Paradigm Shift: Until The Music Stops

In the second of our three-part series on the arts, we speak to a range of leading lights from all tiers of the independent music industry about labels, revenue and sustainability in the digital age. Is this a brave new world, or a broken dystopia?

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 22 Aug 2013

The changes the music industry has undergone since the turn of the century have been seismic. The collapse of key markets and formats, and the growth and emergence of new ones which have failed to directly or adequately replace the old models (at least so far), has left the industry atomised.

The proliferation of boutique, short-run and digital-only netlabels have ushered in a wealth of new talent, but often without an ability to effectively market or monetise the artists they represent. The death knell for high street chains such as HMV has sounded – they will struggle on, no doubt, in some reduced form, but the way we buy and consume music continues to evolve and change.

Paradigm Shift: Beyond the Silver Screen

Paradigm Shift: Now Turn the Page

We spoke to label bosses, artists and promoters in an effort to take the pulse of the music industry, both in Scotland and internationally. The picture that emerges is one of intense creativity, massive opportunity in terms of potential audience reach, and myriad threats to the traditional idea of the successful artist and label; of people who are passionate, fractious, and prepared to sacrifice everything to pursue creative fulfilment. Alun Woodward of Scotland's leading independent label Chemikal Underground says: “Technology has been great for bands to get their music heard, and a fucking calamity for people who have to listen to it.” Is this a brave new world, or a broken dystopia?

Woodward is unapologetically a traditionalist. “I like to be told what to listen to by labels and bands I trust,” he says. “We have a relationship. They release records and I buy them.” Many up-and-coming and DIY artists tend to agree. “The value of a label that releases physical products is that it is a brand,” says Greg Hurst, who has released electronic music as Magic Daddy on Optimo and Stuff Records, and now plays in Machines In Heaven.

Looking beyond Scotland, Shaun Koplow, manager of respected independent US label Anticon, has a similar view. “I've read on social media about how new artists don't see the idea of a label holding the same weight as it once did. I disagree. Our logo is a stamp of approval.”

And yet, a healthy amount of scepticism exists. Major labels, in particular, seem to be anathema to emerging bands. Louie, front-man of Hector Bizerk, another band to play this year's T Break stage, has been offered label deals for his band's second album but has turned them down due to what he calls “trust issues.” Having pressed and sold the band's debut, he is unsure what value a label could add: “I've been promised the world before,” he says. “If you can manage your own music from your bedroom, do you really need someone to represent you?”

What can an established label offer that a self-distribution platform like Bandcamp cannot? “Throwing a new artist into a label's machine hopefully means they immediately have a publicist, a distribution network, better chances at finding a booking agent, people to shop their music for sync licensing, radio PR, and a litany of services they will not take care of on their own until they've had a bit of experience in the industry,” says Koplow.

Adam Stafford, who rose to prominence as front-man of Y'All Is Fantasy Island, has dealt with labels, and distributed his own work. The key thing a label can provide, he feels, is “reach.” RM Hubbert, winner of the 2013 Scottish Album of the Year Award and a key player in the Chemikal Underground stable, has nothing but praise for his label. He feels “a responsibility” towards them, encouraging him to achieve as much as possible with his music, which he describes as “a bizarre form of therapy.”

“The first thing Chemikal asked me to do was to not change anything about what I do,” he says. Working with Chemikal “makes a huge difference to how much time I can spent writing and touring. I don't think I could do it without them at this stage.”

Not all artists experience the warm glow Hubbert describes. “We had people working for us who we felt would benefit the band but ultimately didn't give a fuck about us, and we were just a number or a name on their roster,” says James Graham, vocalist with The Twilight Sad. “The past 7 years have been a constant uphill battle... There have been some bad decisions and some missed opportunities, and we take a lot of the responsibility for that.” Growth is necessary for The Twilight Sad to survive: “We can't sustain a career with the way things are at the moment and our next album is definitely the most important album of our career."

Like The Twilight Sad and RM Hubbert, Dave Hook's band Stanley Odd were on the shortlist for the 2013 Scottish Album of the Year Award. The band had parted ways with record company Circular after their first two albums, and found themselves the only group on the shortlist without a label or publisher. He remains positive about the effect a label can have on an artist's career: “There's real value in being independent, but I don't think you lose that independence when you license your work to somebody else and let them distribute it,” he says. Hook is also wary of the baggage that goes along with self-promotion: “I'm terrified of the word 'entrepreneur.' An entrepreneur, in our current culture and climate, is what everybody is supposed to be.”

For Simon Raymonde, founder and owner of Bella Union, there is simply no substitute: “Labels have infrastructure and relationships built up over years that you cannot put a monetary value to. Labels can promote an artist to a level no self-releasing artist could do... not without at least a team of people to help set it up. That team is called a label.” Bella Union do not ask artists to commit to long-term, exclusive contracts: “We borrow their stuff, help them progress then if they want it back it's theirs at the end of a short period.” For Raymonde, “Bandcamp pages are like frogspawn. I've been hearing for years about how labels are now redundant with the self-release, Bandcamp phenomena but I see this mostly as trying to give credence to something [by] knocking the status quo.”

Former Delgado Emma Pollock, one of the co-founders of Chemikal Underground who is also helming the third year of Sound Lab – a Creative Scotland subsidised course for aspiring producers at Chem19 studios – identifies the problems with self-distribution: “It's very time consuming and extremely hard work to write material, record it yourself at a good enough quality and then do the back-breaking work of promoting it yourselves,” she says. When a band is signed to an established label, she argues, this eases the burden. By helping Chemikal to emerge, and being closely involved with their ongoing efforts to develop and support independent musicians in Scotland, she and her colleagues have created an alternative to the mainstream. But the music industry is now so atomised, and Chemikal so established, that there exists an alternative to that alternative – hence the rise of boutique and netlabels.

Established in 2009, Clan Destine Records have built a small but dedicated following, with limited-edition runs of 200 or fewer tapes or vinyl consistently selling out, and a strong track record of breaking new artists. “It's all about sustainability,” says owner and manager Carl Clan Destine. “I prefer to do things ethically. I get feedback from distributors and customers, so from the grass roots, I can tell if I need to re-press a record.” He has recently signed a distribution deal with online distributor Boomkat, and deals with independent shops including Glasgow's Rubadub.

Aural Sects is an example of an internet-only label whose releases are mostly free, with occasional forays into physical releases. Co-owner Bunny compares the function of netlabels to zines or traditional press: “A label is just another place a listener goes to find new music of a certain ilk.” His label's strategy involves encouraging collaborations between artists, releasing compilations, and driving engagement through social media. His artists have “total control.” Forays into physical releases are driven by a desire to break even, rather than make money.

Greg Hurst nails the problem facing labels and artists: “Ten years ago, it was possible for a lot of mid-level acts to make a full-time living. Not getting loaded, making a hundred grand a year, but making enough for everyone to survive. Nowadays, that mid-level, the bottom's fallen out of it.”

Chris Cusack and Gerry Blythe, both well-known faces in the Glasgow music scene, are setting up a new record label attached to the venue Bar Bloc, a gig space which supports emerging bands. Cusack agrees that the middle has collapsed: “There's no affection, no loyalty for the artists [traditional labels] represent. Their ideal scenario is to pick up a band who already have a buzz. Failing that, they'll engineer something. It's all about how astute they are at marketing.”

Cusack and Blythe hope to open the eyes of Glasgow bands: “There's a disconnect between the reality of the situation and their expectations,” says Cusack. “For every six breakout bands from Glasgow, there are a dozen, far superior smaller acts who just didn't play the game in those specific ways, and so they went to the wall.” Their label, says Blythe, operates a defensive strategy, in response to the collapse of the middle: “The money is draining upwards. The bands who are currently hyped might not be here in a year, because there's no investment. The industry rides the crest of each successive wave, and everybody just grabs what they can.”

“The secret is to be prudent,” says Louie of Hector Bizerk, who grins cheekily when describing his life for the past seven years of making music as “living on the breadline.” James Graham faces similar issues with his much better-known band The Twilight Sad. “Making money from recorded output is very unlikely for a band our size,” he explains. “We're not selling tens of thousands of records so making money after recording and marketing costs has been unheard of with us. Touring is expensive when you're a band of our size and ambition.”

If album sales and touring revenue are no longer the most profitable parts of a band's income, what has replaced them? Much controversy has been generated this year over the revenue payments given to artists by streaming sites, but Marcus Scott, manager of ground-breaking electronic label Hyperdub, says that streaming revenues now account for 25% of the label's digital income. “As user numbers grow revenue for labels will grow,” he argues. “Consumers create the demand for these things and you can't swim against the tide or hope it will stop,” despite the fact “the amounts paid are not high enough at the moment.” Streaming does not seem to have a deleterious effect on digital sales, either – according to Scott, they are an additional stream.

Stewart Henderson, who co-runs Chemikal with Woodward, offers some cutting insights into streaming platforms: “I'm concerned that streaming sites are all about the platform and the convenience of the consumer with the value of the music itself coming a distant third,” he says. “Access to all music, all of the time is now considered by many as an inalienable right rather than an artform deserving of the consumer's patronage.” The money spent on subscription fees used to be invested directly into bands, but now, the majority goes to the streaming sites. “It's like putting it into a woodchipper. Let's face it, the last thing in the world streaming sites want is people buying albums.”

Shaun Koplow agrees: “What bothers me the most is that it continues the devaluation of music as a product.” There seem to be few voices defending the right of musicians to make a decent living. As Greg Hurst puts it: “You never hear anyone worrying about losing our musicians to a foreign country if we don't pay them big enough bonuses.”

Another income stream which has become hugely important for artists is the 'sync' stream – revenue from music sold to advertising, film and TV. For many bands, this revenue far outstrips album sales and touring revenue. Established labels like Chemikal are wary of the 'sync' stream becoming too important to their business model. “I think it is important but you can't rely on it as a core part of running a label or a band,” says Woodward. Koplow takes a similar approach: “We are totally fine with sync licensing. Most of the potential licenses that grace our desk are tasteful proposals. Sync licensing only becomes questionable when a particular license is an obvious sellout move.”

James Graham is actively looking for more opportunities to sync his band's music, “so I'm able to write more music and keep doing this. Eventually life catches up with you and you have to be able to afford to actually live.” Sync deals can provide a crucial income for bands whose sales do not provide a liveable income. Davey Gwynne of Machines In Heaven would also be open to sync deals: “The morality changes when you don't have a pot to piss in,” he says.

As Dave Hook observes: “Art can't make money for art's sake these days, it has to be involved in some way with other economics.” His band participated in an ad campaign for the City of Edinburgh, but learned all too soon that once you've taken the corporate buck, compromise becomes an issue. “The mistake we made was that we didn't get to just license a song we were proud of and we'd written. They used the music, and gave us a brief to change the words. That was really, really difficult,” he says.

For Simon Raymonde, this element of personal choice for the artist when arranging sync deals is crucial: “This label is for our artists not for me,” he says. Marcus Scott of Hyperdub also offers a word of caution: “If you're a publisher or label and you're basically signing music for sync then you should stop releasing music.”

Chirs Cusack takes a sterner view. “The very word makes my skin crawl,” he shudders. “That's what music's about now? It's not about how good the band are, it's about 'how many Citroëns can we sell with their music,' 'how many episodes of Hollyoaks can we get this into?' Bands are signed on the basis of their potential for sync. For me, the two are anathema. Art is not about selling stuff. There are too many people out there now expecting to make a living from art in a world where it has been devalued, almost entirely.”

Even with revenue from sync, artists still struggle to make a living at every level except the very highest echelons. “Most artists in Scotland are forced to work a menial job to subsidise their art,” says Adam Stafford. “This is a failing ideology: in the UK, the creative sector accounts for 5% of annual income, so why are the arts being cut to almost nothing, and the artists treated like little more than avid hobbyists?”

Graham Crossan of Machines In Heaven has an explanation. “Being a musician, in some ways, is like being a nurse or a fireman – it's more like a calling,” he says. “The people in power can completely fuck with the workers, because they know they're there because of love, passion, compassion.”

In other parts of Europe, the arts councils and state funding bodies make up some of this shortfall. “If you play 47 shows a year in France, you can apply for the basic minimum wage – and you can work on top of that as well,” says Cusack. “Why can't we do that? Why can't that be our legacy to musicians?”

Stafford agrees: “Funding bodies are more than happy to come on board after all of the hard work has been done it seems, to stamp their ident on the final product, to drum-up some good PR for their organisation.”

But Dave Hook offers a damning question: “Because of the internet, everyone can release music. If you start to monetise everyone who makes music, where do you draw the line? If everyone in the entire world is making art, how do you say if someone's is of value, and someone else's isn't?”

The problem, says Stafford, is one of hierarchy. “Glasgow, and Scotland in general has one of the greatest music communities in the world at the moment, but there is little or no nurture from the top.” The SAY Award, which was set up in part to recognise success, but also to provide key development and distribution opportunities for artists like RM Hubbert and Stanley Odd, is seen by some as an exercise in back-slapping, and by others as a vital and necessary celebration of Scotland's musical culture. It was funded in part with money from the Scottish Arts Council. And yet, the way RM Hubbert spent his prize money says it all. After paying collaborators, “the rest went on paying overdue taxes and paying off some of the large amount of credit card debt that I've amassed over the years.” Establishing yourself as an artist is costly, time-consuming, and even when an artist starts to gain wide recognition, they still have dues and bills to pay.

James Graham is also full of praise for the SAY Award: “I felt it was more of a celebration of good Scottish music instead of a direct competition,” he says. “I think it's money well spent.” Chris Cusack, as ever, is sceptical. “The Scottish Arts Council [now Creative Scotland] have supported some very good things, but they've also supported a much larger amount of absolute fucking nonsense. And they've used our money, as taxpayers, to get themselves invited to parties, and get their photo taken next to Billy Sloan and Ricky Ross. The amount of sycophantic shit that goes on, at our expense, is genuinely obscene.”

Cusack's comments lead to speculation about the perceived tiers of the music industry. Adam Stafford offers a highly plausible model. First off, there is: “The Lowly Tier – DIY, self-funded, small-time bands and artists with a limited fan base or small appeal... usually self-released or on a small label, with no booking-agent and a day-job to subsidise the music – I would include myself in this category.” Next up there is the “Mid-Tier – musicians who release on mid-size or large indie labels, are able to tour regularly off the back of supporting a more well established act, can command a decent fee, can make a decent earning from merchandise, and are likely to get good coverage in major blogs and magazines.”

This tier would presumably include musicians like The Twilight Sad, in Stafford's view – and yet as we have seen, even they are struggling to make ends meet. Then there is the “Top Tier – the indie concern, artists who have built up a huge fanbase over the years, probably signed to at least a big indie or major, [making] regular comfortable earnings from touring, merchandise and sync deals.” Who does Stafford see on this level? “Your Biffy Clyros, I suppose.”

Cusack sees this final tier as vampiric. “Biffy Clyro are rubbish,” he says. “They're held up as some paragon of national musical identity – but there are far superior bands, and people should be furious about that. Bands like Biffy Clyro are part of a system that suppresses the people around them. They suppress the scene that they came from. The money is so concentrated in their end of the spectrum that it sets unrealistic targets.”

It is down at least in part to bands of the Biffy Clyro level of operation that the middle tier has become financially precarious, as Cusack sees things. But as James Graham points out: “Artists who were 'underground' then had a quick rise to popularity via the internet... are now mainstream artists.” Talk of an 'underground' often leads to a kind of naïve idealism about music as a sustainable independent business, not to mention a healthy dose of nostalgia for the 'good old days' of the late 80s and 90s.

“A lot of the independent labels from that era, like Domino and Sub Pop, are either major-label funded now, or they have been at some point,” Carl Clan Destine points out. “The indie labels had to take a lot of shit as a result. I'd never become a subsidiary of anybody. The word speaks for itself – it's a subservient position.”

Underground music has a “simpler aim,” according to Emma Pollock. “The underground artist is usually the artist that has been given the freedom to make the music they wanted to without too much interference from the label they are making it for. The sheer lack of money that most independent labels have can lead to a much freer environment for the artist to work in... That allows the artist's vision to come through and very often that's what makes the most compelling and unique record; the one that stands the test of time.”

Her Chemikal colleague Stewart Henderson agrees there must be balance between these two poles. “The originality and quality of the music is always going to be central to any decision we take in terms of signing. As far as marketability is concerned it's important that we have as much to work with as possible but it's not necessarily a prerequisite to getting signed – the music will always be the driving factor.”

Simon Raymonde confirms this: “Some labels look at things clearly and work out marketing spend on a projected sales budget for each artist,” he explains. “Years of doing this have taught me it's utterly futile. I look more at personality and how we get on with and relate to the artist and management.”

For Carl Clan Destine, his thoughts about the marketability of his roster echo what many of the artists tell us about their motivations. “I work all the time on the label, because I love it,” he says. “I have no ambitions to drive a Ferrari. I'm happy to just put records out and live a normal life.” For Marcus Scott of Hyperdub, it's all about: “Music that gives us a little electric shock and a sense of intrigue. Marketability and potential sales power are irrelevant at that point.”

Although Henderson talks of a need for “an increasingly bespoke approach” for releases, and describes his label's recent runs as “increasingly conservative” in their numbers, he is still convinced that the right bands, signed because of their quality, and marketed sensibly and creatively, can sell physical products, despite the rise and rise of digital markets. Koplow agrees too: “People still appreciate being able to walk into a store and hold a record.” For Raymonde, the debate over digital and physical formats is simple: “As soon as we can't make vinyl records any more,” he says, “I won't be running a label.”

It seems that whether we are talking about a long-established label like Bella Union, or an emerging curator like Aural Sects, many of the challenges that exist for labels and artists alike are broadly similar. For all their ideological differences, these bands and artists are all united against the mediocrity and repetition they see characterising the commercial music business. They share a passion for music, and a distaste for pre-packaged, overly-marketed musical 'product.' Sustainability is their key to success. The enduring picture is one of passionate creatives prepared to take the industry as they find it, grateful for the successes they can achieve with limited means. As Louie from Hector Bizerk tells us: “We're not making enough money to start buying up property in the West End... but I had some hummus with my toast this morning!”

  • Read the other installments in the Paradigm Shift series here:




Thanks to Dave Kerr for additional research