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An independent record label (or indie label) is a record label that operates without the funding or distribution of major record labels; they are a type of small to medium-sized enterprise, or SME. The labels and artists are often represented by trade associations in their country or region, which in turn are represented by the international trade body, the Worldwide Independent Network (WIN).
Many of the labels started as producers and distributors of specific genres of music, such as jazz music, or represent something new and non-mainstream, such as Elvis Presley in the early days. Today, music appearing on indie labels is often referred to as indie music, or more specifically by genre, such as indie hip-hop.
Independent record labels are small companies that produce and distribute records. They are not affiliated with or funded by the three major records labels. According to SoundScan and the Recording Industry Association of America, indie labels produce and distribute about 66% of music titles, but only account for 20% of sales.
The distinction between major and independent labels is not always clear. The traditional definition of a major label is a label that owns its distribution channel. Some independent labels, particularly those with successful artists, sign dual-release, or distribution only agreements with major labels. They may also rely on international licensing deals and other arrangements with major labels. Major labels sometimes fully or partially acquire independent labels.
Other nominally independent labels are started and sometimes run by artists on major labels but are still fully or partially owned by the major label. These labels are frequently referred to as vanity labels or boutique labels, and are intended to appease established artists or allow them to discover and promote newer artists.
According to the Association of Independent Music, "A 'major' is defined in AIM's constitution as a multinational company which (together with the companies in its group) has more than 5% of the world market(s) for the sale of records or music videos. The majors are currently Sony, Warner Music (WMG) and the Universal Music Group (UMG), with EMI and BMG (RCA/Ariola International) being the other two majors that made up the 'Big 5' of the 1980s and 1990s. If a major owns 50% or more of the total shares in a company, that company would (usually) be owned or controlled by that major."
Independent labels have historically anticipated developments in popular music, beginning with the post-war period in the United States. Disputes with major labels led to a proliferation of smaller labels specializing in country, jazz, and blues. Sun Records played an important part in the development of rock 'n' roll and country music, working with artists such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich. These independent labels usually aimed their releases at a small but loyal audience. They relied less on mass sales and were able to provide artists much more opportunity for experimentation and artistic freedom.
In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the American music business changed as people began to more quickly learn the industry. Several companies set up their own recording studios, and the number of label owners began to increase. Many of these owners realized that whichever label first publishes a song is legally entitled to receive compensation for every record sold. Jazz musicians pioneered a new subset of independent labels, companies operated by the artists themselves. Following the original pioneers of the music industry, many new labels were launched over the following decades by people with industry experience. During the 1980s and 1990s, many rap labels were started by artists looking for new talent.
In the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 1960s, the major labels EMI, Philips, and Decca had so much power that smaller labels struggled to establish themselves. Several British producers launched independent labels, including Joe Meek (Triumph Records), Andrew Oldham (Immediate Records), and Larry Page (Page One Records). Chrysalis Records, launched by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis, was perhaps the most successful independent label from that era. Several established artists started their own independent labels, including The Beatles' Apple Records, and The Rolling Stones' Rolling Stones Records. These labels tended to fail commercially or be acquired by the major labels.
Early independents of the 1970s included labels such as MAM Records, set up by the Gordon Mills' Management Agency & Music company. However MAM, like many of the small independents in the United Kingdom ended up signing a distribution deal with a major to remain viable, with MAM's records being licensed and distributed by Decca until it was sold to Chrysalis.
For many years, the general consensus was that the punk rock movement was the main turning point for independent labels, with the movement's do-it-yourself ethos creating an even greater proliferation of independent labels. However, only in the 21st Century that the pub rock scene has been re-evaluated by cultural historians and in rock documentaries such as Sky Arts' Trailblazers series, with the genre being given a more prominent role in music history than it had. The pub rock scene included labels such as Chiswick Records and Stiff Records, the latter being a company known for rude slogans, bizarre releases (such as The Wit And Wisdom Of Ronald Reagan) and tours by train. Even though Stiff Records released the UK's first punk single, ("New Rose" by The Damned on 22 October 1976), the company is sometimes excluded from various lists of 'greatest independent labels' due to its association with Island Records in the 1980s (though ranked at number 7 on the NME's list from 2015).
In the United States, independent labels such as Beserkley found success with artists such as The Modern Lovers. Another factor that came to define independent labels was the method of distribution, which had to be independent of the major labels for records to be included in the UK Indie Chart, with labels such as Industrial and Factory retaining full independence (though Beggars was excluded as they had a deal with Warner Brothers for Gary Numan at the time).
The late 1970s had seen the establishment of independent distribution companies such as Pinnacle and Spartan, providing independent labels an effective means of distribution without involving the major labels. Distribution was further improved with the establishment of 'The Cartel', an association of companies such as Rough Trade Records, Backs Records, and Red Rhino, which helped to take releases from small labels and get them into record shops nationwide.
The UK Indie Chart was first compiled in 1980, with the first number one being "Where's Captain Kirk?" by Spizz and his band (billed on the record as Spizzenergi). "Where's Captain Kirk?" had been a constant seller for Geoff Travis' Rough Trade Records, but never got into the chart compiled by BMRB (British Market Research Bureau) as a lot of independent stores were not chart return shops and because a more accurate way of collating sales via EPOS (electronic point-of-sale systems) had yet to be introduced. The chart was unrelated to a specific genre, and the chart featured a diverse range of music, from punk to reggae, MOR, and mainstream pop, including many songs in the late 1980s by artists like Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan on the PWL label.
Even though PWL's releases were mainly Hi-NRG-influenced disco-pop the label was independently distributed and did have a music fan (Pete Waterman) at its helm, of which the label was closely associated with. Whether indie fans dismiss Stock Aitken Waterman as cheesy pop or not, this was as true for Waterman as it was for Ivo Watts-Russell (4AD), Alan Horne (Postcard), Daniel Miller (Mute), Alan McGee (Creation) or Tony Wilson (Factory).
The UK Indie Chart became a major source of exposure for artists on independent labels, with the top ten singles regularly aired on the national television show The Chart Show. By the late 1980s, the major labels had identified that there was an opportunity in indie music and so teamed up with many of the main figures of the indie scene to launch indie music record labels. WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) teamed up with Geoff Travis and él Records' Mike Alway to launch Blanco y Negro, followed a few years later by Alan McGee's Elevation label (even though some indie fans viewed this development in a negative way, it has to be noted that WEA set up Korova in 1979 for Zoo Record's Echo & the Bunnymen, with Zoo Records being the Liverpool based label of Bill Drummond and David Balfe). The term "alternative" was increasingly used to describe artists, and "indie'" was more often used to describe a broad range of guitar-based rock and pop.
The 'explosion' of the dance music scene in the mid-to-late 1980s found labels such as Warp, Coldcut's Ahead of Our Time and Wax On Records set up. In Italy production teams like Groove Groove Melody and the FPI Project would make and release Italo dance/piano house records under many pseudonyms and license them individually to various record labels around the world (such as Beggars' Citybeat label). Instead of going down this one-by-one deal route, Cappella's Gianfranco Bortolotti set up Media Records in Brescia, northern Italy to release his 'commercial European dance music', a set-up which included fifteen studios featuring various production teams working almost non-stop on a huge number of records (usually promoted by a 'front' of models-turned-singers and various rappers) and, in the 1990s, a UK arm which would eventually turn into hard house label Nukleuz, known for its DJ Nation releases.
The dance music scene also proved beneficial to independent labels who compiled and marketed TV-advertised compilations, especially when Virgin teamed up with EMI to launch Now That's What I Call Music, a number one hit that would see CBS and WEA (the future Sony BMG and WMG) move into the market with their rival Hits compilations and Chrysalis and MCA team up for the short lived Out Now! brand.
Morgan Khan's StreetSounds/StreetWaves was the first independent company to run up a number of hits in the UK album chart with a run of various artist dance music collections and started off business in the pre-Now days of Open Top Cars And Girls In T'Shirts, Raiders of the Pop Charts and Chart Encounters Of The Hit Kind. In fact, apart from a few soul music compilations billed as Dance Mix - Dance Hits on Epic and a few throwback disco collections, Khan's company was the only label regularly charting with music that could be classed as with club or dance until Stylus Music teamed up with the Disco Mix Club (DMC) for their Hit Mix series. Coming before the Acid House-era the first Hit Mix album in 1986 still had a large amount of pop hits from mainstream chart stars like Kajagoogoo, Kate Bush and Nik Kershaw, but Paul Dakeyne & Les 'L.A. Mix' Adams mixed 86 tracks onto four-sides of vinyl, while follow-up releases would start to feature more house tracks by people like Krush and Nitro De Luxe.
The start of the 1990s would see the founding of two independent companies who would go on to chart numerous dance music collections in the new compilations album chart, Blackburn-based All Around the World (AATW) and the Ministry of Sound.
Both All Around the World/AATW and the Ministry of Sound would be founded in 1991, the former by Cris Nuttall and Matt Cadman, the latter by James Palumbo, Humphrey Waterhouse and Justin Berkmann (though initially as a nightclub in South London, before it became a record company). Originally AATW would focus on singles and would issue a compilation album once in a while as a tie-in with a local EMAP-owned radio station such as 97.4 Rock FM in Preston, Lancashire (Rock The Dancefloor - All Mixed Up), while the Ministry of Sound moved into compilations quite quickly with the release of their Sessions series. Over the following decades, album brands such as AATW's Clubland and Floorfillers or the Ministry of Sound's The Annual and Euphoria (with the latter brand picked up from Telstar) would turn-up in the compilations top 20 so regularly that the majors became interested, with Sony taking over Ministry of Sound's record company and AATW getting into a joint-venture with Universal Music TV, which ended up with the firm running TV channels in the 21st Century based on Clubland and Universal's Now Music brands.
Also in 1991 Rough Trade Distribution went bankrupt, causing a number of indie labels to stop trading (including Rough Trade itself and - indirectly - Factory, who had already spent a large amount of money on various projects such as their headquarters at Fac251) and others to be sold off in part to majors. In the case of Factory, one of Tony Wilson's beliefs was that "musicians own everything, the company owns nothing", which caused problems for the firm when it was going to be taken over by Roger Ames' London Recordings (a 'boutique' semi-independent label which followed Ames from Polygram to Warners when he became CEO). London Recordings did not have to buy Factory out right because the artists owned the masters and so London could pick and choose which acts they wanted, dealing with them directly (though due to problems with the administration, London did not get the rights to New Order's catalogue for a couple of years and so a company called CentreDate Co Ltd was set up to license them back to London).
However, not all indie record labels failed in this era due the problems with Rough Trade Distribution, some failed because they did not stick to their niche and tried to take on the majors at their own game. David Mimran's Savage Records (known for British band Soho and their Smiths-sampling indie-dance hit "Hippychick" in 1991) was set up by the Swiss teenager in 1986 and funded by his multi-millionaire father. Due to the almost endless financing of his father and the fact their A&R manager (a Swiss record shop owner called Bernard Fanin) had industry experience, the label managed to make it into the 1990s with a number of dance and hip-hop hits by artists such as Silver Bullet and A Homeboy, Hippy and A Funky Dread (issued on Savage's Tam Tam dance label). Around the time Soho had their top ten UK hit, Mimran decided that Savage would not just be a British indie, but would be an American major instead. Savage Records went on a spending spree in America, which resulted in them opening plush offices on Broadway, hiring Michael Jackson's manager Frank DiLeo and signing David Bowie to a massive $3.4 million record deal, all which ended when Mimran's father, Jean Claude, cut finances. In the end Bowie's Savage album, Black Tie White Noise only just made the US Top 40 albums chart (but was a number one in the UK for Savage's distributor BMG via their Arista label) with Savage Records being a record label whose 'story' Telstar and Sanctuary would follow to a lesser extent.
One independent record label who was having a better time than Savage Records in the early-to-mid 90s American marketplace was Epitaph Records. It was Epitaph that released The Offspring's 1994 album, Smash, which would become the best-selling independent record of the 1990s. The album was certified six times platinum in the United States and sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.
In the UK, the indie chart was still a valuable marketing tool (especially when targeting readers of the NME, Select and various student publications) and so the Britpop-era gave rise to the idea of the 'fake indie'. The 'fake indie' would be a record label owned by a major company but whose distribution did not go through the parent company's distribution arm, going through an independent in order for those records to be eligible for the indie chart. Acts promoted this way initially included Sleeper on BMG's Indolent Records and Echobelly on Sony's Fauve Records. However, at this point its worth noting that Sony owned half of Creation Records at the time (with Alan McGee too important within the scene to be labelled a 'fake'), that Fauve Records was set up as part of a labels deal between Epic and former dance music label Rhythm King and as the bands got bigger the releases ended up going through major distribution channels like Arvato (its also worth pointing out that BMG would be seen as being one of the largest independent record companies of the 21st Century after Sony BMG was dissolved).
Richard Branson sold the independent label he co-founded with Simon Draper and Nik Powell (Virgin Records) to Thorn EMI in 1992 and a few years later decided to launch a 'new Virgin Records'. This 'Virgin2' was set up as V2 Music in 1996 with staff from Branson's company working on V2 at the same time as the V96 Festival (both record company and festival would use similar 'V' branding, as Branson could not use the full Virgin name for any projects involving music). This British independent label would be joined by other V2 Records around the world, with V2 Records Benelux founded in 1997, a record company which continues to operate to this day.
In 2001, Daptone Records records would be founded in New York, a funk and soul label known for Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley and a lot of the musicians who would appear on Amy Winehouse's Back to Black album in 2006. As the indie hip hop or underground hip hop scene began to grow, so did the attraction of creating independent labels for the genre. MF Doom's album Madvillainy sold over 150,000 copies, making it Stones Throw Records highest selling underground album.
In 2004, Telstar Records went bankrupt in the UK after giving Victoria Beckham a £1.5 million record deal. Like Savage Records a decade earlier Telstar did not stick to their niche (they started off as a compilations label - similar to Ronco and K-Tel - before signing children's TV stars and dance acts to their XSRhythm and Multiply labels) and tried to operate in a similar marketplace to their compilations partner, the original BMG company.
In the 2010s, due to platforms such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud, a number of the larger indies moved away from signing unknown acts instead acquiring back catalogues and working with 'heritage acts' (for example, those popular in a pre-digital age). New independent BMG, which had been spun-out of the Sony BMG joint venture that included Arista and RCA, ended up with the catalogues of Echo, Infectious and Sanctuary (the biggest independent record label in the UK before it went bankrupt), while Cherry Red Records, who had a few 'heritage acts' like Hawkwind on their main label, were mainly were concerned with their re-issue labels such as 7T's Records (1970s music), 3 Loop Music (indie music) and Cherry Pop (mainly chart pop from the 1980s).
From 2013, Warner Music had to sell a lot of its catalogue in order to please various anti-monopoly and merger commissions or trade bodies, after buying the large part of EMI (Parlophone) that UMG was not allowed to keep hold of after acquiring the remainder. In 2016, Radiohead's back catalogue was sold to Beggars (XL Recordings), Chrysalis Records was sold to Blue Raincoat Music (now including recordings by Everything but the Girl, Athlete and Cockney Rebel), while the rights to albums by Guster and Airbourne went to Nettwerk. In 2017, WMG went on to sell the catalogues of a number of other artists to independent record companies, including Domino (Hot Chip and Buzzcocks), Cherry Red (Howard Jones, Dinosaur Jr. and Kim Wilde), Fire (The Lemonheads and The Groundhogs) and Because Music (The Beta Band and various French acts).
Apart from a couple of appearances from Kylie Minogue and a few releases on XL Recordings, the Official Independent Singles Chart Top 50 would be alien to anyone who remembered the indie chart from 1990. It is now more likely for grime, dance and K-Pop artists to be in the Top 10 than indie bands, with the chart of 20 November to 26 November 2020, having KSI and Craig David at number one with their BMG released single "Really Love", BTS at number two with "Dynamite" and AJ Tracey at number three with "West Ten". Apart from re-issues and oldies by people like the White Stripes and Arctic Monkeys, the nearest to a new indie band hit is pop guitar band McFly at number 30 with their song "Happiness", only charting after a special called "McFly: All About Us" was broadcast by ITV on 14 November 2020.
After having his own independent record company in the 1990s which charted a number of releases in the main UK charts, prog rock singer Fish decided not to sign up to the Official Chart Company when he released Weltschmerz on 25 September 2020, an album self-funded, marketed and distributed from his home in Scotland. As he did not partner with a record label like BMG, he missed out on a top ten album chart placing when early sales revealed that he would have been number 2 on the UK midweek charts behind that week's chart topper, the Partisan-signed band IDLES. On the Official Independent Albums Chart Top 10 for 8 October, IDLES would be number one with Ultra Mono with acts from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s taking up a further seven slots (including compilations from acts like Slade and new albums from people like Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould).
According to Korean newspaper Kyunghyang Shinmun, K-pop company Big Hit Entertainment had revenues of 484 billion South Korea won ($436 million US dollars) for the first three quarters of 2020, a period which did not include the release of the Billboard album chart topping BE by BTS, but did include the period when the label bought into Han Sung Soo's Pledis Entertainment. In October 2020, Big Hit Entertainment floated on the Korean stock market with founder Bang Si-hyuk giving the members of BTS shares in the company and his stake in Big Hit making him the sixth richest person in Korea.
The international peak body for the indie music industry, Worldwide Independent Network, was founded in 2006. WIN is a coalition of independent music bodies from countries throughout the world.
Alison Wenham spent 17 years leading the UK's Association of Independent Music (AIM), which she launched in 1999. During this time she also helped to found WIN in 2006, remaining at WIN for twelve years, with the last two spent as CEO. As a driving force in helping indie labels being able to compete worldwide with bigger companies, Wenham featured in Billboard's "Top Women in Music" every year since publication. She stepped down from her role at WIN in December 2018, the following year taking on a non-executive director's role at Funnel Music.
On 4 July 2008, WIN ran "Independents Day", the first annual coordinated celebration of independent music across the world, for which the Australian Independent Record Labels Association created a list of the greatest independent records of all time.
After Wenham's departure, WIN's former Director of Legal and Business Affairs, Charlie Phillips, was promoted to the leadership role, named as Chief Operating Officer. He would report directly to the recently elected Chair, Justin West, of Canadian company Secret City Records.
As of August 2019A2IM (USA), ABMI (Brazil), ADISQ (Canada - Quebec only), AIM (UK), AMAEI (Portugal), A.S.I.A.r (Argentina), Audiocoop (Italy), BIMA (Belgium), CIMA (Canada), DUP (Denmark), FONO (Norway), HAIL (Hungary), IMCJ (Japan), IMICHILE (Chile) IMNZ (New Zealand), IMPALA (Europe), indieCo (Finland), IndieSuisse (Switzerland), Liak (Korea), P.I.L. (Israel), PMI (Italy), Runda (Balkans), SOM (Sweden), stomp (Netherlands), UFI (Spain), UPFI (France), VTMOE (Austria) and VUT (Germany).other member organisations of WIN included
Particularly active are the trade associations in countries and regions with well-established music markets: AIM (UK), A2IM (USA), AIR (Australia), CIMA (Canada), VUT (Germany), IMNZ (New Zealand), UFI (Spain); IMICHILE (Chile), ABMI (Brazil), and IMPALA (Europe).
In 2016, WIN's WINTEL report, an analysis of the global economic and cultural impact of the indie sector, showed the share of the global market as 37.6%. The sector generated worldwide revenues of US$5.6 billion in 2015.
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A 2017 report commissioned by AIR, titled AIR Share: Australian Independent Music Market Report, was the first market analysis of the industry in Australia. It showed that indie labels represented 30% of revenue generated by the Australian recorded music market, and that 57% of independent sector revenue was from Australian artists, which put the Australian sector in the Top 10 global list of mainly English-speaking indie music markets, according to then CEO of WIN (Worldwide Independent Network), Alison Wenham. (By comparison, the US indie market had a 34% share while the UK had 23%.)
The report valued the Australian recording industry as worth A$399.4 million, sixth largest music market in the world in terms of revenue and ahead of countries with higher populations such as Canada and South Korea. Digital revenue, at 44%, had overtaken that coming from physical sales, at 33%. A spokesperson from the company Unified Music Group said that governments were beginning to recognise the financial and cultural worth of a thriving music industry, but there was still a big challenge for the independents to compete with well-funded tech companies that have an anti-copyright agenda.
In 2017, Finland's indie market share had the lowest share of the total music market, at only 16%.
In 2017, Korea's indie market showed the healthiest share of the total music market, 88%.
In 2017, the UK indie market had a 23% share of the total music market.
In 2017, the US indie market had a 34% share of the total music market.
The Scouting Party Index of Independent Record Labels (1986) by Norman Schreiber included a list of over 200 independent record labels, their artists, and examples of their work. The following is a list of notable independent record companies and the creatives/founders behind the labels:
These are labels dating from before the punk era, which had become 'too big' by the 1980s. Like many famous indie labels of the period 1976-1990 they are usually associated with a 'talisman figure' (usually the person who set up the label) and have strong associations with certain types of music (prog, folk, reggae etc) though by the 1980s they had become more focused on mainstream pop and had distribution deals with the majors.