The independent music sector is larger and stronger than ever.
As the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) convenes Indie Week in New York June 17-20, executives and artists can celebrate the growth of the worldwide indie music business.
Independent labels generated $6.9 billion in global music sales in 2017 (the most recent estimated figure), up from $6.2 billion the previous year, according to a report released late last year by Worldwide Independent Network (WIN), an umbrella organization for indie trade groups, including A2IM.
The 11.3% rise in revenue means that indies now represent 39.9% of the global recorded-music market, up marginally from 39.6% in 2016, says the third annual WINTEL study from MIDiA Research.
(In contrast to other industry reports, WIN’s figures are based on revenue generated through rights ownership rather than distribution, which the organization says provides a more accurate overview of the marketplace.)
“With two out of every five ‘purchases’ of music going to the independent sector, now may be a good time to draw a breath and celebrate this incredible achievement,” said Martin Mills, founder of Beggars Group and nonexecutive chair of WIN, at the time the report was released.
Of course, behind the sales numbers are the songs and creativity of thousands of indie artists. To illustrate the power and impact of those performers, consider just one: John Prine, whose The Tree of Forgiveness debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 in April 2018. His first album of new songs in 13 years has led to a career resurgence for the 72-year-old singer-songwriter. Notably, The Tree of Forgiveness was released by Prine’s own Oh Boy Records, which he founded in 1981 and has been called the oldest indie label in Nashville. (His wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, is Oh Boy’s managing partner. Their son, Jody Whelan, is director of operations.)
“People thought we were crazy for starting a record company,” Prine told Billboard in 2018. “They really thought I was shooting myself in the foot. I just liked the idea of owning what you did, owning the masters and not having to deal with [major-label pressures]: ‘Can you sell as many records as this group or this or that?’ I just bought a little record company; I had no idea we were on the right path.”
The 80 executives on the third annual Indie Power Players list would likely second Prine’s emotion. Each has opted to play a role in a sector of the record industry that thrives apart from the multinational major music groups. The sales results say they are all on the right path.
DAVID ABDO, 41
Senior vp global business operations and distribution, Disney Music Group
KEN BUNT, 49
President, Disney Music Group
Senior vp business development and business affairs, Disney Music Group; senior vp/GM, Disney Concerts Worldwide
Disney an indie? No company better illustrates that non-major ownership, rather than size, determines Indie Power Players status than the music division of the $59 billion Walt Disney Co. For Bunt, the resurgence of Queen is a personal delight since he has worked with the band’s catalog throughout his 20-year history at Disney. Queen signed with Disney’s Hollywood Records in 1990, and Bohemian Rhapsody was released by 20th Century Fox, which Disney acquired in March. And Disney-owned ABC aired The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story. Such synergy also helps guide McLean’s division, which produces live-music experiences across Disney, Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilm properties. “We add a little bit of horsepower to a much bigger engine,” says McLean, who expects to present 800 concerts this year. Abdo says the shift to music streaming “represents enormous opportunities and also disruptive change,” but Disney adapted quickly: Its streaming revenue has grown 50% since the end of 2017 (the company does not break out specific dollar figures for its music group), while the Disney Hits playlist, available on multiple streaming platforms, has 3 million subscribers, benefiting from a massive branding campaign.
PATRICK AMORY, 53
Co-owner/president, Matador Records
GERARD COSLOY, 54
Co-owner, Matador Records
CHRIS LOMBARDI, 53
Co-owner, Matador Records
Matador, which is part of Beggars Group, had success in 2018 with releases from acts including Lucy Dacus, Snail Mail and Car Seat Headrest, which, notes Amory, “did really well in that sweet spot of 50,000-100,000 [consumption units] worldwide. That’s the foundation for career-building, one of the most satisfying things we can do.” Cosloy points to the label’s career-long relationship with Hoboken, N.J.-bred Yo La Tengo as another aspect of its culture that is “meaningful to us.” As Matador celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, Lombardi says, “We’re not interested in following trends or signing the hot new thing or throwing our hat in the derby for whatever the next bidding-war band is. It’s about carefully choosing who’s going to be the right fit, like picking a team for the new season. We’re molding the class of 2020 right now.”
Biggest Industry Issue: “Thinking of things in a global way. Getting out of a mindset that’s only focused on your own domestic territories.” - Lombardi
NABIL AYERS, 47
U.S. label manager, 4AD
SIMON HALLIDAY, 50
A little over a year after 4AD celebrated The National’s 2018 Grammy Award for best alternative album for Sleep Well Beast, the Beggars Group label broke out the champagne again when the band’s eighth studio album, I Am Easy to Find, debuted at No. 5 on the June 1 Billboard 200. With labelmates Big Thief, Aldous Harding and Methyl Ethyl achieving airplay at triple A and alternative radio, Halliday says of 4AD: “Our MO is to sign music that we feel is original, incredible and like nothing you’ve ever heard before.”
Independence Defined: “The freedom and encouragement to spend disproportionate amounts of time, energy and money on smaller artists because we believe in the music.” - Ayers
12 Tone Music Group
DOUG MORRIS, 80
Founder/owner, 12 Tone Music Group
Doug Morris is back on top. The only executive to have run each of the three major music groups -- Warner Music, Universal Music and Sony Entertainment (departing Sony in 2017) -- Morris is working atop the New York skyline: His independent 12 Tone Music Group, supported by Apple, has airy offices on an upper terraced floor in the landmarked Daily News Building in Midtown Manhattan.
More importantly, Morris is back atop the charts. Since launching in 2018, 12 Tone has sent California rapper-singer Anderson .Paak to No. 1 on Billboard’s Independent Albums chart last December with Oxnard and No. 1 on the R&B Album Sales chart in April with Ventura. (Both albums were co-produced by Dr. Dre). Also, Louisiana-bred Christian singer Lauren Daigle has spent 33 weeks at No. 1 on Top Christian Albums with Look Up Child.
Asked if there is a single number that illustrates his success in the past year, Morris says, “You could use the number 80.” The veteran executive turned 80 last November.
At 12 Tone, Morris has come full circle. “My first company was an independent,” he says, referring to Big Tree Records, which he founded in 1970. Atlantic Records later acquired the label, and Morris went to work with Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, who he says defines the independent spirit in the music business. “Ahmet was brilliant,” he recalls.
Morris has a career-long history of collaboration with high-achieving executives that continues today. Former Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels has joined him at 12 Tone.
“I was very fortunate that Steve Bartels became available,” says Morris. “He does everything that I need. He really is the operating person of the company, and he just loves music.”
But the question remains: At age 80, why start over again?
“What else are you going to do?” replies Morris. “Seriously. You get to a point [where you say], ‘That’s that,’ and you go home and ruin your wife’s life ... [But] this is what I like to do. It’s not work.”
RAYNA BASS, 32
Senior vp marketing, 300 Entertainment
ROGER GOLD, 49
Co-founder/head of pop, 300 Entertainment
KEVIN LILES, 51
Co-founder/CEO, 300 Entertainment
Liles sums up the success of his label in one number: 16 billion. “That is the number of streams we’ve had in the past five years as an independent company,” he says. The demand for earlier hits like Fetty Wap's 2015 self-titled debut and Migos’ chart-topping 2017 album, Culture, released by 300 Entertainment/Quality Control, drove a lot of those streams, but so have more recent hits, like Gunna’s “Drip or Drown 2” on Young Thug’s YSL Records (a 300 partner) and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Big Ole Freak.” Bass, 300’s former head of urban marketing, is now building a “genre-less marketing department,” which combines diverse music like hip-hop, pop, country and alternative under one roof. “I believe it’s where the industry is headed,” she says. Gold continues to boost 300’s pop department with Cheat Codes, Drax Project and Maggie Lindemann while cheering on his own management client Camila Cabello as she topped the Billboard 200 last year with her debut album, Camila, and the Billboard Hot 100 with her single “Havana.”
Biggest Industry Issue: “Diversity in leadership. Now that hip-hop is the No. 1 music genre in the world, the diversity of the C-suite-level executives globally should match. We need to hold ourselves accountable when it comes to hiring, staffing and promoting. At 300, we don’t just talk about it. We live it, and it makes us a better company.” - Liles
SCOTT BORCHETTA, 56
Founder/president/CEO, Big Machine Label Group
ANDREW KAUTZ, 49
COO, Big Machine Label Group
Big Machine may have concluded its long run as the home label of Taylor Swift, but Borchetta’s independent spirit and drive to discover new talent remain. “It’s that freedom on a daily basis to say, ‘Hey, that looks interesting to us. Let’s investigate that right now.’ It’s having the ability to be the final decision-maker,” he says. “That’s not anything I ever take for granted on any day of the week.” Amid reports last fall that potential buyers have targeted BMLG, the label this year has claimed a 10.1% share of the country music market thanks to Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett and others, while the label has branched out in recent years by signing Reba McEntire, Sugarland and Lady Antebellum -- or, as Kautz puts it, “diversifying our company’s reliance on a singular artist or business unit.”
Biggest Industry Issue: “Converting country fans of all ages to streaming.” - Borchetta
JOHN BURK, 57
President, Concord Records
President, Fantasy Records
Co-president/chief creative officer, Fearless Records
ANDY SERRAO, 36
Co-president/chief talent officer, Fearless Records
Chief label executive, Concord; founder, Loma Vista Recordings
While Whalley holds the umbrella title of chief label executive at Concord, Loma Vista Recordings, which he founded, has “had great success with Ghost, St. Vincent and Denzel Curry,” he says. With three No. 1s on the Mainstream Rock chart, Ghost has become an arena headliner. St. Vincent won two Grammys in February, and Curry’s album Ta13oo has generated 2 billion global streams, says Whalley. For Burk, a lifelong fan of Carlos Santana, signing the Latin-rock pioneer “is the highlight of the year for me.” Santana’s new, Rick Rubin-produced album, Africa Speaks, arrived June 7. At Fantasy, Cheske saw Steve Perry enter at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 last year with Traces, his first new album in 25 years, and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats debut at No. 11 with Tearing at the Seams. At Fearless, Reader and Serrao oversaw the integration of Razor & Tie as a new Fearless imprint and achieved gold-certified singles for Starset and The Pretty Reckless, while Michigan metalcore band I Prevail debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 in March with sophomore album Trauma. “It’s an exciting time,” says Reader of the streaming age. “The old rules are out the window, and when you embrace that opportunity, it opens up a world of possibilities.”
Indie Hero: “Jimmy Iovine. He has an incredible work ethic, no fear of failure, steadfast conviction and true business/artistic vision.” - Whalley
President, North America, AWAL
President, AWAL/Kobalt Music Group
RYAN WRIGHT, 45
Chief marketing officer, Kobalt/AWAL
Revenue surged 50% at AWAL, the recorded-music division of Kobalt, in the past 12 months, and Olinick says it’s looking like “we will do much more than that in our upcoming fiscal year. Once a $20 million business, we are now on track for over $100 million.” AWAL’s newest label partner is SideOneDummy Records, a deal announced in April. Hitchman runs AWAL’s business and operations outside of North America, adding France to his portfolio in December. From his London headquarters, he has helped Tom Misch, The Kooks, The Wombats and You Me at Six scale the U.K. charts. Cerrito has mined Canada for success this past year, adding a Toronto office in December. He also helped drive the success of Lauv, culminating in a No. 1 on the Emerging Artists chart. Olinick credits Cerrito with building “a world-class U.S. team across A&R, marketing and radio,” and the former Republic Records promo man also played a key role in Kobalt’s acquisition last June of radio promotion firm In2une. In marketing the AWAL brand and concept, Wright launched the video series Spaces, which profiles artists “in their homes, garages, bedrooms and makeshift studios to document where the magic happens,” he says. According to Olinick, “Ryan has been integral to empowering this new middle class of artists in addition to the superstars we’re creating.”
COO, ABKCO Music and Records
In her 35th year at ABKCO, Coleman is most proud of landing three simultaneous synchs for The Rolling Stones’ 1967 hit “She’s a Rainbow” -- which drove the song to No. 7 on the Rock Digital Song Sales chart last September -- and helped promote the label’s recent reissue of the album on which it first appeared, Their Satanic Majesties Request. The song generated synch income in the seven-figure range through separate deals with Acura, fashion brand Dior and TV series American Horror Story. “We’re able to really get our songs and our compositions into the greatest projects,” says Coleman. “It’s not just about putting a lyric on a Coke can. It’s really about being innovative.”
Latest Concert For Fun: “Elton John in New York. He cried. It was emotional.”
TOMAS COOKMAN, 58
President/CEO, Nacional Records/Industria Works
“Becoming a true international company, while staying independent, is something very few dedicated to the Latin space can claim,” says Cookman. The company now has offices in Los Angeles, Mexico City and Madrid, and has added staff in New York, Barcelona and London. Synonymous with Latin alternative music, Nacional Records and Industria Works ventured into regional Mexican music as well, which is “a place no one expected us to go,” says Cookman.
Latest Concert For Fun: “The B-52s. They were also one of the first bands I saw at a club when I was 17 -- with a fake ID -- at Max’s Kansas City in New York.”
MIKE CURB, 74
Founder/chairman, Curb Records
In the past year, final touches were made on the deal for Curb Records to buy out Warner Music’s share of Christian label Word Records. “The documents were actually signed in 2016,” says Curb, “but it took until this past year to get the systems transferred. I mean, you’re talking about 13,000 copyrights, 10,000 masters.” At the label he founded in 1963, Curb has had recent success with Rodney Atkins, Lee Brice and Dylan Scott. But he isn’t just focused on the charts. Curb is seeking to stop six discriminatory bills targeting gay rights in Tennessee and has thrown his support behind the Tennessee Equality Project. He is hoping other entertainment companies will join him. “How about what the entertainment industry did with that North Carolina bathroom bill?” says Curb, recalling in 2016 when artists canceled tours or spoke out in protest. “Like the Music Man in River City, we’ve got trouble now in Music City.”
ANGEL DEL VILLAR, 38
Founder/CEO, Del Enterprises
Since 2009, Del Records has launched the careers of Gerardo Ortiz, Régulo Caro and Luis Coronel. Today, Del Villar continues to discover a new generation of regional Mexican acts through social media like Aerolénea Carrillo, Abraham Vazquez and T3R Elemento, “who make a lot of noise by selling out shows,” he says. In April, Del Enterprises entered a worldwide publishing deal with BMG (ASCAP’s Latin independent publisher of the year for the past three years). “Music is evolving and changing,” says Del Villar. “It’s important to get the consumer what they want ASAP.”
ELLIOT GRAINGE, 25
Founder/CEO, 10K Projects
The edgy hip-hop label founded in 2017 is nearing 10 billion global streams, says Grainge, driven by Trippie Redd, who dropped two albums in 2018 featuring Juice WRLD and Travis Scott, and 6ix9ine, who tapped Nicki Minaj for the hit “FEFE.” Grainge (son of Universal Music Group chief Lucian Grainge) is now focused on “moving into different genres,” signing pop singer AUSTN and Puerto Rican rapper iann dior, whose punk-flavored debut, nothings ever good enough, topped 1 million Spotify streams two days after its April release. “We’re excited,” says Grainge. “We’re breaking him.”
Indie Heroes: “Kevin ‘Coach K’ Lee and Pierre ‘Pee’ Thomas at Quality Control personify the independent ethic that I admire and aspire to.”
DANIEL GLASS, 62
CHRIS SCULLY, 52
Glass remembers the early days of watching Mumford & Sons play clubs before maybe two dozen fans a night. On Dec. 10, 2018, he watched them pack Madison Square Garden in New York in support of their Billboard 200 No. 1 album, Delta. Their steady growth illustrates why Glass founded his indie. “We think long; we don’t think short,” he says. In November, Scully played a key role in Glassnote striking a strategic partnership with Kobalt Music’s AWAL. The deal helped Glassnote execute a worldwide launch, two years in the planning, of the self-titled debut album from British singer-songwriter Jade Bird, which has hit No. 1 on the Heatseekers Albums chart.
Biggest Industry Issue: “The lack of professionalism among artists’ managers today. It probably is because we lost 15 years to [fiscal] depression in our industry [and] people [were] not being mentored at the management level.” - Glass
BRETT GUREWITZ, 57
Owner, Epitaph Records
MATT MCGREEVEY, 38
GM, Epitaph Records
Epitaph in 2019 is marking its fifth consecutive year of growth, says Gurewitz. (The company does not publicly report financial results.) Contributing to its success: The Interrupters’ “She’s Kerosene” hit No. 4 on the Alternative chart, and the company acquired several catalogs of master recordings, including those of Tom Waits and Gurewitz’s own band, Bad Religion. While Epitaph's Anti-Records issued Waits’ titles in remastered physical formats, McGreevey says the label also saw “an opportunity to broaden his footprint in the streaming environment.”
Independence Defined: “Business independence is very similar to consumer and economic independence. It means freedom to take risks, whether financial or artistic.” - Gurewitz
MATT HARMON, 47
President, Beggars Group (U.S.)
Senior vp West Coast operations and licensing, Beggars Group
GABE SPIERER, 37
Vp content and strategy, Beggars Group
Some four decades after Martin Mills launched what became Beggars Group, the company is home to five separately run labels: 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade, XL Recordings and Young Turks. Harmon reports that Beggars U.S. enjoyed its highest gross revenue in 2018, reflecting catalog rereleases from Liz Phair, the Pixies and The Breeders, along with newer efforts by Lucy Dacus, boygenius and Princess Nokia. Okumura drove a 25% rise in TV licensing for Beggars Group, including Interpol’s first on-camera performance in a TV series (during the forthcoming second season of Sweetbitter). She also worked with the artist Sampha to create an original song used in the end titles of the film Beautiful Boy. Spierer is leading an initiative to bring content-creation opportunities in-house, working with Thom Yorke, Kurt Vile, Snail Mail and others. He also paired Amazon with Kamasi Washington and The National for their latest projects. “People tend to place emphasis on the first phase of an album’s release,” he says, “but it’s important to recognize the longer cycles we’re working in.”
Independence Defined: “It’s all about collaboration, and being independent really allows for that.” - Harmon
Co-owner/creative head, Megaforce/Transdreamer/Palmetto/MRI
Megaforce, launched as the home for Metallica in 1982, continues to thrive in the heavy rock and alternative genres with veteran acts including Third Eye Blind, Anthrax and Blue October. “Our boutique model is best focusing on a smaller roster,” says John of his artist-driven record company, which includes related labels Transdreamer, Palmetto and MRI. “We make more money every year. Third Eye Blind touring is [selling] more tickets than ever. They control their own destiny. We guide them, but they make all of their own decisions and have actual control,” says John. “Freedom is independence.”
GORDON KERR, 52
President/CEO, Black River Entertainment
With Kelsea Ballerini notching her fourth No. 1 single on the Country Airplay chart and embarking on her first headlining tour, newcomer Abby Anderson earning over 25 million streams worldwide and Hannah Kerr’s status -- according to her father, Gordon -- as the most streamed Christian act during the 2018 Christmas season, Black River remains one of Nashville’s most powerful independents. On the publishing side, BRE reports that it achieved its 26th No. 1 with For King & Country’s “God Only Knows,” co-written by Gordon’s son, Josh Kerr, a songwriter and producer at Black River Publishing. “I’m still the guy who watches The Voice and American Idol, and I tear up because people’s dreams are being realized,” says Gordon. “That’s what drives us.”
ALLEN KOVAC, 64
CEO, E7LG/Tenth Street Entertainment
Bad Wolves topped the Mainstream Rock chart in May 2018 with “Zombie,” and the band -- while onstage at a June concert in New York -- donated $250,000 to the children of late Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan, who wrote and first recorded the hit in 1994. It was not the only time that Kovac’s roster has given back. During the campaign for passage of copyright reform in the European Union, Tenth Street artists Debbie Harry, Nikki Sixx and Nelly Furtado all wrote op-eds to advance the cause. Kovac says he was in that fight “from the beginning.” But, he notes, “artists have audiences, artists have shareholders. The industry [has] to stop talking and let musicians do the talking.” Kovac this year also celebrated the launch of Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt on Netflix.
Latest Concert For Fun: “I went to a local variety show of unsigned artists in Washington, Conn., and saw a magnificent group of artists from jazz to country to Latin. I was blown away.”
Executive vp, BBR Music Group
“We never measure ourselves against independent labels,” says Loba. “We measure ourselves against the majors.” BBR Music Group, which BMG acquired in 2017, celebrated Jason Aldean’s debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in April 2018 with Rearview Town and the singer’s honor this April as the Academy of Country Music’s Artist of the Decade -- all “accomplishments the industry said an indie couldn’t do back when we signed him in 2005,” says Loba.
Indie Hero: “Ahmet Ertegun, for so many reasons we don’t have enough time to list.”
JOHN LOEFFLER, 68
Executive vp repertoire and marketing, New York, BMG
Executive vp repertoire and marketing, Los Angeles, BMG
KOS WEAVER, 50
Executive vp, BMG Nashville
BMG might well disqualify itself from Indie Power Players someday soon. CEO Hartwig Masuch has said his company is positioning itself as “the fourth major,” with an ability to break acts worldwide. “We’re signing artists out of passion,” notes Loeffler, a lifelong musician himself who says he “gets their process” when he speaks of his roster that includes John Fogerty, Huey Lewis, Rufus Wainwright, Bad Company, Dickey Betts, Marc Cohn and The Allman Betts Band. “We’re proving you can make money on underserved markets,” he says of the rock acts. “And they are so thrilled to have an advocate for their music.” Newcomers as well as veterans benefit from BMG’s advocacy, says Scherer. He points to rising Canadian rock band The Glorious Sons, who in January scored their first No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart, “S.O.S. (Sawed Off Shotgun).” Weaver, a veteran publishing executive, says that “looking out for the best interests” of some of the industry’s top songwriters, platinum recording artists and their No. 1 songs is his daily joy. Bebe Rexha, Hillary Lindsey, Shy Carter, Russell Dickerson, Margo Price and Dustin Lynch are just a few of the reasons he usually “forgets” to turn off his phone on weekends.
Biggest Industry Issue: “Learning to think about the music business with a holistic approach rather than simply selling and publishing recorded music. Music is such an important part of our culture.” - Loeffler
SERGIO LIZÁRRAGA, 44
President/CEO, Lizos Music
For the past six years, Lizos Music has been the indie-label home of acclaimed regional Mexican group Banda Sinaloense MS de Sergio Lizárraga, which is guided by Lizárraga, the group’s producer (and former tuba player). Booking arenas for Banda MS in Monterrey, Mexico; Los Angeles; Miami; and Chicago has been a highlight of the past year “because we filled each venue,” says Lizárraga. Lizos Music -- which was a finalist for four Billboard Latin Music Awards in 2018 -- is also working with artists including Marilyn Odessa and Banda la Misma Tierra. “As a band, we’ve been doing the independent thing for a long time,” he says, “but it really is a group effort.”
BILLY MAUPIN, 47
GM, Yep Roc Records
Guiding the campaign for the Mandolin Orange album Tides of a Teardrop was Maupin’s proudest achievement of 2018 and a decade in the making. “Working for nearly 10 years to develop the band, hitting the 200 million stream mark on their catalog and debuting with four No. 1s on [four different] Billboard charts was a stand-out,” he says of the label that Redeye’s Glenn Dicker and Tor Hansen founded in 1997. “We’re artist-driven.”
JUAN DIEGO MEDINA, 32
Founder/CEO, La Industria
Medina’s biggest artist, Nicky Jam -- who won five Billboard Latin Music Awards in April -- continues to expand into other realms, with a role in Bad Boys for Life alongside Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. “Obviously, music is his core, but he’s moving to do as well in film,” says Medina, whose roster includes Manuel Turizo and Valentino. Although the Colombian native has joint ventures for distribution and marketing with Sony and Warner, “I’m independent in what I sign and in what my artists do.”
Biggest Industry Issue: “Ego. That’s why I keep away from the spotlight. This world is a very tough ego fight, and I don’t believe in that world.”
MAYKEL PIRON, 44
Co-founder/CEO, Armada Music
In 2018, Armada Music celebrated its 15th anniversary and a banner year thanks to the continued success of Armin van Buuren, a mainstay on the Billboard Dance 100, and label signee Loud Luxury. The Canadian duo had a global hit with “Body,” amassing over half a billion streams on Spotify alone, reports Piron. “This business is a lot about numbers,” he says. “[But] it’s also about a feeling.”
LOUIS POSEN, 48
Founder/president, Hopeless Records
As Hopeless Records celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018, the punk rock label that Posen founded in his garage expanded to a roster of 36 artists and marked a milestone for one of its veteran acts. “We had an awesome Wonder Years album [with Sister Cities], which was a Billboard 200 top 20 debut, [and the whole label] closed in on 1 billion [global] streams in a year,” says Posen, who has served as A2IM chairman for the past year.
Indie Hero: “I’ll go way back to Benjamin Franklin, who invented [the glass-tube armonica] and has one of my favorite quotes: ‘If we don’t hang together, we assuredly shall all hang separately.’ ”
VICENTE SAAVEDRA, 37
Founder, Dímelo VI
“I’m proud to be an indie competing against multinationals,” says Saavedra of the achievement of Ozuna, his label anchor and management client, who was a 23-time finalist at the 2019 Billboard Latin Music Awards and whose Odisea and Aura (distributed and marketed by Sony Latin/The Orchard) finished 2018 at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the year-end Top Latin Albums chart. Such success, suggests Saavedra, is divinely inspired. “It’s about listening to and following God,” he says. Coming next from Dímelo Vi: singer Javiielo from Puerto Rico.
JON SALTER, 47
GM/head of A&R, ATO Records
For ATO Records, which Dave Matthews and his manager Coran Capshaw founded in 2000, adding a TV/film synch department was imperative, and Salter worked hard on the project “to continue to control our destiny.” For the label, 2018 was a banner year with a reissue campaign for King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard (who will headline the 5,870-seat Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in August) and the two Grammy noms that Lee Ann Womack’s The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone scored.
Indie Hero: “I admire Coran Capshaw’s passion, diversity and success across so many facets of the music business and beyond: management, label, ticketing, festivals, merchandise, etc. His ability to have influence in both creative and operational is unique.”
BRYAN "BIRDMAN" WILLIAMS, 50
Co-CEO, Cash Money Records
RONALD "SLIM" WILLIAMS, 51
Co-CEO, Cash Money Records
Cash Money’s two biggest artists had milestone years in 2018: Drake’s Scorpion was the most popular album in the country, according to Nielsen Music, and he was the top-selling act in the world, according to IFPI, while Nicki Minaj became the first woman ever to make 100 appearances on the Billboard Hot 100 (joining Drake, Lil Wayne, the Glee cast and Elvis Presley as the only artists to reach that mark). Slim stayed focused on Cash Money’s future and new acts, guiding Jacquees to his highest-charting single yet on the Hot 100 in January (“You,” No. 58) and signing Blueface, whose “Thotiana” established his star potential. “We change with the times,” he says. That has included coming to terms with losing Lil Wayne, who won his freedom from his longtime label with a settlement last June -- though the amicable split was still important to Birdman. “Solving my situation with Wayne was one of my best accomplishments of the past year,” he says. “Now we can all go forward with the music.”
Indie Heroes: “There’s a gang of them because I watched everybody, from Rap-A-Lot to Master P to Suge [Knight], Puffy [Sean Combs], Russell Simmons at Def Jam. I watched all of them.” - Slim
RICHARD JAMES BURGESS, 69
President/CEO, American Association of Independent Music
Under Burgess, A2IM has promoted the independent sector through advocacy within the media and government, created educational programs for its 600-plus member labels and expanded its events, including Indie Week (June 17-20 in New York) and the Libera Awards (June 20). “Independence, to me, represents self-determination and autonomy,” he says.
Indie Heroes: “What Berry Gordy did with Motown was life-changing. Likewise, the Erteguns with Atlantic, Chris Blackwell with Island, Sam Phillips with Sun, Alfred Lion with Blue Note, Moses Asch with Folkways. Today, Martin Mills [of Beggars Group] stands as a giant in the independent world, and so do the members of the A2IM board and many of our other members.”
JIM MAHONEY, 52
GM, U.S., Merlin
Biggest Industry Issue: “Fighting for the attention of fans, who can be quite distracted.”
MARTIN MILLS, 70
Founder/chairman, Beggars Group; nonexecutive chair, Worldwide Independent Network
Mills, who founded the independent Beggars Group in 1977 (and still relishes “finding new artists and helping them find an audience”), is widely recognized as one of the most influential advocates within the indie sector. He’s nonexecutive chair of WIN and sits on the board of indie trade groups Merlin, IMPALA and A2IM.
Declaration Of Independence: “We’ve proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that we can be completely competitive with the rest of the market when we exercise our collective strength.”
In 10 years, Ghazi (who uses only his first name professionally) has built EMPIRE into a U.S. indie-distribution powerhouse for Iggy Azalea, Jim Jones, Tyga and select Universal Music Group artists under a deal announced in April 2018. His company has diversified into a label (with a Billboard 200 No. 1 for the late XXXTentacion) and a music publisher; most recently, it has expanded into Europe, Southeast Asia and China. “Everything is extremely fast now,” he says. “Artist are burning through content at a speed that we have never seen before. Everybody is expanding [into digital distribution]. It’s like the dotcom era [of the late 1990s] when all those companies came out of the woodwork but only a few survived. The majors are here to stay,” he says. “But when the dust settles, I hope to be the king of the indies.”
DAVID MACIAS, 53
Owner, Thirty Tigers
NORBERT NIX, 61
Partner/GM, Triple Tigers Records
Macias has the figure committed to memory: “54,072,” he says, “was the first week of [consumption units in April 2018] for John Prine,” whose acclaimed album The Tree of Forgiveness on the artist’s own Oh Boy Records is distributed through Thirty Tigers. The total was “more than double his previous debut week [and] the result of his entire team, of which we were only one part,” adds Macias. Nix guides Triple Tigers Records (a partnership among Thirty Tigers, Triple 8 Management and Sony), which claims four No. 1 singles in under three years with songs from Scotty McCreery and Russell Dickerson. Triple Tigers ranked No. 8 on Billboard’s 2018 Country Labels recap. “We will continue our focused approach as we launch Gone West,” says Nix of the band that features Colbie Caillat, Justin Young, Nelly Joy and Jason Reeves.
Independence Defined: “The ability to not be constrained by expectation and genre.” - Macias
President, Caroline/Harvest Records
MATT SAWIN, 43
Executive vp, Caroline/Harvest Records
Saturn was named president of Capitol Music Group’s indie label-services division last September, rising from GM. She earned that promotion by more than doubling Caroline’s market share during the past three years to 2.69% year to date, Billboard estimates. Sawin says Caroline also has become a global force, with a staff of over 120 in 13 territories worldwide. The division also has played an important role in breaking XXXTentacion, $uicideBoy$, Lil Baby and Trippie Redd. “We stand for artist development,” says Saturn.
Declaration of Independence: “If you are an artist, it is having a real vision of how you would like your music put into the world.” - Saturn
BEN SWANSON, 41
COO, Secretly Group
CHRIS SWANSON, 44
Co-CEO/president of A&R, Secretly Group
DARIUS VAN ARMAN, 47
Co-CEO, Secretly Group/Secretly Distribution
PHIL WALDORF, 44
Co-CEO/head of global marketing, Secretly Group
CHRISTOPHER WELZ, 38
Managing director, Secretly Distribution
Van Arman, a dedicated advocate of the indie sector -- he’s A2IM chairman of the board of directors and a board member of Merlin and SoundExchange -- notes that Secretly became one of the first distributors to share over 80% of its Spotify equity with its distributed labels after the streaming service went public in 2018. “We put our money where our mouth is,” he says, following the Fair Digital Deals Declaration drafted by WIN. Secretly Group, comprising the labels Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian, is home to critically acclaimed acts such as Mitski, Sharon Van Etten, Better Oblivion Community Center (featuring Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst), serpentwithfeet, Khruangbin and Lonnie Holley, among others. Waldorf took particular pride in seeing Bridgers’ debut, Stranger in the Alps, and Khruangbin’s Con Todo el Mundo -- both on Dead Oceans -- pass the 50,000 consumption units mark. Chris Swanson says Secretly’s reorganization late last year into “three clearly defined branches” of operations, A&R and marketing will be key to future success. “We’ve got a new sense of unified purpose,” he says. At Secretly Distribution, Welz says platinum-level sales for Bon Iver and gold certification for Sufjan Stevens and Major Lazer have driven some $50 million in revenue with yearly double-digit growth for the division. Moving physical distribution from Warner Music Group-owned Alternative Distribution Alliance to AMPED in February “completed our 100% independent path to market,” says Welz.
Independence Defined: “Independence is having the luxury of not being beholden to shareholders that couldn’t care less about the music or its place in the world. As an independent, we show up every day for our artists.” - Ben Swanson
CHRIS TAYLOR, 53
Global president of music, eOne
“We want to be talent first,” says Taylor, who gained an artist’s perspective touring with a rock-reggae band that was signed to Virgin Records in the 1990s. The recent acquisition of Audio Network, a British indie music firm, for $215 million, will let eOne boost licensing for movies and video games, says Taylor. He’s also stoked by the global success of “Thotiana” by rapper Blueface. “We’re in every genre all the way from heaven to hell,” says Taylor, whose roster also boasts rap, gospel and heavy metal artists. “It has been a lot of fun.”
Biggest Industry Issue: “Getting away from the narrative that music companies don’t provide any value, that you can just record songs and put them up at home and build something for yourself. You can do that. But to really take things to the next level, having a really great music [company] is essential.”
Digital distributor TuneCore announced in April it had reached a record $1.5 billion in streaming/download revenue paid to its clients. The 250,000 artists on the platform accounted for 199.3 billion streams and downloads in 2018, an 83% increase from 2017, reported the company, which provides not only distribution but promotion and publishing administration. “The independent space has a responsibility to educate and empower artists to navigate a complex landscape,” says Ackerman.
Latest Concert For Fun: “Garth Brooks in Philadelphia. It was awesome to see multiple generations in the audience, all drawn by the power and personality of a legendary artist.”
JORGE BREA, 34
Founder/CEO, Symphonic Distribution
“Independence is the ability to be reactive [and] pivot,” says Brea, who knows a thing or two about pivoting. Moving early in his life from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to Tampa, Fla., Brea spent his teen years working as a DJ-producer and releasing original music on vinyl, which inspired the creation of Symphonic Distribution when he was only 21. Today, he connects indie acts of all genres to streaming platforms and recently announced that his company had expanded its presence in Nashville and Bogota, Colombia. “We’ve been able to grow 35% year over year for the past five years,” he says, adding that while one of the strongest regions for streaming is Latin America, new artists are breaking out from African countries and the Middle East.
GLENN DICKER, 53 // TOR HANSEN, 54
Co-founders, Redeye Worldwide
In its 23rd year, Redeye has experienced double-digit growth “across all formats digital and physical within all the major global markets,” says Hansen. (The company does not report specific earnings.) Last December, Redeye expanded its distribution reach into Canada, the world’s seventh-largest music market, where it is working directly with over 100 retailers, says Dicker. He adds that the company’s global digital team is now run out of Toronto. Professional achievements mix with personal satisfaction, says Dicker, recalling his role in a successful collaboration. “There are two artists I’ve worked with [separately] for 25 years -- Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets [who now perform together] -- so that is special to me personally.”
Independence Defined: “Courage to stand on your own with thought and respect for the community and the work you represent.” - Hansen
GM/executive vp, Ingrooves
BOB ROBACK, 52
Ingrooves, which as of February is wholly owned by Universal Music Group, has turned to artificial intelligence-based data insights and marketing tools to help artists connect with fans at triple the rate of engagement of traditional efforts, says Dietz, who adds that those fans “continued to engage with the artist while other listeners moved on.” Says Roback: “We’ve been able to really move the needle from a marketing perspective by leveraging all of the insights and platforms that we’ve developed here. That has been a big engine of our growth.”
Biggest Industry Issue: “Honestly, everybody’s biggest issue right now is marketing -- people looking for tracks because [they have been] marketed to. You’re talking about a massive bottleneck, even with the improvements [in] personalizing playlists.” - Roback
DIEGO FARIAS, 38
In February, Amuse reported it would begin paying artists advance royalties for distribution rights with a new data-driven service called Fast Forward, which uses machine learning to project artist earnings. “We have people showing up every day of the week to sign up for our service,” says Farias, who views the strategy as a way to help independent artists retain their independence.
Biggest Industry Issue: “Trust -- for an industry where artists have been on the wrong end of many deals for a long time. Amuse is building trust by putting all the information on the table, whether it is through our free music distribution system, artist-friendly advances or innovative license deals.”
TRACY MADDUX, 50
CEO, CD Baby
CD Baby -- which distributes 750,000 artists and over 9 million tracks while publishing 170,000 songwriters and more than 1 million individual songs from acts in over 200 territories worldwide -- reported stellar 2018 results in April. Its member artists earned $106 million, an increase of nearly 25% over 2017. “Scaling the global CD Baby team” is his greatest recent accomplishment, says Maddux. “We took our team outside the U.S. from one person to 14 people. We now have people in nine countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Singapore and the U.K.” In March, Downtown Music Holdings spent a reported $200 million to acquire CD Baby’s parent company, AVL Digital Group. “This transaction will allow us to take the services we offer the independent music community to the next level,” says Maddux, who will oversee all AVL holdings for Downtown.
Indie Hero: “Alison Wenham, outgoing CEO of WIN. She is a giant within and champion for the independent music community.”
BRAD NAVIN, 48
CEO, The Orchard
COLLEEN THEIS, 50
COO, The Orchard
Orchard-distributed artists are “all over the Billboard charts,” says Theis, particularly the Billboard Artist 100, where K-pop phenomenon BTS has had a lock on No. 1 for five weeks, driven in part by the success of Map of the Soul: Persona on BigHit Records through The Orchard. As streaming transforms the music business, Navin and Theis recognize the powerful potential for further international crossover. After opening in China and launching a Latin music headquarters in Miami, The Orchard now operates in over 40 markets. “Music is crossing over internationally and selling everywhere, not just in home markets,” says Navin. “To me, that’s the fulfillment of the vision we’ve always had -- when we go out and sign music from all over the world.”
Indie Hero: “I have to give a shoutout to The Orchard’s founder, Richard Gottehrer. He’s coming up on his 80th birthday, and he continues to personify what it means to be a punk and what it means to be independent.” - Navin
JASON PETERSON, 37
Founder/chairman/CEO, GoDigital Media Group
GoDigital’s emphasis on Latin music began in 2010, when the company’s AdShare division started managing Daddy Yankee’s YouTube rights. The track “Amanece” by Anuel AA x Haze, which GoDigital’s Cinq distributor put out last December, has over 600 million streams worldwide, according to the company. “You could have predicted this coming,” says Peterson. “Latin music has been the fastest-growing segment of the music business for seven years running.”
Indie Hero: “Richard Branson. He is the consummate entrepreneur. He built a brand, Virgin, that is globally recognized: Virgin Megastores, Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airlines, Virgin Galactic, Virgin Trains. He was Elon Musk before there was Elon Musk.”
ELIAH SETON, 37
President of independent music and creator services, Alternative Distribution Alliance/Warner Music Group
Now holding titles at both ADA and parent WMG, Seton says his promotion in February “represents both Warner’s commitment to and emphasis on the independent music space, with the acknowledgement that it’s growing and continuing to disrupt the broader recorded-music business.” Evidence of that commitment is found in the relaunch of the Asylum Records label (Ugly God, DJ SpinKing, Star), the beta launch of direct-distribution platform Level and ADA’s pursuit of artist-direct deals (Ciara, AJ Tracey).
Latest Concert For Fun: “Ben Platt. Impressive, so genuine and so intimate. One of the most down-to-earth people I’ve gotten to know in music.”
Head, AMPED Distribution
When Best Buy retreated from selling CDs in 2018, the RIAA’s year-end report noted that revenue from the format fell by 41%. But AMPED’s CD business only fell by 2%, proof of the distributor’s ongoing commitment to physical product. “We’re going to talk to a lot of labels, large and small, that are digitally inclined, with very little or no physical product,” says Tabaac. “We can help them stay in that game without having to be heavily involved like they once were.” Recent deals with Secretly Distribution, Merge, Alligator and SM Entertainment, as well as new AWAL partners Glassnote and SideOneDummy, have helped grow the business (with Tabaac promising more “significant” partners joining in the second half of 2019). “No one else is going to embrace physical the way they once did, which creates a hell of an opportunity for us.”
Trend He's Watching: “We’re on the cusp of seeing artists who are going to be far more multigenre in their writing and their music than what we’ve seen prior.”
EMMANUEL ZUNZ, 46
Zunz has expanded ONErpm with new offices in Moscow, Madrid, San Francisco and Kingston, Jamaica, while the company has doubled revenue (it does not report specific results) and gained nearly 7 billion monthly plays on YouTube for its independent content creators in 2018.
Declaration of Independence: “When we invest in an artist and project, it really is somebody’s money,” says Zunz, who remains the sole owner of the distribution company that he founded in 2010. “It’s not this nebulous corporation that has all these funds. Being truly independent means not having investors and the freedom to run my business as I see fit.”
*Declined to reveal age
Methodology: Billboard’s Indie Power Players 2019 marks a change from previous years in focusing on independent record companies and distributors. Stand-alone music publishers are not featured. Executives are chosen by editors based on factors including, but not limited to, nominations by peers, colleagues and superiors at selected music companies, as well as recommendations by indie trade group A2IM. The criteria for defining a company as an indie is described. In addition to nominations, editors weigh impact on consumer behavior as measured by metrics such as chart, sales and streaming performance; social media impressions; career trajectory; and overall impact in the global music industry, using data available as of April 4.
Contributors: Justino Águila, Rich Appel, Megan Armstrong, Steve Baltin, Harley Brown, Dean Budnick, Ed Christman, Tatiana Cirisano, Leila Cobo, Thom Duffy, Adrienne Gaffney, Cortney Harding, Steve Knopper, Katy Kroll, Geoff Mayfield, Cathy Applefeld Olson, Paula Parisi, Chris Payne, Deborah Evans Price, Bryan Reesman, David Rishty, Tom Roland, Craig Rosen, Dan Rys, Richard Smirke, Eric Spitznagel, Andrew Unterberger, Kevin Warwick, Deborah Wilker
What Makes An Indie... An Indie
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 based on the repertoire they market, which is largely from labels not under the majors’ umbrellas, regardless of corporate ownership.
Eleven of the distributors included here are both independently owned and bring releases to the marketplace from independent labels and artists. However, the majors own four other distributors here -- The Orchard (by Sony), Alternative Distribution Alliance (Warner) and Caroline and Ingrooves (Universal). But they still market indie releases.
The aforementioned criteria differ from how Billboard and Nielsen Music classify titles for the Independent Albums chart. That chart tallies releases distributed by both indie distribution companies and the majors’ indie distribution arms. But the chart does not include independently owned labels distributed directly by a major.
The criteria for Indie Power Players also differs from how an indie is defined by the American Association of Independent Music (whose CEO, Richard James Burgess, is among this year’s honorees). A2IM has stated that an independent label “must own 50% or more of its masters and, as it stands, no independent has more than 5% [of] global market share. Similarly, a distributor must be 50% or more owned independently of the major labels.”
However, for this list, Billboard chose to recognize executives from the major-owned distributors due to the volume of indie-owned repertoire they market -- thus their importance to the indie music business. -- THOM DUFFY