development at a global level.
  • Australia Council’s Label Grants have delivered targeted funds to 17 Australian Independent Record Labels who have a demonstrated track record of releasing quality Australian artists.

Each of these programs demonstrate that investment in the companies that provide the framework for talent identification and career development is critical to ensuring that sustainable success stories can be nurtured. It is not to purport that these models can deliver those outcomes in isolation – continued support for Sounds Australia, CONTROL (the sister program to RELEASE to support artist management), The SEED, the multitude of music organisations at a State and Federal level, and of course direct artist funding needs to continue to provide the tapestry of support frameworks required to grow and develop a world class music industry.

Additionally, and with the development of the independent recording sector in the frame, key areas that government can contribute with minimal expense and maximum return is to address the following areas, some of which have been achieved recently:

  • Removal of the 1% cap. The cap is arbitrary and perpetuates the content subsidisation of the hugely profitable commercial radio sector. It is an unnecessary stranglehold on the development of all music labels in this country.
  • The introduction of tax concessions for the development of locally owned sound recordings. There are numerous precedents of this occurring in our own film industry as well as R&D concessions for other industries. There are also a significant number of examples of its success in other countries.
  • Market Share Development. Market share statistics for the independent sector are a global issue and their lack of availability serves to perpetuate the view that the major record companies retain and maintain market share. With more accurate market share data, the landscape for commercial negotiations changes dramatically.

The Australian independent scene and its subsequent success wasn’t an accident. There were people who bled and perspired more than is humanly possible and with their conviction and belief in the talented artists they worked with, they were able to convince Australian and international populations along the way that we had some serious chops. Not just our artists but also the people who work within the industry. It is those people that head out into domestic and international arenas, without acknowledgement, to secure futures for today’s creators and to carve out opportunities for future generations of Australian independent artists. That is the need for independence.

For more information visit the AIR (Australian Independent Record Labels Association) website here.

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