Recording giant EMI has all but collapsed and record sales are falling but despite the industry gloom independent labels in the UK are flourishing.
For three decades EMI – the label that signed the Beatles – took on the world in terms of music sales. The British label which has been on the brink of demise countless times and been passed through a handful of owners formally announced its sale in November. Essentially two companies EMI’s record music arm would be bought up by Universal Music whilst it’s publishing division absorbed by Sony/ATV. Assuming its sale is cleared by EU commission and US antitrust bodies approve the deal the market will transform from three competing superpowers to a duopoly owning just under half of the market.
Nevertheless the sale is expected to be waved through by regulators given the immense pressure on music companies from internet downloads. Fearing unfair competition however the independent sector has already begun aggressive lobbying against the move. Yet it seems independent labels are currently in rude health and appear to be increasing in number at an unprecedented rate.
The traditional music business has had a tough time of it post Napster, initially fighting change and new technologies and services rather than embracing them. The industry has been markedly reactive rather than proactive in adapting to the new rhythms being punched out by the internet.
It is those new rhythms which are now attributing to the wealth of indie start up labels cropping up in virtually every UK city. While the Sony and Universal pick over the remains of EMI labels run out of bedrooms and barns are attracting more and more artists on a local level and releasing some of the most interesting and innovative new music around.
According to Kevin Moore, curator of Manchester Music Seminars the wealth of new music in the northern city is attributing to a whole host of new micro labels.
“The way I see things going is the industry becoming more and more independent, I’m predicting a boost for independent start up labels, the indies are doing so much better now.
“The majors will have to always be there, for what reason in the future I’m not really sure yet, but they will always exist in some guise. But as they’re laying off staff left right and centre and signing less and less acts there’s so much to be picked up and at the moment there’s no one to pick it up and you’re hearing more and more stories about people starting their own little labels and putting singles out.”
It’s now easier than ever to start your own record label but at the same time increasingly hard to sustain it and make a living from it. This is mainly due to the decreasing amount of money in the recording industry. The rise of digital downloads has obviously affected physical music sales which the industry was traditionally built on and sent them into a downward spiral.
Some independent labels however are returning to a DIY ethos and embracing Factory Records style mantras. Accepting that they’re not necessarily in the right business to make money Sways Records, based in Salford, has been built on the idea of no contracts and a refusal making any business decisions that may impact on the fun side of things.
“Our rule is to fall in love with the music, fall in love with it first and it’s never ever a business decision and so far that’s how we’ve been. You live and die by your bands don’t you. Our success so far has been the choice of music.” says founder of Sways Ben Ward speaking from their makeshift barn cum office cum recording studio.
It’s hard not to be taken with the ethos of Ward’s impassioned and unyielding stance on managing the label based in a rundown barn which doubles up as an effective squat. Old camp beds and futons clutter in the ‘office’ which is to all intents and purposes is a large corridor as well as the rehearsal room. The three-strong Sways team themselves live in the draughty conversion with members of numerous bands also staying for days if not weeks at a time. It all serves to create a fantastic embodiment of running a record label in its purest form, it can be almost guaranteed that no one involved with Sways could care less what happens to EMI and the wider industry.
Sways has released singles by a handful of bands, none of them tied to any contract just mutual trust and respect, but the label began in earnest when Ward heard local band The Louche through the wall while they were using what is now the Sways HQ to rehearse.
“I heard them through the wall and thought it was amazing so I recorded it on my phone and I went mad about it. I kept asking them about this one record asking when they were releasing it. It turned out they’d only just got together and suddenly it came into my mind, why don’t we ask them to do it and have a go?”
Stories of decisions like this based purely on heart seem to be typical of how a lot of smaller independent labels start. A far cry from major label execs searching out acts that fit the mould of what genre is currently leading the charts and will turn the most profit. Sways in comparison are a tiny operation, releasing perhaps a couple of hundred seven inch records per artist but it is an independent label that is still in its earliest stages.
Not all indie labels are so idealised however, many continuing to release new and interesting music whilst remaining staunchly independent and also turning a profit. Based in Manchester’s bohemian Northern Quarter Melodic Records started in a similar fashion to Sways eight years ago and has since managed to become a profitable independent outfit.
Whilst working in a factory in Halifax in 1992 putting the walnuts on Walnut Whips, now owner of Melodic David Cooper attended a gig hosted by Badly Drawn Boy’s Twisted Nerve label. Cooper got talking to one of the bands playing that night who then sent him their six-track EP on cassette.
“I remember putting it on and just shivers running up and down my spine, it was just one of the best things I’d heard and I absolutely loved it. I rang the band up and said I want to start a label and put out a twelve inch record there and then. I hadn’t really thought about forming a label before then.
“I always think you should only start a label if you’ve got a band or a record by a good mate or someone you’ve come across. If you decide to start a label and then start looking for stuff it’s the wrong way round of doing it.”
It took Melodic five years to go from simply breaking even to beginning to make a profit. The turning point came when Cooper changed his approach to running Melodic slightly and saw it more as a job than a hobby: “I’d always done stuff with my heart with the label and then I decided to start doing stuff with my head and it became about whether stuff was viable and whether we could make any money out of it and if we couldn’t then we wouldn’t release it.”
With ever diminishing streams of revenue for the recording industry to draw on independent labels have to work harder than ever just to sell a few hundred copies of their latest signing’s single. The amount at which demand for physical music sales have decreased has led to smaller labels seeking other sources of income from their artists according to Cooper: “Five years ago we could have signed a lot more stuff a bit more freely because there was a lot more record sales which is where you get your income from as a record label but it’s diminished so much.
“But it’s actually gone up in terms of you music being used in TV and film and adverts and stuff like that that we call ‘syncs’. We’d never sign somebody just because we thought they’d just used in adverts but it’s a bonus.”
Syncs have become big business, for a label to make the equivalent amount of money they might receive for having a song used in an episode of Masterchef they’d have to shift around 10-15,000 albums. That’s an astronomical figure considering Melodic’s highest selling album to date is around the 7,000 mark.
With less money yet more music available than ever before more and more labels being created the industry could be in danger of over stretching dwindling resources, although with anti business labels like Sways there will always be someone fighting the good fight it seems. Even so some newer labels are taking a different approach incorporating more than just the traditional label model.
Music blog Sonic Router announced the creation of its own label this week as it approached its third birthday. Site editor turned label owner Oli Marlow hopes that they can tie in the existing Sonic Router music hub fans and subscribers to create a readymade consumer base for their new venture.
“It’s a natural progression of us at Sonic Router putting on the artists we’re really into by featuring them on the site with a mix or an interview or whatever. I see it as another arm of what we do, we’re going to tie everything in with the site, eventually. Even if it’s a short lived thing at least we did it.”
The music industry may be struggling for sales, but the UKs smallest, shrewdest and most impassioned independent labels are continuing the tradition of releasing new and interesting music and doing it on their own terms.
Word by: Ben Robinson