Revealed: Billboard's 2020 Indie Power Players

In a season of turmoil, the executives at these 75 companies — labels, distributors and associations — are driving artists to chart-topping success outside the major-label machinery.

During the past year, independent music executives have faced chaos in physical sales channels, questions about how data flows from social media platforms, disappearing brick-and-mortar stores and other challenges. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, followed by the worst social unrest the United States has seen in a generation.

In response, the indie music community has shown the strength of its autonomy. Music associations and companies profiled here stepped up to help amid the economic hit of the pandemic. On June 2, multiple labels and distributors participated in Blackout Tuesday to support the fight for racial justice.

Indie labels and artists account for nearly one-third of the global music market, and, according to research by MIDiA, they’ve achieved a faster rate of streaming growth on Spotify in 2019 than the majors.

For Indie Power Players, labels are defined as independent by their ownership through entities other than the three major music groups. Distributors, regardless of their corporate ownership, qualify as independent through the repertoire they market.

Many in the indie music industry will convene online June 15-18 for the American Association of Independent Music’s first virtual Indie Music Week and the Libera Awards, which will conclude A2IM’s conference. Ahead of Indie Music Week, Billboard recognizes the successes of those thriving on their own maverick terms.

Patrick Amory, 54
Co-owner/president, Matador Records
Gerard Cosloy, 55
Co-founder/co-owner, Matador Records
Chris Lombardi, 53
Co-Founder/co-owner, Matador Records

In the past year, Matador renewed deals with three of its signature acts — Pavement, Spoon and Interpol — and expanded its relationships with each to include worldwide rights for their catalogs. “This was our primary mission for the year,” says Lombardi, “and we accomplished it.”

How He Works Now: “We’re finding new ways to [market] albums from King Krule, Car Seat Headrest, Perfume Genius and Muzz without promo trips, TV appearances, etcetera. We’re discussing ways to care for our bands that have lost income streams during this crisis.” - Lombardi

Noah Assad, 30
CEO, Rimas Entertainment

Assad’s marquee artist Bad Bunny made history when his YHLQMDLG, released on Rimas, scored the highest debut for an all-Spanish-language album on the Billboard 200, entering the chart at No. 2, just behind Lil Baby’s My Turn. “Had we released it on Friday instead of [Saturday] Feb. 29, it would have been No. 1,” says Assad. (Bad Bunny insisted on the leap day release.) Rimas now has over 100 artists, producers and songwriters, including Arcangel, Lyanno and Tito El Bambino.

How He Works Now: “You just have to figure out ways to keep releasing music. Right right now I’m home all the time. I get to be here and play with my daughters every day while creating new ways to work during the pandemic. I’m enjoying the time.”

Bang Si-Hyuk, 47
Chairman/CEO, Big Hit Entertainment

Multiplatinum albums, a global stadium tour, an army of fans — BTS has achieved it all with Bang’s independent Big Hit Entertainment. The K-pop supergroup’s Map of the Soul: 7 debuted atop the Billboard 200 in March, two months after BTS performed at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards, an evening Bang called “truly astonishing.” Big Hit reports $507.9 million in revenue in 2019, a 95% increase over its (as yet unaudited) 2018 numbers, and Bang is now expanding beyond music. Big Hit’s global fan-community platform, Weverse, services video content, merchandise and direct social media messaging with BTS members to over 5 million subscribers.

Independence Defined: “We achieved such growth without relying on preexisting systems. Solely focusing on content and fans and our vision — this is the ‘independence’ and driving force of Big Hit.”

Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions

Scott Borchetta, 57
Founder/president/CEO, Big Machine Label Group
Andrew Kautz, 50
COO, Big Machine Label Group

The big news in the past year for Big Machine Label Group was its acquisition by Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings for over $300 million, but for Borchetta, retaining the company’s autonomy was key. “We report to a board but remain independent creatively and operationally,” he says. “Our results are our boss.” Among the major results over the past year: Lady Antebellum scoring its first No. 1 in five-plus years on Country Airplay with the trio’s debut release for the label, “What If I Never Get Over You”; Thomas Rhett earning his 15th No. 1 on that chart; and Tim McGraw reuniting with Big Machine Records.

How They're Working Now: After the pandemic started, the Big Machine Vodka distillery division converted its operations to make hand sanitizer, which the company donated to first responders.

Ken Bunt
President, Disney Music Group
David Abdo
Senior vp global business operations and distribution, Disney Music Group
Karen Lieberman
VP sales and digital, Disney Music Group
Chip McLean
Senior vp/head of business affairs and development/gm, Disney Concerts Worldwide/Disney Music Group

The record company that shows how non-major ownership, rather than size, defines independence (it’s a division of the Walt Disney Company), Disney Music Group kept the music playing during the pandemic through such global branded playlists as Disney Hits, Disney Piano and Best of Star Wars. Among its artists, Sofia Carson did an Instagram takeover with pop radio stations, and ZZ Ward performed remotely on Good Morning America. Over the past year, the music group also launched the For Scores podcast, while its Walt Disney Records imprint continued to dominate Billboard’s Kid Albums chart, with the Frozen II soundtrack topping the tally for 24 weeks.

How He Works Now: “We have seen a substantial increase in the consumption of Disney music during this challenging time, and it’s a great reminder of the power of music and its ability to help people during difficult times.” - Bunt

Frabian Eli Carrión, 28
President, Real Hasta La Muerte

Carrión guided Latin trap superstar Anuel AA (aka Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago) to No. 1 on Top Latin Albums with his 2018 debut, Real Hasta la Muerte, which gave Carrión and Anuel AA’s label its name. “Topping the charts is something I dreamed of as a child, and it’s what excites Emmanuel and me above all else,” says Carrión. In May, Anuel AA’s Emmanuel, featuring collaborations with Travis Barker, Lil Wayne, Enrique Iglesias and Tego Calderón, debuted at No. 8 on The Billboard 200.

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Become good friends with lawyers and learn the law every day. In this business, you have to be half artist and half businessman.”

Margi Cheske
President, Fantasy Records/Concord
John Strohm
President, Rounder Records/Concord
Andy Serrao
President/chief talent officer, Fearless Records/Concord
Sig Sigworth
Chief catalog executive, Concord; president, Craft Recordings/Concord

Tanya Tucker’s double win at the 2020 Grammys for her Fantasy album, While I’m Livin’, as well as wins by another half-dozen Concord artists highlight the critical and commercial success of the company’s recorded-music division. The results reflect Concord’s “significant acquisitions and integrations across our recorded-music, publishing and theatrical companies,” says Sigworth, plus its ability to develop new talent and support legacy artists. For Sigworth and his colleagues, independence equals integrity. “If we do what is right for the artist and we do what is right for the fan, success will come. It may take more time, but we’re building careers and solidifying legacies.”

Looking Forward to When: “I can bring my team together in one room and let them all know how much I appreciate their focus, support and effort over what has been the most challenging time of our personal and business lives.” - Sigworth

Brian Ach/Getty Images for CMT/ViacomCBS
Tanya Tucker

Alisa Coleman
COO, ABKCO Music & Records

ABKCO is home to the catalogs of acts including The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Bobby Womack, Sam Cooke and the early work of The Rolling Stones — and last year launched a 50th-anniversary box set of the Stones’ landmark album Let It Bleed. In 2019, the company also released the soundtrack to the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies. Coleman says the ABKCO team deserves “accolades [for] the ease with which the team was able to pivot and focus in the face of the pandemic. Being a small independent company, we are nimble enough to take advantage of systems and technology” to move business offsite.

Independence Defined: “The opportunity to create unique business models and lead by example.”

Tomas Cookman
CEO, Industria Works/Nacional Records

While concert cancellations have affected Cookman’s Latin alternative music company during the pandemic, he reports that streaming revenue has doubled in the past 12 months (his company doesn’t report figures) and that he started a “mood-music business” that syncs mood music from multiple creators. “You adapt,” says Cookman, whose new signings include Los Amigos Invisibles founder Cheo and regional Mexican singer-songwriter Gera Demara. The Latin Alternative Music Conference, which Cookman founded, was moved online for June 9-13.

Looking Forward to When: “I will have a full staff meeting with everyone in the company present, [then] celebrate by going to dinner with my family to one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants.”

Mike Curb, 75
Founder/chairman, Curb Records

Curb Records’ Lee Brice was among the first Nashville artists to respond to the pandemic with his single “Hey World” in early April. “Everything I need’s right here at home,” he sang. “Hey, world/Leave me alone.” In Curb’s six decades as a music executive, he has nurtured numerous artists like current roster stars Brice, Mo Pitney and Sidewalk Prophets. A longtime philanthropist, Curb has advocated on behalf of the homeless, the LGBTQ community and those affected by this year’s tornadoes in Nashville as well as the pandemic.

Indies Stepping Up: “We’ve put together 25 different partners that deal with getting food to people during emergency circumstances — a program that will exceed $10 million for food purchasing.”

Angel Del Villar, 39
Founder/CEO, Del Records

Del Records, which has fused regional Mexican and urban sounds with acts like T3r Elemento, is also at the cutting edge of revenue-generating technology. The label now controls its own YouTube content management system, “where we upload our own content and collect all our royalties,” says Del Villar. With over 8 million subscribers, that’s substantial income that goes directly to the label’s coffers. “The bulk of our business is in streaming,” he says. “I own my entire catalog, everything we do is in-house — we’re in great shape.” In March, he says, “my revenues were up 30%.”

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Use all the digital platforms. They’re free.”

Seth England, 34
Co-founder/CEO, Big Loud
Patch Culbertson, 34
VP A&R, Big Loud

Hits from Morgan Wallen (“Chasing You”), Chris Lane (“I Don’t Know About You”), Jake Owen (“Homemade”) and HARDY (“Rednecker”) helped Big Loud achieve 2.2 billion global streams in 2019, according to the company, which includes a label, publishing, management and an investment division under its Nashville roof. Of Big Loud’s success last year, England says, “Don’t be surprised, because we can do it again.” Culbertson has led the label’s data-driven A&R strategy for artists like Canada’s MacKenzie Porter, whom Big Loud aims to break stateside.

How He Works Now: “Instinctively, I want to be the person that’s going out immediately. But I think I’ve learned that the smarter move is to not be that person.” - England

Matt Galle
CEO/partner, Photo Finish Records; music executive leadership group, Paradigm Talent Agency
Mike Marquis
COO/partner, Photo Finish Records; agent, music, Paradigm Talent Agency

Photo Finish scored the “biggest alternative crossover hit of 2019” with SHAED’s “Trampoline,” says Galle. The track topped the Alternative chart for two weeks before leaping to No. 4 on the Mainstream Top 40 airplay list and then peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 last November. Zayn also cut a remix of the song, which picked up a synch in an Apple iPhone commercial. “You never see those coming,” says Galle. “But streaming blew up, radio followed, and it was just a windfall. It caught fire.”

How He Works Now: “Feeding our artists ideas to engage their audience is key, not only for their business but also to help their fans personally.” - Galle

Kris Gillespie
GM, Domino Recording Company

Last year, due to the physical supply chain breakdown at Direct Shot Distribution, Gillespie started having Redeye handle Domino’s physical U.S. product. (The issue affected multiple labels and brick-and-mortar retailers.) He credits “the agility and dedication of our staff” for the London-based label emerging “more resilient and self-reliant” from the experience. During the pandemic, he says, “those qualities have come into even greater focus now in a way we couldn’t have imagined a year ago.”

How He Works Now: “Checking in with our artists and co-workers on their own wellness in this trying time, working to keep everyone feeling connected and informed, and maintaining a sense of purpose.”

Daniel Glass, 63
Founder/president, Glassnote
Chris Scully, 53
GM/CFO, Glassnote

“Grammys, Oscars, stadiums,” says Glass, summing up his artists’ achievements in the past year. Aurora performed the Frozen II hit “Into the Unknown” with Idina Menzel at the Academy Awards; The Teskey Brothers’ Run Home Slow earned a Grammy nomination for best engineered album, non-classical; and Mumford & Sons opened the North American leg of their Delta tour with stadium dates in Los Angeles and Vancouver (before the pandemic halted the tour). Glass considers live performance key to the development of younger artists like Jade Bird and Taylor Janzen. “It’s very hard to get their personality, their DNA, without it,” he says. So during lockdown, “we’re doing extra-special visuals.” One example: With Chvrches’ “Forever” breaking thanks to a synch in Netflix’s Elite, the trio made a “separate but together” video in the members’ respective home studios. “That hit is galvanizing us,” says Glass. “That’s the morale-changer.”

How He Works Now: “You have to be there for your people. I’m on the phone, on Zoom, on Webex seven days a week. It’s like Hollywood Squares when you look at Zoom. It takes a lot of energy.” - Glass

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music Association
Glass (right) and Bird at the 2019 Americanafest in Nashville.

Michael Goldstone
Founder/co-owner, Mom + Pop Music
Thaddeus Rudd, 47
Co-owner, Mom + Pop Music

“We’re fortunate and proud to be working with such dynamic and diverse artistry,” says Goldstone. Mom + Pop’s roster boasts Ashe, whose “Moral of the Story” was co-written and co-produced by FINNEAS; Caamp, whose “Peach Fuzz” hit No. 1 on the Triple A chart; Alina Baraz, who collaborated with Khalid on her debut album, It Was Divine; and Sleater-Kinney, whose most recent release, The Center Won’t Hold, was produced by St. Vincent. The label’s talent pipeline is also full. The past 12 months have brought the signings of Porter Robinson, Beach Bunny, orion sun and, most recently, 16-year-old Evann McIntosh of Kansas, who already has 12 million streams in the United States.

How He Works Now: “It’s imperative more than ever to be a resource, connection and asset to your artists. We need to overdeliver wherever we can.” - Goldstone

Elliot Grainge, 26
Founder/CEO, 10K Projects

Last August, Grainge’s bold hip-hop label invested in the Generation Z-oriented full-service management firm Homemade Projects, a move that has already paid off: The two companies worked with TikTok influencers to break Surfaces’ single “Sunday Best,” helping propel it to No. 24 on the Hot 100. “We’re brainstorming nontraditional ways of keeping our artists visible,” says Grainge of marketing amid the pandemic. Other recent strides include a joint-venture label with creative collective Internet Money and flagship signee Trippie Redd’s first-ever No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 last December for his album A Love Letter to You 4.

Independence Defined: “Giving artists complete creative freedom to develop over time and then working tirelessly with my team to make the artists’ ideas come to life.”

Brett Gurewitz
Owner, Epitaph Records
Matt McGreevey
GM, Epitaph Records/Anti-

Founded four decades ago by Bad Religion guitarist Gurewitz, Epitaph is home to punk veterans like Offspring as well as current acts like Joyce Manor, Greer and The Ghost Inside. Epitaph’s staff hasn’t “skipped a beat” during the pandemic, says McGreevey. But forces besides the coronavirus are shaping the business of Epitaph, sister label ANTI- and other indies, he says. “The continuation of streaming’s growth and the decline of other formats has changed marketing. We always worked around albums, and now we are back to a singles-driven business, the way things were in the 1950s.”

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Anytime I see an artist worried about how their music will be received, [I say] they should continue to create — and not let any success or failure trip you up.” - McGreevey

Simon Halliday
President, 4AD
Nabil Ayers, 48
Label manager, 4AD

During a four-week streak in the spring of 2019, 4AD released Aldous Harding’s Designer, Big Thief’s U.F.O.F., Holly Herndon’s PROTO and The National’s I Am Easy to Find. Each gained airplay and acclaim, including Big Thief’s Grammy Award nomination for best alternative music album. Each title also affirmed 4AD’s ability to challenge music-marketing pigeonholes. “Who needs genres?” says Ayers, who has been working on new releases from Becky & The Birds and Dry Cleaning.

How He Works Now: “Continuing to release great music by important artists despite less than optimum conditions.” - Ayers

Jimmy Jeong
CEO, JYP Entertainment

While JYP has artists based in Korea, China and Japan, the company’s distribution partnership with The Orchard has given it a global reach. Since early 2019, The Orchard has handled worldwide distribution for JYP’s roster of boy bands and girl groups including Got7, Day6, TWICE, Stray Kids and Itzy. Meanwhile, Jeong struck a strategic alliance with Republic Records for the female K-pop group TWICE, announced in February, which follows the troupe’s arena-filling U.S. tour in 2019.

Gordon Kerr, 52
President/CEO, Black River Entertainment

Under Kerr’s leadership, Black River in March moved forward with the release of Kelsea, the third album from the label’s superstar singer Kelsea Ballerini, just as the pandemic shut down touring and in-person promotion. The move paid off, as the album reached No. 2 on the Top Country Albums chart — affirming Kerr’s decision to sign Ballerini some seven years ago. The second single from Kelsea is “The Other Girl,” a country/pop duet with Halsey, which the two artists debuted on CMT Crossroads in March.

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Always try to be optimistic because the alternative just isn’t going to be helpful.”

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Kelsea Ballerini

Allen Kovac, 65
CEO, Better Noise Music

While Kovac’s Eleven Seven Label Group was rebranded as Better Noise Music in 2019, the company still follows his guiding principle of long-term career growth — not short-term profits — working with veteran acts like Five Finger Death Punch and Papa Roach, and such new signings as AWOLNation and Atlas Genius. The company’s Nashville office is developing country-edged rocker Cory Marks. “I don’t hire people from the music business anymore,” says Kovac of his search for fresh perspectives. “It has really changed my company dramatically.”

How He Works Now: “If you’re an artist manager, you’ve got no tours, and 80% of your income comes from that; the rest from publishing and royalties. That’s a tough one. When I started the record company, the management company helped float the record company, and now the record company’s going to help the management company. I’m very lucky.”

Kevin Liles, 52
Co-founder/CEO, 300 Entertainment
Roger Gold, 50
Co-founder, 300 Entertainment
Rayna Bass, 33
Senior vp marketing, 300 Entertainment
Selim Bouab
Head of A&R, 300 Entertainment

Liles led the 300 Entertainment team in driving the success of Megan Thee Stallion, Young Thug, Gunna and others. Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” (featuring Beyoncé) hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in May. Young Thug’s guest star-ladden So Much Fun arrived atop the Billboard 200 last August, and Gunna’s latest, Wunna, debuted at No. 1 on the chart in June. “But I’m most proud of how we’re responding right now in this crisis,” says Liles. “Crisis doesn’t create character — it reveals it. Our team is showing resilience and passion in serving our partners, audience and each other, and we’re all stepping up to support our artists.”

Independence Defined:  “Freedom. The freedom to do what I want, when I want and with whom I want.” - Gold

Sergio Lizárraga, 45
CEO, Lizos Music

Lizos Music is the home of Banda Sinaloense MS de Sergio Lizárraga (aka Banda MS), which ended 2019 as Billboard’s top regional Mexican albums act of the year and at No. 10 on the Top Latin Artists recap. For founder Lizárraga, the experience of Banda MS selling out two shows at Los Angeles’ Staples Center and playing New York’s Madison Square Garden were highlights of the past year, and in May, the group’s collaboration with Snoop Dogg, “Que Maldición” (“What a Curse”), debuted at No. 4 on Hot Latin Songs. Working with new acts like Los 2 de la S also opens new territory for Lizos Music, says Lizárraga.

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Look at the data. If it shows you doing something right, don’t stop.”

Jon Loba
Executive vp, BBR Music Group/BMG
John Loeffler
Executive vp repertoire and marketing, New York, BMG
Thomas Scherer
Executive vp repertoire and marketing, Los Angeles, BMG

Jason Aldean, John Fogerty, Akon, Jason Mraz, Run the Jewels, Rufus Wainwright, Huey Lewis, Avril Lavigne, Diane Warren, George Harrison’s Dark Horse Records — these are just a few of the names from BMG’s impressive recording roster. Three years after BMG’s acquisition of BBR Music Group, Loba oversees the company’s new, 36,000-square-foot Nashville office. Loeffler, a songwriter himself (“Pokémon”), manages BMG’s East Coast presence in New York, including S-Curve Records. Scherer, a former drummer, has driven the company’s rock-focused artist-development surge in Los Angeles. “You must maintain a startup mentality and that ‘indie feeling,’ ” says Scherer. “You have to extend to everyone in the company an invitation to innovate. And you have to mean it. No red tape.”

How He Works Now: Live-at-home shows “may not change once things begin to normalize. This intimate and immediate connection between fan and artist is here to stay.” - Loeffler

S Meddle/ITV/Shutterstock
Huey Lewis

David Macias, 55
President, Thirty Tigers
Nancy Quinn, 49
Executive vp/GM, Thirty Tigers

For two decades under Macias, Thirty Tigers has nurtured rising and veteran indie artists alike, releasing music from John Prine, Lupe Fiasco, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Dr. Dog, Colter Wall and CeCe Winans, among others. Quinn is responsible for all of the company’s agreements and business developments with new artists as well as negotiating the best terms with its distribution partners. Macias, who has invested in such independent films as Fruitvale Station, last year released Once Upon a River through his company’s film division.

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “If at all possible, keep ownership of the content you create.” - Macias

Franklin Martinez, 38
President/CEO, Carbon Fiber Music

While guiding the career of his management client Farruko, Martinez has also been steadily growing the Carbon Fiber Music label (where Farruko is his partner). “We just signed a distribution deal with Ingrooves, and in the past eight months, I’ve signed five new artists,” including Lary Over and Ankhal, says Martinez. Carbon Fiber now has a staff of nearly 50, including in-house designers and booking agents. While the pandemic has meant leaving “literally millions on the table” from lost Farruko tour earnings, says Martinez, “we’ve had more time to strategize creatively.”

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Set aside your friends who are managers. They are the best weapon to destroy a new artist because they create doubts, they don’t know. New artists have to have a good structure, believe in their art and develop it with someone who really manages.”

Josh Méndez, 31
President/COO, Rich Music

Rich Music surged during the past 12 months with the success of Latin urban artists like Sech, Dalex and Justin Quiles. The label’s YouTube channel, a major source of revenue, has nearly 900,000 subscribers — Sech’s channel alone has drawn 5.7 million. “We’ve doubled streams and signed key business deals,” says Méndez, citing Sech’s touring deal with Cárdenas Marketing Network and a distribution pact with Ingrooves. “We’re a one-stop shop.”

How He Works Now: “My role has changed because of COVID-19 and also because my dad is now serving a sentence. [Rich Méndez began serving in a federal prison in January on a wire fraud conviction related to timeshare sales.] I’ve always dealt with the artists, but now I’m dealing with a lot of the business, quarterbacking everything from home.”

Martin Mills, 70
Founder/chairman, Beggars Group
Matt Harmon, 48
President, Beggars Group
Rusty Clarke
VP Sales, Beggars Group
Miwa Okumura
Senior vp West Coast operations and licensing, Beggars Group
Risa Matsuki, 48
VP promotions, Beggars Group

Beggars Group — which consists of 4AD, Matador, XL, Rough Trade Records and Young Turks — reshuffled its deck in the past year. The company restructured divisions, created the role of head of streaming, increased emphasis on content teams and supply chain support, and bolstered staff to deal with metadata and digital service providers. It also switched from its longtime physical distributor, Alternative Distribution Alliance, to Redeye following widespread supply issues with ADA’s fulfillment partner, Direct Shot. Says Harmon: “We’ve really transformed the Beggars team, both in the U.S. and globally, to deal with the digital marketplace.”

How He Works Now: “I’m proud that I’ve built a company that technologically and resource-wise can survive this [pandemic] without cutting any staff and paying everyone full wages, and be pretty confident of coming out on the other side in pretty good shape.” - Mills

Doug Morris, 81
Founder/owner, 12Tone Music Group
Steve Bartels
12Tone Music Group

Bartels calls 12Tone “a nimble, modern” new company able to “anticipate music trends, pivot and support our artists with bespoke and specific campaigns.” That meant working with Warner Records to break Lauren Daigle at pop radio and drive her song “You Say” to the top of Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. It also meant helping rappers like Rich Brian and Joji turn YouTube virality into lasting music careers — and working closely with Aftermath and Full Stop Management to secure Anderson .Paak’s two victories at the 2020 Grammys.

How He Works Now: “I am able to engage the staff with mobile conferencing, WhatsApp, video comms, etcetera, so we all feel united. The goals remain the same: More than ever, artists and the music we bring to the world can help lift spirits.” - Bartels

Lonny Olinick, 38
Paul Hitchman
President, AWAL
Ron Cerrito
President, AWAL North America

Revenue for AWAL, the independent distribution and label services division of Kobalt Music Group, grew 86% to $106.2 million in its fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, according to Kobalt’s financial results announced in March. Behind the numbers are the successes of artists like Lauv (5 billion global streams, according to AWAL), Rex Orange County and Lil Peep (1 billion streams each), Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes, and rising stars FINNEAS and Kim Petras. For the strong fiscal results, Olinick credits AWAL’s artists and a business model that “allows them to reach their full potential while getting a fair deal.” Cerrito points to upcoming releases from Gus Dapperton, Alaina Castillo, Blake Rose, Boy in Space, Quadeca, Yeek and deadmau5. “Having proven ourselves against the majors,” says Hitchman, “we are now seeing some of the most exciting new talent come to us.”

Independence Defined: “Never accepting the status quo and always pushing for better, bigger, faster.” - Olinick

Maykel Piron, 45
Co-Owner/CEO, Armada Music

Under Piron, Armada Music thrives as one of the world’s leading dance music labels, with headquarters in Amsterdam and offices in New York and London. The company has a catalog of over 40,000 titles and scored myriad hits in 2019. It has achieved global success with artists like Loud Luxury, Lost Frequencies and Brando. Armin van Buuren’s annual compilation album, A State of Trance, which arrived in April. Piron, van Buuren and David Lewis co-founded Armada Music — combining the first two letters of their first names for the label’s moniker.

Looking Forward to When: “I may just throw a big office party in our own club for the entire team as a thank-you. The way they’re handling this situation is amazing, and I’m super proud to be standing alongside them through it all.”

Louis Posen, 49
Founder/president, Hopeless Records

The punk label that launched from Posen’s garage in 1993 continued to break new ground in the past year, “setting up big campaigns for Sum 41 and Waterparks, and developing new artists Stand Atlantic, Point North and Fame on Fire,” says Posen. He praises his worldwide team for adapting marketing campaigns to online-only during the pandemic. “I tend to lean into tough times,” says Posen. “That’s part of my personality.”

Indies Stepping Up: “The signature initiative of our nonprofit organization Sub City is called Songs That Saved My Life, where artists cover a song that got them through a tough time, and proceeds from that project go to mental health and suicide prevention charities. This project has been going on these past two years. Along with our other Sub City initiatives, [we’ve raised] more than $3 million.”

Scott Robinson, 57
Co-founder/CEO, Dualtone Music Group

Robinson says fostering a “community of camaraderie” among his acts is one of his proudest accomplishments at Dualtone, a division of Entertainment One. The Lumineers, for example, tapped three up-and-coming labelmates — Shakey Graves, Gregory Alan Isakov and Mt. Joy — to open their arena shows through March. (The pandemic cut the tour short.) “We’re very selective, and when we sign an artist we end up working records much longer, with a record cycle sometimes lasting two years,” says Robinson, noting that Mt. Joy has earned “130,000-plus consumed units” of its debut self-titled album released in 2018.

Indies Stepping Up: “When the Dualtone office in Nashville took a direct hit from the tornadoes [in early March], my staff didn’t miss a beat. We were able to get back online together virtually and continue our daily operations. Our Dualtone family raised resources for local charities affected by the Nashville tornadoes and the coronavirus.”

Rich Fury/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers, who toured with labelmates on Dualtone Records.

Jake Round, 37
founder/president, Pure Noise Records

The hardcore punk band Knocked Loose released its second album, A Different Shade of Blue, on Pure Noise last August and surpassed expectations “by leaps and bounds,” says Round. After the label successfully placed the title in big-box retailer Target, Knocked Loose debuted atop Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart while the album reached No. 26 on the Billboard 200.

Independence Defined: “I’ve never been more grateful to be small in my life and also to have complete control of my own destiny. I’m making the decisions, and I don’t have to run anything up the flagpole. I am the flagpole.”

Vicente Saavedra, 37
Founder, Dimelo Vi

At Dimelo Vi, Saavedra celebrated as Ozuna (whose music was co-released with VP Records before he signed with Sony and The Orchard) came in at No. 2 on Billboard’s 2019 year-end Top Latin Artists recap, bested only by Bad Bunny. Earlier in the year, at the Billboard Latin Music Awards, Ozuna made history by taking home 11 honors, the most by any artist in a single year. Saavedra, who formerly managed Ozuna, says that “as an indie label, competing with major labels is one of my greatest accomplishments.”

How He Works Now: “Aside from being a manager and producer, I am also now a psychologist. It has been a moment in which I also have to deal with artists’ anxiety and their preoccupations.”

Jon Salter, 48
GM, ATO Records

“Brand-new band, debut album, boom!” is how Salter describes the breakout of Black Pumas, whose self-titled 2019 release led to a best new artist nomination at the 2020 Grammys. That was one of a remarkable seven nods for ATO Records, with Brittany Howard, Emily King and Altin Gün also being recognized, while Rodrigo Y Gabriela won the best contemporary instrumental album award for Mettavolution. The label’s new in-house film/TV department, which placed Black Pumas’ “The Power to Be Me” in a Bank of America campaign, “equips us to control our own destiny,” says Salter.

How He Works Now: “We’re staying the course with all our spring releases — Chicano Batman, Margaret Glaspy, a King Gizzard [& The Lizard Wizard] live album. You can’t go to [Austin’s] Waterloo Records to buy an album,” says Salter of his local retailer. “But you can mail-order it or order curbside pickup, and we’re going to make [releases] available.”

Luis Sánchez, 42
CEO, Afinarte Music

Sánchez says revenue for his Mexican music label has increased by 40% compared with the previous year. (Afinarte does not report specific revenue figures.) That growth comes thanks to the success of artists like Kanales, Los Dos Carnales and El Fantasma, who nabbed his eighth top 10 entry on the Regional Mexican Airplay chart with “Palabra de Hombre” (“A Man’s Word”) in March. “We had 10 artists signed last year. Now we have 19, and I’m very proud of our expansion toward Mexico,” says Sánchez of his roster, which is focused on young and developing acts. “We are self-driven, self-motivated, self-sufficient and willing to take a risk.”

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Be patient and follow your dream. Many people will say no. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I lived that firsthand with El Fantasma.”

Huib Schippers
Director/curator, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

It would be easy for Schippers to point to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ two 2020 Grammy wins earlier this year as a marker of success. Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection won best historical album, and Mariachi los Camperos’ De Ayer Para Siempre was named best regional Mexican music album [including tejano].) But Schippers defines success differently, with a broader vision of the cultural role of the Washington, D.C.-based label that goes beyond industry accolades. To that end, Schippers is also proud of Songs of Our Native Daughters, a critically acclaimed Folkways release featuring Rhiannon Giddens that “beautifully and fearlessly chronicles the history and position of African-American women at the crossroads of misogyny and racism.”

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Make amazing music that you believe in. Then go to people you trust and ask for brutally honest feedback. Swallow your pride and listen. Make it better. Then find a label that gets you.”

Melanie Sheehan
U.S. label manager, Rough Trade Records

In the past year at Rough Trade, Sheehan has helped the London band black midi launch its debut album, Schlagenheim; promoted new releases from Lankum and Pinegrove; gained the first U.S. TV slot for SOAK on Late Night With Seth Meyers; and “now, after a lifetime of fandom,” she says, she’s working on Jarvis Cocker’s first new album in a decade, titled JARV IS...

How She Works Now: “So. Many. Video. Conferences!”

Jonny Shipes, 40
CEO, Cinematic Music Group

From Joey Bada$$ to Nipsey Hussle, Cinematic CEO Shipes has a keen ear for discovering rap stars. Even with a diverse roster that includes such artists as veterans Cam’ron and T-Pain to breakthrough acts including Flipp Dinero and Luh Kel, Shipes emphasizes he isn’t solely responsible for his label’s success. “Without a dope team,” he says, “I could never have built Cinematic from where it was a few years ago to where it is today.”

Indies Stepping Up: “I have been giving out $50,000 singles deals to artists with one catch: They have to donate $50 to submit their music for consideration. After sifting through hundreds of songs, I pick a winner. We are donating all the [submission] money to charities that are helping kids, the elderly and those creating [personal protective equipment] for the essential medical people. It’s a priority for us.”

Paul Sizelove, 50
President, Gaither Music Group

Under Sizelove, Gaither in 2019 finalized a partnership with Primary Wave Music Publishing, which gives the gospel and Christian music company access to Primary Wave’s marketing, branding and digital teams, plus additional departments for help with licensing and synchs. Sizelove also expanded Gaither’s agreement with Universal Music Group’s Capitol Christian Music Group for worldwide digital and physical distribution, and has overseen the expansion of Gaither’s team, with new roles focused on streaming and social media marketing. One measure of the impact of those moves? Gaither reached 348 million streams in 2019, a 30% increase over the previous year, according to the company.

Independence Defined: “There is something about independence that gives you a sense of urgency and ownership. You have to be on your game always, as it takes hard work to blaze a trail. But the reward is fulfilling, and the lines of character developed from it run deep.”

Adolph “Young Dolph” Thornton Jr.
Founder, Paper Route EMPIRE
Jeremel “Daddy O” Moore, 34
Co-founder, Paper Route EMPIRE

To his fans, he is rapper Young Dolph, whose collaboration with labelmate Key Glock on Dum & Dummer sent the album to No. 8 on the Billboard 200. But as an entrepreneur, Thornton is the founder, with Moore, of Paper Route EMPIRE, home also to artists Kenny Muney, Big Moochie Grape and Jay Fizzle. “I’ve been preaching the benefits of being independent since day one,” says Thornton. “The best thing about the position I’m in is, I can drop music how I want to drop and when I want to drop. There is no one else telling me how to run my business.”

Looking Forward to When: “As life and business return to normal, the first thing I plan to do is go see my grandma. She’s 94 years old.” - Thornton

Fiona Whelan Prine, 58
President, Oh Boy Records
Jody Whelan, 39
Managing partner, Oh Boy Records

The death of John Prine on April 7 at age 73 due to complications from the coronavirus shattered his fans and the music industry. But apart from the extraordinary legacy of his songwriting, Prine also was an indie music business pioneer, co-founding Oh Boy Records with his late manager Al Bunetta in 1981. It is now run by his widow, Fiona Whelan Prine, and son Jody Whelan. Oh Boy in 2016 struck a deal with Thirty Tigers to exclusively handle its physical and digital distribution worldwide. “It was a big deal for me when Oh Boy decided to work with us,” says Thirty Tigers co-founder/president David Macias. “Like many others, I revere John as an artist, but John was equally heroic to me for the business decision he and Al Bunetta made in running their own label.” In the days after Prine’s death, his songs and albums returned to the charts amid the emerging pandemic. “We wanted to give Fiona and Jody all the space that they needed,” says Macias. “They lost a husband and a father. It was difficult given that pressing plants were closed and indie retailers were closed for the most part, but we did everything that we possibly could.” Macias says the entire Oh Boy staff is “the embodiment of John in label form. His vibe permeates the company, which is a really, really good thing.” He adds: “If I had a nickel for every time I name-checked John and Oh Boy as an example of how artists can and should own their own work, I could buy a full meal at Arnold’s Country Kitchen — and that includes banana pudding.”

Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Prine (right) and Whelan Prine at the Grammys in January.

Bryan “Birdman” Williams, 51
Co-founder/Co-CEO, Cash Money Records
Ronald “Slim” Williams, 55
Co-founder/Co-CEO, Cash Money Records

Consistency. That’s the accomplishment of the past year that the Williams brothers are most proud of, as Slim relates: “From the quality of [our artists’] music to some becoming entrepreneurs themselves; something we’ve preached since back in the day.” And that philosophy continued to drive their success in 2019. Between Drake’s Scorpion and Blueface’s “Thotiana” (No. 8 on the Hot 100), Cash Money helped its partner Republic Records close out 2019 as the year’s top label. The onset of the pandemic didn’t slow Drake’s pace, as his Dark Lane Demo Tapes (released through OVO Sound/Republic) debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 on May 1.

Independence Defined: “Being in control of your destiny. We have a great situation and are able to do what we want to do, and nobody questions or gets in the way of that. We’ve been with [Republic/Universal Music Group] a lot of years. They trust our judgment in music and what we do.” - Slim

Richard James Burgess
President/CEO, American Association of Independent Music

A2IM, which has 800 members, worked throughout the fall of 2019 to ensure California’s AB5 “gig economy” legislation would protect indie musicians. Burgess, along with heads of the RIAA and the Music Artists Coalition, explained to legislators that the law would, among other effects, force music groups to become employers if they collaborated with freelance musicians. Burgess says the law’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, had “good intentions” to protect gig workers, but music reps had to hammer out an amendment before the law passed in April. “It was unbelievably challenging,” he says.

Advice for a Young Artist: “Never give up. Persistence is everything. You have to buy the time to get lucky.”

Charlie Phillips, 46
COO, Worldwide Independent Network

Phillips was named in February 2019 to run Worldwide Independent Network, reporting to chairman Justin West. Last October, he unveiled an initiative that WIN and IFPI have been working on for some five years, the Repertoire Data Exchange (RDx), a “single point of entry for data relating to management of performance rights internationally,” as he puts it. The RDx, which is still in its early stages, will roll out widely in the months ahead. “Most indie labels are based in one territory, or two if they’re pretty big,” he says. “But they’ve got to manage these rights in 50 or 60 countries, and that means that a lot of money gets left on the table or paid to the wrong people. The whole industry, majors and indies together, has come together to plug that one gap.”

Independence Defined: “Generally, a company [is independent] where over 50% is owned by the founders, or people who have taken over that share — but not the major labels. But there’s a much wider question when it comes to data ownership and digital asset control, like who owns your metadata, can you get it back off a distributor, what happens to your track counts — are we really independent if we don’t have any control over that?”

Jeremy Sirota, 43
CEO, Merlin

Joining Merlin as its new CEO in January, Sirota came on board at the worldwide digital rights agency just as the coronavirus pandemic shut down the global economy. “When I wrote my first 90-day plan, this wasn’t on my list,” he says. But it allowed him to see how well the Merlin team he had inherited is handling the crisis, while also operating during a management transition. “Folks here are driven by the mission to help our members and partners, and want to do even more than what we are doing already,” says Sirota. “In some ways it has helped me to get close to our partners, members and our team in a way that might not have happened so quickly.”

Most Urgent Indie Issues: “[The control of] data coming from Facebook and TikTok, more access to capital for the indie sector and the growth of user-generated content and social platforms into the music space. All of this really flattens and democratizes the [music marketplace], which allows indies to thrive, and that allows more room for diversity. The more healthy, diversified and democratized the space, the better for independents.”

Jorge Brea, 36
CEO, Symphonic Distribution

“Today’s major record labels operate differently,” says Brea. “They rely on throwing money at projects with the goal of being more successful than the other major record label. In the process, they forget about the art behind what we do.” Symphonic Distribution, based in Tampa, Fla., has grown over the past year “without large budgets like the ones you typically see in this industry,” says Brea. His company has new partnerships in China, expanded its video distribution through Vida Primo in Colombia and opened a new synch licensing division with Bodega Sync in Brooklyn.

How He Works Now: “With less travel, we’ve had more time to hunker down and be productive. It’s made me push myself to think of new creative ways to help out as many artists and record labels as possible, especially with the decline of touring revenue during the pandemic.”

Paris Cabezas, 48
Managing director/CEO, InnerCat Music Group
Ana Gonzalez, 42
Managing director, InnerCat Music Group
Garrett Schaefer, 58
GM, InnerCat Music Group

The Miami-based InnerCat has reported 300% growth between 2016 and 2019 (the company does not specify revenue figures) by providing digital services to indie artists on an international scale. CEO Cabezas, a classically trained pianist and Grammy-nominated producer (with a master’s in applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), credits his “dream” team” of company collaborators. “Without them, InnerCat would not have evolved as it did,” he says. The company’s latest move: “a smart digital tool, Play & Follow, capable of enhancing music marketing campaigns exponentially,” says Cabezas.

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Slow down, take time to understand your audience, try to amplify your connection with fans — especially now that we are all at home.”

Ethan Diamond, 48
Co-Founder/CEO, Bandcamp
Joshua Kim, 34
COO, Bandcamp

On March 20, in the early days of the pandemic shutdown, Bandcamp waived its share of profits from sales made through the platform (10% to 15% of gross revenue), returning that money to artists’ pockets. Fans responded by buying $4.3 million of merchandise and albums — both physical and digital — that day. On May 1, Bandcamp waived its fees for a second time and will do so again on June 19 to benefit the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Even when not forgoing its fees, Bandcamp has long proved to be a reliable partner for indie acts. “By early this summer,” says Diamond, “fans will have paid artists half a billion dollars on the site.”

Indies Stepping Up: “We’re seeing artists and labels donating some or all of their earnings, or participating in compilations, to benefit relief organizations ranging from local food banks to the World Health Organization.” - Diamond

Nima Etminan, 32

Under Ghazi (who solely uses his first name professionally), EMPIRE has been ruling the charts through its role in the success of artists including XXXTentacion, Young Dolph & Key Glock, Money Man, Robin Thicke and Tyga. While EMPIRE recently opened a 10,000-square-foot studio in downtown San Francisco, “we’ve [also] acquired a couple of companies,” says Ghazi. While declining to identify the acquisitions, he says they will further expand EMPIRE’s footprint. The Iran-born Etminan — who was raised in Germany and learned English from hip-hop music and pop culture — began his EMPIRE career as an intern. He rose to a level where he signed Kendrick Lamar to his first EMPIRE deal in 2011. In the past year, “a big step forward that we took was expanding into international territories,” he says. “We’d been active in Latin and South America for a few years already. But we set up shop in Europe, Asia and Africa” — specifically with a presence in London; Amsterdam; Jakarta, Indonesia; Shanghai; and Lagos, Nigeria.

Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for EMPIRE
From right: Young Dolph, Ghazi, Jim Jones and Capone at EMPIRE’s Grammy party in January.

Nando Luaces, 53
CEO, Altafonte

Since launching his Madrid-based digital distribution company, Altafonte, in 2011, working with artists like Argentine singer-songwriter Noel Schajris and Mexican cumbia singer-songwriter Amandititita, Luaces says he has “established our global digital marketing team [to] offer a comprehensive service with top-notch creativity.” Reporting revenue growth of 55% in the past year (Altafonte does not specify revenue numbers), Luaces says he has also sharpened his company’s focus. “We work with fewer artists but with larger profiles, [who are] at the top of their game in terms of quality and artistic interest.”

Pandemic Lessons: “In this crisis, we can see the real leaders; most of the time they’re ordinary people. We also see powerful people who are completely useless.”

Jason Peterson, 38
Chairman/CEO, GoDigital Media Group

When GoDigital’s AdShare division started managing Daddy Yankee’s YouTube rights in 2010, “we began to realize the power of Latin music and Hispanic artists,” says Peterson. The company continued its push into the Latin music business over the past year, with its divisions partnering with corrido-focused label Rancho Humilde on a distribution deal and buying Latinx digital media company Mitú.

Independence Defined: “I like to keep it simple: not controlled by Warner, Universal Music Group or Sony. You can be distributed by them but not be controlled by them.”

Jacqueline Saturn
President, Caroline/Harvest Records
Matt Sawin
GM, Caroline
Cindy James
Head of commercial marketing, Caroline
Adam Starr
VP/head of marketing, Caroline

Caroline, the indie label services division of Capitol Music Group, extended its reach under Saturn into all corners of the globe, including a partnership with Korean powerhouse SM Entertainment, which resulted in a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 from SuperM and a top five debut on that chart from NCT 127. Saturn also heralds “our growing presence in both Latin and Afropop spaces, with label partnerships including Sie7tr3, Duars Entertainment and Mavin Records.”

Looking Forward to When: “[I can] hug my Caroline family. Even though we’re using all of this wonderful technology to stay in touch on a minute-by-minute basis, I miss their physical presence terribly.” - Saturn

Rich Polk/Getty Images for Capitol Music Group
South Korean boy band SuperM, whose self-titled hit album is distributed by Caroline.

Camille Soto Malavé, 38
CEO, GLAD Empire

Soto Malavé’s GLAD Empire offers digital label and distribution services to artists like Latin trap star Anuel AA and Myke Towers (who scored his first No. 1 on Top Latin Albums with Easy Baby Money). Before the pandemic, the company had opened state-of-the-art recording facilities in Orlando, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Now, Soto Malavé says, “my music producers are not working because we had to close the studios.”

Advice for a Young Artist: “Don’t choose a manager just because they’re your friend.”

Ben Swanson, 42
COO, Secretly Group
Chris Swanson, 45
Co-CEO/president of A&R, Secretly Group
Phil Waldorf, 45
Co-founder/Chief marketing officer, Secretly Group
Jon Coombs, 34
VP A&R, Secretly Group

Secretly Group is one of the largest independent label companies in the world, with labels whose rosters include such critically acclaimed acts as Bon Iver, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, Whitney, Jamila Woods, Phoebe Bridgers, Moses Sumney and newcomer Porridge Radio, bringing the company both artistic and commercial success. Secretly executives state they have decided to decline comment “for any lists that do not reflect diversity and that are not fully transparent about their selection process.”

Van Etten is signed to the Secretly Group label Jagjaguwar.

Chris Taylor
Global President of Music, Entertainment One

In a year where toy-making giant Hasbro acquired Entertainment One for $4 billion in cash, Taylor cites his division’s integration of the music production company Audio Network as its 2019 high-water mark. The $215 million investment “brought us valuable scale and enabled us to take our publishing administration in-house,” he says. “Now our synch and publishing teams are working closer together to feed our content producers.” The music library of London-based Audio Network is used for “50-plus unscripted shows,” says Taylor, adding that eOne’s union with Hasbro has also resulted in over 15 projects. “We are their go-to music department,” he says. The music division’s growth was reflected in its bottom line: eOne generated revenue of $121 million in 2019 — $37.7 million of it by Audio Network —up from $69 million the previous year.

How He Works Now: “Artists are still delivering. We have a real pipeline of content on the music side — I’m really excited about that. It really is still very busy. I haven’t sensed a letup at all.”

Glenn Dicker, 54
Co-founder, Redeye Worldwide
Tor Hansen, 55
Co-founder, Redeye Worldwide

Redeye finished 2019 with the December acquisition of Swedish distributor Border Music. The  company's ability to establish a physical presence in Europe fit with its longtime goals. Coming into this year, Redeye established new distribution relationships with Beggars Group, Domino and Saddle Creek, whose repertoire and leaders have long been admired by Redeye's executives.

How They Work Now: “Within a week [of the pandemic lockdown], we had not only reshaped critical parts of our business but had spoken with over 100 of our distributed labels, artists and independent retail customers — the true heart of what we do — to tailor our planning based on their feedback and needs.”

Diego Farias, 39
Co-founder/CEO, Amuse

Amuse, the data-driven label that gives artists advance royalties in exchange for distribution rights, launched Amuse Pro in March. For $5 per month, the service allows artists to sort out royalty splits among multiple contributors to a track and release their music more quickly to Instagram, TikTok and other platforms. “We knew if we could solve the pain points in a technological way” for indie artists, says Farias, “it would remove a lot of headache and hassle and help in their careers.”

How He Works Now: “Providing digital tools that allow artists to create, collaborate and release music from home has proved more important than ever.”

Wayne Hampton
Co-founder/chief business officer, Create Music Group
Jonathan Strauss, 34
CEO, Create Music Group
Alexandre Williams, 32
Co-founder/COO, Create Music Group

Create Music Group, which focuses on unsigned artists that self-release their music, reports that it surpassed $100 million in revenue in 2019. Moreover, it says that it has 500 clients alone that generate $3,000 per month in revenue. “We’re laser-focused on creating a middle class for the music industry,” says Strauss, “and we believe that over the next five years, as we expand globally, we will have over 10,000 artists that are able to support themselves entirely through streaming royalties — something that has never been possible in the industry traditionally dominated by a select few.”

Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Make quick decisions, release music, engage with fans and be authentic.” - Strauss

Drew Hill, 42
Managing Director, Proper Music Group

Proper, the largest indie distributor in the United Kingdom with nearly 11% of the country’s physical recorded-music market, was on track in 2020 to boost year-on-year sales some 50%, says Hill. But the pandemic reversed that trend. Still, 2019 was a strong year for the company, which continues to grow through acquisitions of smaller players. Hill cites Proper’s purchase in October 2019 of Topic Records, with some 2,500 publishing copyrights and 12,000 master recordings. As the pandemic spread, Hill set in motion a plan for about half of Proper’s staff to work remotely, with only the company’s 60 pickers and packers remaining at the warehouse. With safe practices in place, they move about 100,000 units per week.

When Businesses Reopen: “I don’t think I’m ever going to moan again about having to go to three gigs in one night.”

Philip Kaplan, 44
Founder/CEO, DistroKid

Under Kaplan, DistroKid has had a busy 18 months, first with Spotify acquiring a minority passive stake in the company and then becoming one of the first indie distributors specializing in DIY artists to cut a deal with TikTok. While the company says it distributes the music of over 2 million artists with 10 million-plus songs, Kaplan says he is most proud of DistroKid’s “culture of innovation, speed and fun,” with zero turnover of team members. He notes that DistroKid is on its way to collections of $200 million in 2020 for its artists and that the company’s close relationships with digital service providers means that when they “have a new idea that can help artists, DistroKid is one of the first calls they make.”

Indies Stepping Up: “Several of us at DistroKid have done volunteer engineering work in the community. In March, we gave every employee $1,000 extra to help with any unforeseen issues — which many then donated to COVID-19-related causes.”

Roy LaManna, 40
CEO, Vydia

“We have our own version of what the future of music looks like,” says LaManna of Vydia, an end-to-end platform that manages digital distribution, data flow, rights management and payments to artists. A high-profile test for Vydia came with its role in the release of Jesus Is Born, the first album from Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir. The company received less than 24 hours’ notice, on Christmas Eve, of West’s desire to deliver the project on Christmas Day. Vydia received the tracks at 5 a.m. the morning of Dec. 25, and the album and artwork reached major streaming services within the hour. Says LaManna: “I’m proud that we are blazing our own trail.”

Indies Stepping Up: “The worst of times often brings out the best in people, and it has been amazing to see various independent organizations, artists, managers and labels sharing resources and opportunities to help everyone get through this.”

Tracy Maddux
CEO, AVL Digital Group

Maddux oversaw AVL’s sale in 2019 to Downtown Music Holdings. Early this year, AVL acquired the Dutch distributor FUGA, bringing “some exceptional music industry executives and technologists” into its fold, he says. With the combination of FUGA’s European presence and AVL’s U.S.-focused distribution flagship, CD Baby, the company’s independent artists released 30,000 titles in April — “an unprecedented pace,” says Maddux.

How He Works Now: “I used to travel internationally all the time. I haven’t been out of the country since February. Working to communicate and lead a global music organization from Portland, Ore., is a new challenge. But since we’re all using the same technologies globally — Zoom, Slack — it really feels that we haven’t missed a beat.”

Brad Navin, 49
CEO, The Orchard
Colleen Theis, 51
COO, The Orchard
Mary Ashley Johnson, 46
Senior vp North America, label management and sales, The Orchard
Alan Becker, 66
Senior vp product development, The Orchard

In the past year, says Theis, The Orchard grew its global team by six new offices in Amsterdam; Beijing; Manila, the Philippines; Tokyo; Nairobi, Kenya; and Johannesburg. It also “had chart-topping releases from around the world and lifted our clients’ overall business by continuously launching products and driving strategy.” Navin says that on the homefront, such varied releases as the latest Billboard 200-topping albums from The Raconteurs and BTS “demonstrate diversity of genres, audiences and even formats — but validates the fact that all music matters.”

How They Work Now: “Time management has been the most dramatic change. Because of video chats, we have crisp and effective meetings both internally and externally, while still making it more personal than an audio call. The Orchard team and industry at large seem to be super engaged.” - Navin

Ben Patterson, 42
Founder/CEO, DashGo

In March 2019, Downtown acquired AVL Digital Group, the parent company of distributor DashGo. (AVL had previously acquired the online indie distributor CD Baby in 2018.) The Downtown deal “really supercharged our ability to support” global growth, says Patterson. Shared assets now stretch from Brazil to Taiwan to complement DashGo’s 15-person staff in its Los Angeles headquarters. Under Patterson, the company has grown to the point where DashGo’s indie artists and labels average over 1 billion combined monthly streams, with its application programming interface powering two dozen platforms worldwide. He’s especially proud that DashGo-distributed regional Mexican group Los Tucanes de Tijuana made the main stage at Coachella in 2019.

Looking Forward to When: He can “load the kids in the car and wander aimlessly around a big-box store.”

Milana Rabkin Lewis
CEO, Stem
Kristin Graziani
VP artist and label relations, Stem

Building on Stem’s success in offering distribution and payment technology to independent artists, the company last year launched Stem Direct, a membership service that gives artists one-to-one access to specialists in their specific genre. Each Stem Direct specialist “not only supports the nuts and bolts of distribution and marketing and financial insights, but also ensures success around playlist and promotion strategy,” says Graziani. The company’s latest launch, Scale by Stem, is a flat-fee financing product for artist advances. It “affords the flexibility to access capital when needed and gives artists the latitude to assemble the right team around them,” says Graziani.

How She Works Now: “I am fortunate to have a team that was able to have a smooth transition to remote working. That being said, nothing can replace a meal with an artist or handshake with a manager.” - Graziani

Bob Roback, 53
CEO, Ingrooves Music Group
Amy Dietz
GM/executive vp, Ingrooves Music Group

Following the acquisition of Ingrooves by Universal Music Group in February 2019, the distributor — which offers indie labels artificial intelligence-based data insights and marketing tools — has opened offices in São Paulo, Madrid, Tokyo and Seoul, and increased its presence in Australia and the Nordic territories. The global expansion includes key deals with labels like Brazilian heavyweight GR6, the United Kingdom’s Dirty Hit (home to The 1975) and Carbon Fiber Music.

Independence Defined: “Content owners and creators acting as entrepreneurs who rent infrastructure and services.” - Roback

Ed Seaman, 54
COO, MVD Entertainment Group

In an industry increasingly focused on streaming, MVD stands out among a handful of distributors in the United States still focusing on shipping physical music and video releases to brick-and-mortar stores — with 2019 marking the strongest revenue year in the company’s 32-year history. MVD’s revenue is split almost equally between DVDs and Blu-ray versus music sales, with digital comprising about 22% of MVD’s music revenue. (The remainder comes from CDs and vinyl.) “As streaming continues to grow in both music and video, many consumers recognize that they don’t own anything,” says Seaman. “So labels that make collectible products thrive in this environment. While there are less shelves to merchandise products, the demand is growing.”

Eliah Seton, 38
President of independent music and creator services, Warner Music Group
John Franck
Executive vp commercial and marketing, Alternative Distribution Alliance Worldwide

Warner Music Group’s independent distributor, ADA Worldwide — where Franck was named executive vp commerical and marketing last July — is demonstrating its “strong culture” through the pandemic, says Seton. One executive’s spouse has made branded face masks for the global team. Seton himself has been raising two infants while his husband has worked as a New York hospital doctor and self-isolated separately from the family. Among ADA’s recent notable wins was partnering with Incubus and Ciara, and distributing the original soundtrack to Joker, whose composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, won an Academy Award in February for best original score.

Independence Defined: “A culture of trust. Empowering our team to experiment, create, question, innovate, debate and [share] ideas, while having the runway to fail without judgment.” - Franck

Dean Tabaac
Head of AMPED Distribution

Proving the vitality of physical music in a market with fewer places to sell it is a challenge that keeps Tabaac motivated. “I’m most proud of the combined tenacity of our labels and us to keep physical releases relevant, knowing that other distributors, and the labels they represent, are deemphasizing those configurations,” he says. Tabaac cites the ability of AMPED’s distribution centers to “continually get product into retailers, offline and online, faster than anyone else.”

Urgent Indie Issue: To meet the demand for vinyl, says Tabaac, “where we used to have a 40-foot row that was highly automated for processing CD orders, we had to build three mezzanines so our people could do manual LP picks more efficiently.”

Darius Van Arman, 48
Co-CEO, Secretly Distribution
Christopher Welz, 39
Managing director, Secretly Distribution

With its own physical distribution pipeline stateside and around the world, Secretly Distribution is thriving, scoring a record year with U.S. revenue in excess of $50 million. The company has taken on new label partners while continuing to work with affiliated labels Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar and others. The distributor recently completed a systems integration to strengthen its repertoire management and digital supply chain capabilities. Early in 2020, the company celebrated the four Grammy Award nominations (including record and album of the year) earned by Bon Iver’s i,i, released by Jagjaguwar. Secretly executives state they have decided to decline comment “for any lists that do not reflect diversity and that are not fully transparent about their selection process.”

Michael Weissman
President, SoundCloud

In February, Weissman helped close the deal through which SiriusXM took a $75 million minority stake in SoundCloud. “I wasn’t expecting the timing to be perfect, but it essentially was,” he says. The timing was also perfect in April when SoundCloud CEO Kerry Trainor announced a plan worth $15 million to support creators during the shutdown and bolster their careers long term. During the same month, Weissman helped lead the launch of Repost by SoundCloud, giving all SoundCloud creators— 25 million-plus, according to the company — access to professional marketing and monetization services and distribution features. Weissman says he was proud “to see the teams come together using Slack, email and various video tools to release a product into the market [during the pandemic] and also have the customer reception to be unbelievable.”

Best Advice for a Young Indie Artist: “Learn the business side of music, how deals work, especially on rights. It’s a complex industry.”

Emmanuel Zunz, 47
Founder/CEO, OneRPM

Nashville-based OneRPM, an indie digital distribution company, continued to expand its international presence (with staff now in 20 locations worldwide) while creating a new content management system to improve the quality of service it provides to clients, says Zunz. “It’s a way for us to manage marketing globally, allowing us to create campaigns and [oversee] them across all our 20 offices. It enables us to be held accountable” with the ability to measure performance. Looking ahead, he adds, the new system “will allow us to scale our business without sacrificing quality of service to our clients.”Urgent indie issue  “[With the] consolidation of indie distribution, the amount of money going for artist advances is absolutely insane.”

Contributors: Trevor Anderson, Katie Bain, Steve Baltin, Alexei Barrionuevo, Jeff Benjamin, Harley Brown, Ed Christman, Tatiana Cirisano, Leila Cobo, Danica Daniel, Steven Edelstone, Griselda Flores, Bianca Gracie, Hilary Hughes, Steve Knopper, Carl Lamarre, Joe Levy, Geoff Mayfield, Gail Mitchell, Melinda Newman, Paula Parisi, Glenn Peoples, Bryan Reesman, Annie Reuter, Jessica Roiz, Craig Rosen, Dan Rys, Taylor Weatherby, Deborah Wilker, Nick Williams

Methodology: The record companies featured on Billboard’s Indie Power Players list are defined as independent because they are not owned by one of the three major music groups: Sony, Warner and Universal. Distributors are defined as independent, regardless of ownership, based on the repertoire they market, largely from labels not under the majors’ umbrellas. Billboard editors and reporters weighed a variety of factors in determining the 2020 Indie Power Players list including, but not limited to, nominations by peers, colleagues and superiors at selected music companies, as well as recommendations by indie trade group A2IM. In addition to nominations, editors weigh the success of each executive’s label or distributor as measured by chart, sales and streaming performance. Career trajectory and industry impact were also considered. Unless otherwise noted, Billboard Boxscore and Nielsen Music/MRC Data are the sources for tour grosses and sales/streaming data, respectively. Nielsen is also the source for radio audience metrics. Unless otherwise noted, album streaming figures cited represent collective U.S. on-demand audio totals for an album’s tracks, and song/artist streaming figures represent U.S. on-demand audio and video totals.

This article originally appeared in the June 13, 2020 issue of Billboard.