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In 2021, How Do We Define an ‘Indie’ Publisher? (Guest Column)

When Michael Eames was serving as AIMP president from 2015-2018 we came up with a definition of what made a publisher “independent,” but in two years the landscape has radically changed.

The Association of Independent Music Publishers (AIMP) was formed in Los Angeles back in 1977, as the music industry was going through a major wave of consolidation that ultimately resulted in the “Big Six” — Warner Music Group, EMI, CBS Records (now Sony), RCA (BMG), MCA Music (Universal), and Polygram. Indie publishers needed a forum to share information and educate each other about industry trends, with a “non-major” point of view.

Since then, the AIMP has expanded and become a multi-chapter organization with international presence. Participants from any sector and any company in the industry are welcome as members; we run elections every two years for each chapter’s volunteer, unpaid board positions. While any member can run for the board, each chapter’s president and vice president roles must be held by an independent music publisher.


But what is “indie,” really? From 2015-2018 when I was serving as president of the AIMP, I worked with a team to come up with a definition of what made a publisher “independent.” We came up with the following definition, which was included in the first major revision of the AIMP by-laws in forty years, which were voted upon and adopted by the AIMP membership in December 2018:

“An Independent Music Publisher shall be a music publisher which supports composers and songwriters in the protection and exploitation of their works through a variety of means in the United States and is neither (a) a publicly traded corporation, nor (b) operating with the direct investor funding of a publicly traded corporation (i.e. non-investor public financing such as a bank is permitted); nor (c) affiliated with any firm, company or other entity which is a substantial licensee of rights in musical compositions (a “Major Licensee”). A company shall be deemed to be so affiliated with a Major Licensee if the Chapter Board shall determine that such director is an officer, director, proprietor, partner or employee of any Major Licensee, or of a firm, company or other entity which controls, is controlled by or is under common control with any Major Licensee. Any ambiguity or dispute with respect to a Director’s failure to qualify as an Independent Music Publisher shall be resolved by the Executive Committee…”


Currently, the AIMP executive officers for the 2020-2021 term across the 3 chapters are Teri Nelson-Carpenter (Reel Muzik Werks), Marc Caruso (Angry Mob Music), Michael Lau (Imachew Music), Debbie Rose (Kokopelli Music Group), Ree Guyer (Wrensong Music), and John Ozier (Reservoir Media). And therein lies the rub. As you’ve likely read in these pages, Reservoir has taken the first step toward an IPO in a rather interesting way, via reverse merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). Reservoir could be listed on the NASDAQ as early as July. The existing shareholders are all rolling over their equity, keeping majority control of the company.

John Ozier has offered to resign once the transaction goes through; at this time, the other members of the executive committee have asked him to remain in his role as Nashville chapter president and National Chair. And as a proud AIMP member I support that. However, putting individuals aside, this situation raises a larger question — is this what we had in mind when we defined “what is an indie” in 2018? We thought the above-mentioned definition was a straightforward way to draw the line, but in just over two short years, the landscape has already radically changed.


To that end, the executive committee has asked me as an independent, non-incumbent voice to facilitate this discussion with the AIMP community. If our intention is to have a diverse community of independent music publishers that offer songwriters and rights holders more options, do we not want our members to be able to avail themselves of as many financing options as possible? Should our members not be able to diversify and offer more services? Affiliate with a “major” for some services? Should we look at something like marketshare calculations? If so, whose should we use? With the “big six” now the “big three” (Sony, Universal, Warner), what is the likelihood that there will be that much change in the top three to five companies in the foreseeable future? And conversely, what is a “major”? Concord just acquired Downtown’s owned publishing assets for a reported almost $400 million and the same day Blackstone acquired the eOne music assets for $385 million. Where should the line between ‘independent’ and ‘major’ be drawn?

We are currently setting up a structured way to dive into these questions, starting with a session at the AIMP Global Music Publishing Summit on June 8. We plan to have additional forums in the subsequent months to get input from our membership to help us shape any proposed changes, as any alteration or amendment to the by-laws requires AIMP to give its members time to suggest changes before the final proposal goes to out for a vote.

The music publishing industry has always been more fragmented than the recorded music side of the business, given the nature of multi-writer works, catalog ownership, and other factors. The investment and financial community has realized the opportunity and value in music publishing and songwriter rights. With all the current technologies and financing options available, this could now potentially drive a reversal of the consolidation trend. So how should we define “indie” in a way that preserves its spirit yet doesn’t constrain opportunity to better serve our songwriters and composers? I look forward to our collective discussion in the months to come.

Michael Eames is the President and co-founder of independent publisher PEN Music Group, which has been in operation for just over 25 years. He served on the AIMP Los Angeles chapter board for many years, elected national vice president from January 2013-December 2014, and then as national president through December 2018. He currently serves on the Independent Publishers Advisory Council (IPAC) of the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and the Unclaimed Royalties Oversight Committee for the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC). Michael wrote the music publishing section of the Hal Leonard/Rowman & Littlefield-published book entitled Five Star Music Makeover: The Independent Artist’s Guide for Singers, Songwriters, Bands, Producers and Self Publishers (2016) and is co-author (with Bobby Borg) of the upcoming book Introduction To Music Publishing For Musicians to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in July 2021. He is a frequent guest speaker in both real and virtual classrooms and panel discussions worldwide and co-teaches (with Borg) the online UCLA Extension class “Music Publishing: A Creative And Business Perspective.”