It was not that long ago that the words "independent label" were generally construed to mean "a quick way for an aspiring artist to be bilked out of their life savings by disreputable operators." H Times have changed.

Independent labels in today's Nashville represent something else entirely: legitimate businesses that compete with major labels for radio and video airplay, media exposure and, most importantly, sales.
During a recent week in November, a full third of the songs listed on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart were from independent labels: unheard of 10 or even five years ago.

So while consolidation has reduced the number of major label groups to four, the number of independent labels on Music Row has grown steadily during the last few years. In fact, it is that same major label consolidation that has provided both the staff and the artist roster for many independents.

Five years ago, Broken Bow, Dualtone and Curb were pretty much it when it came to Nashville indies. Today's lineup includes at least a dozen companies that have placed, or are likely to place, songs on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. Among others, Toby Keith's Show Dog Nashville and Category 5 (home to Travis Tritt) have launched in the last year.

"The thing that had hampered independent labels in the past was lack of quality distribution and a lack of talent on both sides of the spectrum: the artistic talent and the executive talent to run a company and staff a [label]," 903 Music VP of promotion Bill Mayne says. Veteran artist Neal McCoy founded 903 two year ago. It is also home to Darryl Worley and popular touring act the Drew Davis Band.

"In a consolidation era, it's like squeezing a balloon, the air's got to go somewhere," Mayne adds.

The label most often cited in industry circles as the forebearer of the modern independent movement is Broken Bow, which was started in the late '90s by California car dealer Benny Brown. After owning a Nashville studio and financially backing various new artists, Brown decided to open his own label. It took a few years, but it eventually succeeded with Craig Morgan, who had previously recorded for Atlantic Records Nashville. Since joining Broken Bow in 2001, Morgan has scored three top 10 singles, including a No. 1, "That's What I Love About Sunday."

"Broken Bow was the first to re-create the major label model in terms of personnel and staffing," says Equity Music Group partner and president Mike Kraski, who spent 27 years at CBS Records, which later became Sony. "They were willing to make that commitment and ultimately you saw the results."

Eventually, Broken Bow also had success with a new artist, Jason Aldean, which forever changed the way independents-by design heavily reliant on artists with a major label track record-were viewed. Aldean's debut album has sold 755,000 copies and has spawned two top 10 singles, including the No. 1 "Why," which peaked in May.

Equity, launched in 2003, is another label that has found success with an act other than the tried and true. Although the label counts veteran artist Clint Black as one of its founding partners, and also has on its roster ex-major label performers Mark Wills and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, it has had its biggest success with Little Big Town, a band that has scored on both the airplay and sales charts. The band has sold 807,000 albums to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Certainly, lots of ex-major label talent is fueling the indie world. Hitmaker Tracy Lawrence started his own label, Rocky Comfort Records, with a different plan than what he experienced during his years at major labels such as Atlantic and DreamWorks. "The ultimate goal here is not to hang No. 1 plaques on the wall, it's to sell records," he says. "You can be more efficient with how you spend your money and how you advertise and market your artist. There's just way too much waste in this business."

Big Machine president/CEO Scott Borchetta leans heavily on past experience, including executive stints at MCA and DreamWorks. "We're taking a lot of our own personal research and development . . . about how to compete out-of-the-box at the highest level," says Borchetta, who counts Jack Ingram and Taylor Swift among his signees.

Indeed, indies have found ways to tweak the major label model to their advantage. While almost all of them rely, like the majors, on radio airplay as their primary means of exposure to consumers, there are a few that are exploring other means.

Ken Cooper, who moved his Rust Records operation to Nashville from Cleveland, says that the label has a traditional promotion and marketing staff, but also has placed a strong emphasis on new media. "In the country world, 94% of sales are coming from the traditional model and 6% from the digital model. We believe that in the next 36-60 months that's . . . eventually a 50-50 model."

Cooper says Rust, which is home to BlackHawk, Aaron Tippin and PovertyNeck Hillbillies, is creating country lifestyle online communities. Even though country consumers are historically behind the tech curve, "when they go to convert, we will be there for them to use," Cooper says.

At Equity, artists maintain ownership of their masters. "Our belief began with 'the artists should own their own art,' " Kraski says. "We felt it was wrong for artists never to earn royalties on their CD sales because of recoupability. Artists earn income from the very first and subsequent SoundScan sale. It's not a royalty system, it's a dollars per unit SoundScan system. It's very transparent and it's very immediate."

Montage Music Group, launched in late July and headed by former Sony Music Nashville president/CEO Allen Butler, is one of the newer independents on the scene. Montage is home to former major label acts Little Texas, Andy Griggs and newcomer Minnie Murphy. Montage has a management and publishing arm for artists that are looking for one-stop shopping. Butler sees the model as a plus for artist development. "We would like to share as much in their career as we possibly can," he says.

Many of these ex-major label execs say they enjoy distinct advantages in the indie label space. Butler says his label can move faster and more cost-effectively.

"If we identified an artist that we didn't think was going to fit into mainstream radio parameters, we can go directly to digital with that project and, because of our lower costs of doing business, make money at a much lower level than a major can," Butler says. And for a label like Montage, he says, "it can keep the lights on."

Borchetta says one way that his label remains cost-effective is that "we're not top-heavy with executives. It was more important to me to have great people who could get the job done than bring in experienced high level executives. That's for an aggressive reason -- a desire and a hunger -- and for a financial reason."

The Big Machine honcho says the decision-making process is quicker at his label as well. "I don't have to check with New York or L.A.," he says. "My crew walks in, we talk about something and either we do it or we don't. There's not a long, drawn-out process."

Major label consolidation has meant more than an injection of top executive and artist talent into the indie realm. It's also meant better, easier distribution. There was a time when independents couldn't get their product in every retail chain, but consolidation has limited the number of clients needed to carry it.

In addition, consolidation at retail, and subsequently on the distribution side, made "a lot of very talented distribution executives available for the independent world to absorb," according to Kraski. "That's what you see at places like RED and Navarre -- they are full of ex-major label distribution folks."

Sales and marketing veteran Bob Freese, VP/GM of Navarre Corp., which distributes a half dozen country independents, says country is discovering what other genres, most notably rock and hip-hop have known for years -- there's a business in "niche." "In other genres, there's always been an acceptable world for independents," he says, noting that "our biggest-selling titles this year are without a doubt country records."

Broken Bow's Howell doesn't believe the independent label boom has peaked. "I still believe that anybody can have a hit on any given day," he says. "With the right song, the right artist and the right people working it, regardless of the record label, you can have a hit." Lofton Creek's success with Heartland (see story, next page) is an example of that principle, Howell says.

Brian Smith, VP of store operations for Value Music Concepts, agrees. "If you have a hit song you will get played," Smith says. "Fans don't care what label is involved."

As solid a reputation as country independents are currently enjoying, Kraski says that they still have to fight the bias-sometimes seeded by majors-that they might be gone tomorrow. "We have to overcome it again every time an independent label shows up on the radar screen and then fails," he says, noting that there is an answer to the bias. "Success brings credibility."