Nick Kivlen, Jacob Faber, Julia Cumming and Danny Ayala of Sunflower Bean perform at Warsaw on Dec. 7, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York.
Nick Kivlen, Jacob Faber, Julia Cumming and Danny Ayala of Sunflower Bean perform at Warsaw on Dec. 7, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York.
RMV/Shutterstock

Truly Madly Indie: A2IM'S 2019 Indie Week & Libera Awards Preview

Throughout his career of 50-plus years, American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) president/CEO Richard James Burgess has infiltrated nearly every sector of the music business. Behind the decks he worked as an in-demand engineer and producer for New Edition, Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet and Kate Bush, and was a successful artist in his own right, as co-founder of U.K. band Landscape. The group’s track “Einstein A Go-Go” -- which prominently features the pioneering Roland MC-8 Microcomposer sequencer -- became one of the first computer-driven hits when it peaked at No. 5 in the United Kingdom in 1981. “Outside of Stanford University and [Paris institute for music and sound sciences] IRCAM, there weren’t any other computers capable of making music then,” says Burgess. The musician, who has a Ph.D. in creative and media studies (musicology), also served as college professor, artist manager and author, with multiple published works on music production. He is credited as the inventor of the SDSV drum synthesizer in the late 1970s, and for coining the musical subgenres “EDM” and “new romantic.”   

At the helm of A2IM since 2016, the London-born, Christchurch, New Zealand-bred executive has leveraged his industry experience to advocate on behalf of the association’s 600-plus independent label community -- from artist-owned imprints to multimillion-dollar organizations BMG, Concord Music Group and more. The New York-based chief executive joined A2IM when the association was launched, in 2005, and joined its board of directors in 2013, rising to chairman in 2015. When Burgess attended A2IM’s inaugural Indie Week in 2012, labels were reeling from online piracy and a shift from $18 CDs to 99-cent downloads. Back then, A2IM members’ market share was 29%, but streaming has restored growth to labels big and small.   

Despite losing pop megastar Taylor Swift (whose indie status ended last November, when she jumped from Nashville’s Big Machine Label Group to Universal Music Group-owned Republic Records), A2IM still closed out 2018 with a U.S. market share of 36%, a slight dip from 37% in 2017, according to MIDiA Research.  

“Independents represent more than a third of the market, and we’ve checked that like 20 different ways,” says Burgess, citing some of the A2IM members who represent today’s top (and rising) chart stars, such as bro-country duo Florida Georgia Line (Big Machine), whose Bebe Rexha collaboration “Meant To Be” spent a historic 50 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in 2018. British singer Adele is technically indie, too: Although licensed to Columbia, she is signed to U.K. label XL Recordings, which counts Thom Yorke, Jungle and Jai Paul among its artists. (Indies have a 40% global market share, according to MIDiA Research.)

Streaming’s dominance has led to bolstered revenue -- and budgets -- for many indie outfits, growing the overall business on a global scale. Outlier acts like Nigerian pop star Davido and K-pop boy band BTS can break more quickly than ever in the United States, while American stars can extend their touring footprint worldwide. It’s a “huge shift” according to Burgess, who credits the data available in the streaming era with pushing the DIY trend forward, a big risk for an even bigger reward financially.

A2IM’s annual four-day Indie Week conference, held at New York Law School in Manhattan, offers “an exchange of knowledge and philosophies” to its members, according to Burgess. Keynote speakers include The Orchard co-founder Richard Gottehrer; Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y.; and Register of Copyrights and director of the U.S. Copyright Office Karyn A. Temple, while panels will tackle top concerns such as streaming ethics and the use of artificial intelligence in A&R. The conference’s annual Libera Awards ceremony, presented by SoundExchange, will close the event on June 20 at the Ziegfeld Ballroom, a new home after two years at the PlayStation Theater, where last year they “sold out of tables,” says Burgess.

This year’s edition includes performances from R&B singer Deva Mahal and rock trio Sunflower Bean. The event will also honor Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Seattle label Sub Pop, with a lifetime achievement award for his role in the “establishment of grunge” and for breaking Nirvana and Soundgarden, among other bands.

Burgess discusses Indie Week’s 10th go-round and his multifaceted career.

Looking back to your first Indie Week, what stands out most to you?

I joined A2IM when I was associate director of business strategies at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings [the nonprofit label of the United States’ national museum, the Smithsonian Institution]. The first Indie Week was tiny, held in The Recording Academy’s offices in Bryant Park. We were trying to wind our way through this new digital reality -- and here we are now, beyond that point where downloads are fading away, CDs are really on their way out and we’re well on the upward swing of streaming. I hope we can supply the same kind of help that I got then as a member.

You were among the first to sample recorded sounds on an album in your work with the Fairlight CMI [a digital synthesizer-sampler] on projects like Kate Bush’s 1980 LP Never for Ever, which hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom. How revelatory was that process for you?

It was the first record to use a digital sample, as far as we can tell. I had one of the first three Fairlights outside of Australia. One was kept at their U.K. distributor, Syco Systems, and the other was with Peter Gabriel. The idea of taking existing sounds and spinning them in wasn’t a new technique, but what was revelatory was you could play any sound up and down the keyboard, even chords. On “Babooshka” [a U.K. No. 5 hit], we broke a bunch of cups; we took crockery and smashed it. Very rock’n’roll. On “Army Dreamers” [No. 16 peak], Kate’s brother brought an arsenal of weapons to the studio, and we recorded some cocked rifles. The rhythm of the track was that sound: the ch-ch, ch-ch.

How would an A2IM or an Indie Week have helped Landscape, your band?

I think about that a lot. I’ve been signed to six major labels. You didn’t have a lot of options in those days. You had to make demos, and if you couldn’t get a record deal you really couldn’t put a record out. When the punk thing happened in England, there was an explosion of DIY, and my band called ourselves “jazz punk.” We put out our own records on our own label, and recorded our first two EPs live at a deconsecrated church. We sold 25,000 copies and got offered a deal with RCA.

Did you take the deal?

We were a democratic band. Three of us wanted to do it and two of us wanted to remain independent, so we did the deal. What A2IM can offer is a support system to people who want to remain independent and self-sufficient. That’s not for everybody -- some people want that huge infusion of cash that the majors offer. And the Swedish songwriters. (Laughs.)

What do you see as the biggest issues facing the indie sector?

Obviously the Music Modernization Act was a huge breakthrough. It convinced the recorded-music industry that we can actually get things done, we can make a difference. The MMA is a long way from implementation, so we’ll have to see where it goes, but just the victory itself was very [good for] morale.

What else is a priority concern for you?

Some of the same problems still exist: Radio doesn’t pay the recorded-music side at all, which is just an egregious wrong and needs to be put right; there’s still the YouTube issue that it pays much less [in royalties to content holders] than everybody else. It seems like they might be moving toward resolving that. The Copyright Directive, Article 17, might have an impact on that, but we’ll have to see how that plays out. [YouTube executives have been skeptical of the European Union’s directive that would require online content hosts like Facebook and Twitter to be more responsible for illegally shared copyrighted material.] I feel more optimistic. It was like banging your head against a brick wall a year ago. Now, it seems like there’s a dent in the wall.

How has competition between indies and majors changed in recent years?

Every A2IM member is a competitor with every other independent label, and every member is a competitor with the majors. That’s the way it should be. Where it gets unhealthy, and we’re seeing it in the technology space, is when a market becomes asymmetric. That’s why A2IM was formed in the first place: to ensure a level playing field. A good example, and it’s the first music-tech company, really, is [analog streaming service] Big Radio, which has not paid a single penny to recording artists, musicians, singers or labels in its 99 years of existence, despite building empires by monetizing musical works. They built their fortunes, then they used the money they generated from the use of our works to very effectively lobby against us and preserve their dominant position.

What is the difference between international and domestic revenue for indie labels these days compared with 10 or 20 years ago?

There isn’t a barrier to international trade that there was when we lived in the physical world. When I was at Smithsonian Folkways, we never sold enough records to be able to say, “Manufacture in Germany or Japan.” We were selling in those markets, but we always had to export them or do licensing deals. Streaming has completely changed that equation, and that works to the benefit of small independents.

This article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.