The Indie vs. Major Labels War

By Jerry Flattum

Welcome to Music Gateway’s new column, “Indie vs. Major Labels War.”  Let’s air drop right into the battle zone…

There is an anti-major label mindset that believes major labels are evil monsters that take your music, turn it into mush, rob you of every cent, dress you in tights, color your hair purple, get you hooked on whiskey and meth, and make you walk and talk like a living doll. However, it’s the hate and fear of corporate globalization that draws the battle lines in the pursuit of independent power and control over career, and most of all, money.  

Ironically, the Indie Movement is beginning to look a lot like the enemy. Although the Digital Age and the Internet gave rise to the Independent Movement, there cutting deals for global distribution using mega-giant corporations like iTunes and Amazon; forming organizations like American Assn. of Independent Music are serving as an advocacy and are providing a surveillance. Some of these companies are also using SoundExchange to independently collect royalties, managing touring and ticket sales via Live Nation, forming streaming alliances with networks such as Pandora and Spotify and raising 10s of 1000s via crowdfunding campaigns using Indiegogo. 

However, being Indie doesn’t mean being small. From Chicago’s Daily Herald, Pandora Media founder Tim Westergren is quoted, "This Company is best run by us," Westergren said during a recent interview,

"We have the team. We have the building blocks of an enormous, stand-alone independent, large company."

Major Labels: A Long History of Hits and Superstars
Although there may be horror stories in artist/band/writer signings with major labels, a focus on the failures blinds us to a celebration of the successes. The music industry has generated thousands of hit songs ever since Stephen Foster wrote, "I Dream of Genie" at the turn of the 20th century.

In the book, Popular Music In America:  The Beat Goes On, “After the Ball” by Charles K. Harris was one of the first Tin Pan Alley songs to sell millions of copies of sheet music. All the biggest artists from the past today, were and are signed to major labels.  Major artists warrant major labels. Major labels pump millions into production, marketing, touring and distribution costs, even when distribution is digital. These “evil monsters” employ 100s of people whose jobs depend on major labels, working behind the scenes, allowing an artist to concentrate on what they do best.  

Major labels shape an artist's career.  It's what they're supposed to do.  Sure, bands have been manufactured, so to speak, but mostly it's a label's job to discover artists, not produce them from a plastic mold.  
 
 Artists are quickly becoming the generals in this supposed war...
 Actually, just who are the generals in this Indie vs. Major Labels War?  Isn’t it the superstars?  After all, there are plenty of superstars who had no problems becoming superstars. For example Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Elvis, Madonna, Gaga—none of them have ever said, “I’m getting too big.  I sell too much.”  Well, there are exceptions, as it were.  In the 80s, Pat Benatar and Donna Summers dropped out because of how labels wanted to exploit their sex appeal.  

How major artists come into being, especially legendary ones, is something very magical. There's no formula.  And nothing nor anyone who shapes an artist's career more than the artist. Many artists have vision, and sometimes that vision is global domination—Independent or Major.

How about Spinning on the 360 Deal?
Controversial for both Indies and Majors alike is the “360 Deal.”  The 360 Deal involves a unilateral sharing of profits from all sources, where merchandising may generate more income for an artist than their music.  

A 360 degree turnaround might also have a different definition.  In the late 60s/early 70s, product endorsement was strictly taboo.  It was considered "selling out." "Commercial" was a dirty word. Merchandising may be a bigger change in the industry than the Digital Age and the Internet.

Having said this, can Indie continuously compete with the Majors...
Armed with a laptop, a copy of Avid's Pro Tools, a MIDI keyboard, and a website, can Indie artists really compete with the power of major labels?  From “Happy Birthday” to “White Christmas” to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” songs that resonate with fans around the world over and through the decades are truly magical indeed.  They may not be great musicians or singers, but under every major artist is a string of hit songs.

There are several questions to ask and obstacles to overcome for the Indie artist.  Can they write a hit song?  Does it matter?  How do they finance recording costs or pay for a home recording studio?  Who negotiates copyright laws and the selling of music across global geographic lines?  Unsigned artists can generate millions of "hits" on sites such as YouTube, but not generate a single penny.  If Google's YouTube switches to a subscription model, Google may very well become the new major label.  The word "label" becomes antiquated, with Google, iTunes, Amazon and other giant Internet companies taking over the roles major labels once had. The functions remain the same, whether it's the Universal Music Group owned by Vivendi, a digital giant, or an unsigned artist contracting out to 3rd party sources: Reach as many fans as possible, through physical product, digital downloads, terrestrial and digital radio, streaming and other new media.

Majors Invade Indie Territory
It’s not just Indies reluctantly cutting distribution deals with the Majors.  In 2015, majors invaded Indie territory.  Forbes reported, “Warner Music Group became the first major record label to strike a licensing deal with SoundCloud, instantly legalizing scores of songs posted to the service. More surprisingly, Warner acquired up to 5% of the company, adding to funding that’s passed $120 million; the company is now valued at over $1.2 billion.” (Greenburge, 2015)

Battle Lines or Bridges
In some ways battle lines are clearly drawn in the war between the unsigned and signed and in the war between Indie vs. Major labels.  But as Indie artists increasingly become big artists, a battle line begins to look more like a bridge from Indie to Major. With all these industry shifts and upheavals, perhaps one of the most important questions is, “What is the future of music?”  
Will music become unfeeling sounds created and performed by robots programmed with artificial intelligence in a virtual reality/Matrix-like environment?  Or will it be the expression of the soul and imagination, where musicians in the world have the power to bring us to tears, generate awareness of the universe and lift our spirits, as they’ve done for 100s of centuries?

Written By: Jerry Flattum

Jerry Flattum is a Performer/Songwriter, Keyboardist and Journalist as well as screenwriter. He has a masters in Liberal Studies and a self-designed BS in Songwriting (U of MN). Flattum has an extensive catalog of music ready for licensing and commercial release. Jerry is also available to speak at conference/events and is open for any new work and job ventures. You can get in touch with Jerry here if you’ll like to get in touch. You can see some of his music here and get in touch via LinkedIn.