With Strength In Numbers, Indies Have Cause To Celebrate

Why would anyone want to read an Opinion piece enthusing about the joys of the independent world? Well, I for one am fed up with the negative stories permeating every level of the industry. Sit up and

Lesley Bleakley is CEO of Beggars Group North America and co-founder of the American Assn. for Independent Music.

Why would anyone want to read an Opinion piece enthusing about the joys of the independent world? Well, I for one am fed up with the negative stories permeating every level of the industry. Sit up and take notice: Major-label issues aren’t necessarily ours. There are many facets to this industry. It’s about time everyone wasn’t lumped together.

At the start of 2005, I see Beggars Group and other independents doing better than ever. I’m not being naive and saying it’s an easy road we travel -- because it’s not. But having moved to the United States from England nearly 10 years ago, I can honestly say that things have changed; indies are no longer treated as second-class citizens.

In October 2004, Beggars and sister company Matador achieved what we had always been told was impossible. Interpol’s wholly independent Matador album, “Antics,” debuted at No. 15 on The Billboard 200. The fact that we scanned 62,500 copies in the first week of release really says something -- particularly since there was no major-label money or marketing involved.

While it is quite a rare achievement today, these sales figures reveal a markedly changed landscape. As the industry evolves, independent labels can adapt more quickly than the majors. I like the saying, “If you’re on the Titanic, it takes you two days to turn around; if you’re on a tugboat, it takes you one hour.” For me, that neatly sums up the main difference between majors and independents.

Sure, there are difficult times ahead, especially in the consolidated world we now live in. But in times like these, it becomes that much more vital for indies of all musical genres to band together on a purely business level -- otherwise, we are likely to get taken advantage of.

The whole foundation of independent labels and label owners is entrepreneurial spirit and individuality -- which almost by definition makes them more difficult to bring together. However, cooperation can happen without affecting individual creativity and vision.

If you are at an independent, do you believe your music is worth less than that of a major label? I certainly don’t. For this reason, I, along with several others, have been very involved in starting a trade group, the American Assn. for Independent Music.

We saw what the Assn. of Independent Music in the United Kingdom and Impala in Europe have achieved and realized the potential impact of a similar collective bargaining position for us in the States.

For example, when iTunes launched in Britain, it offered independents less money per download than majors. AIM stipulated that iTunes could not list independent music until a most-favored nations clause was in place, guaranteeing that there would be no preferential terms. That battle was won, as was the MTV Europe debate, among many others.

Here in the United States, iTunes is getting away with offering less money to independent labels, partly because we do not have an organization that represents us. Individually, we have a small voice. But together, we become a force to be reckoned with. There is power and strength in numbers.

All this said, the revenue from iTunes has been great for us here in the United States. It’s been a noticeable amount -- a small percentage of our overall turnover, but a small percentage that we never received before.

Beggars, along with other indie labels, joined the digital age early and quickly. However, perhaps because Beggars Group is a British company, we don’t give music away. We don’t really agree with the philosophy that giving music away is good for promotion. You must respect the value of music; otherwise, our business will cease to exist. Ultimately, the cyber world has been a great leveler for the industry: It allows the dissemination of information at a reasonable cost -- regardless of whether you’re a major or an independent.

The past 12 months were full of exciting music, and 2005 is looking even better. And yes, I remain passionate about the independent label business, too. I’m thrilled by the fact that Domino Records’ Franz Ferdinand has done so well here. I hope smaller labels like Domino will look to Beggars Group for partnerships in the future, rather than going the major-label route.
With Interpol, we have really proven something. And we can achieve the same thing with other acts. It’s possible for an independent to remain an independent. You no longer have to align yourself with a major.

This reality, however, still seems to elude many major-label A&R execs. It’s damn rude when they sniff around bands that are already signed to smaller labels. It shows no respect for what independents do. When these bands appear on the radar, majors -- seeing increased CD sales -- suddenly become interested.

We know majors can offer bands a lot more money than independents. But it’s doubtful that majors can offer a band the fruitful relationship we independents can. At the end of the day, we are passionate about the music we are sharing with the world.