Archive for the ‘PUBLISHED’ Category


Monday, June 2nd, 2003

Published in Options2 – The Edge


New York. London. Tokyo. It doesn’t matter. If you were in any of these cities and threw a dart out of your hotel window into the streets below, there is a fair chance that you’d kill an independent musician.

Hm? What am I on about?

I’m on about the denizens of the music industry; the class of musicians deemed not commercial enough for major record labels yet they release records independently anyway. I’m talking about the so-called indie recording artiste. There are loads of us out here. We’re like locust.

But not all indie musicians are the same. For instance, there are indie musicians signed to independent labels. There are those who independently fund their own records but sign distribute deals with major or independent labels (like me). Then there are those who not only fund their own records but distribute it themselves as well. Confused? Never mind, it’s a complicated neighbourhood. All you have to know for now is that the independent musician is like a distant and disadvantaged cousin to Britney Spears.

By that, I don’t mean to say indie music is inferior. In fact, if you are the sort of music listener who dislikes the formulaic sound of mainstream records, it is likely you’ll find joy in independent efforts. Hell, some of the most successful musicians in recent years, like REM, Pearl Jam, Hootie & The Blowfish etc started out as independent bands. Meanwhile, diehard indie artistes continue to sell hundreds of thousands of records. Why, I recently read about an unsigned lady singer songwriter who sold 100,000 records through her mailing list alone. Now, that lady would have made more money on her album than 99% of major label artistes.

Really? Why is that then?

Well, you see, contrary to public perception, even a Top 40 major label artiste doesn’t always see significant financial rewards. There are lots of reasons for this, but the main reason is something called the recording contract. Now, there are many strange and wonderful things in the contract, but lets just concentrate on the section entitled ‘Artist Royalty’ for the moment.

As you’ve probably guessed, that’s the section in the recording contract that covers the artiste’s royalty receipts. It is normally expressed as a percentage of retail or wholesale price of the artiste’s record, followed by lots of dense qualifiers, and an inevitable notice that this royalty percentage is based on net proceeds derived from the sales of the said record.

Now, depending on where and how famous the artiste is, artist royalty can vary between 4%-10% of retail price. But, unless you are totally clueless, the sizes of the points are actually not the interesting bit. Rather, the juicy bits lies in the provision that states that the record label must recoup all its cost and expenses before artiste royalty kicks in.

Lets take a look at what these costs and expenses might be.

For a start, it includes all record production costs. Then it includes all administrative expenses accrued to the record, which can include anything from a postage stamp to a portion of the CEO’s Lear jet. It also includes all the marketing and promotional expenses spent on the record, which can be ten times larger than the production cost of the record. Whatever it is, it basically means artist royalty is standing behind a very long queue.

How long?

So long that even artistes who sell millions of records may not see royalty for years, if at all. So long that the practice behind the standard recording contract is currently being challenged by a class action suit in the Supreme Court of USA for being grossly unfair and one-sided.

As if that is not bad enough, being signed to a major label also means the artiste doesn’t own the master rights to the record he’d just made. Rather, the label owns it forever. It therefore can do whatever it wants with it, from releasing it to warehousing it indefinitely. So, should label CEO decide not to release the record just because his mistress is refusing sex, there is nothing the artiste can do about it.

It has to be said though, that should the label love the artiste because his record is a multiple million seller, then there is no end to the pampering that the label can pile on. I’ll keep the gory details to myself – suffice to say that stories of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll aren’t all urban legends. Thus, although the artiste might never see his royalty, the wild parties along the way will at least leave him with pleasant memories when he ends up selling encyclopaedias further down the line. Not bad really. Hell, his indie cousin can’t even call upon that sort of reminiscence with any degree of certainty.

You see, wild parties cost money, and if there is something that defines 99% of independent records and artistes, it is that there is never enough money to work with.

What do you mean why? Have you ever tried raising money from friends, relatives and the credit card company in order to make your record? I mean, given only one in ten records ever recover production cost, it is not as though investment bankers are queuing up to throw money into recording projects. So there is never enough money. And because of this lack of budget, you have to do everything yourself, from drafting production contracts to negotiating with CD factories. Okay, if you are lucky, you might find sympathetic friends to help out, but on the whole, you are on your own.

Still, most indie-heads will also tell you that all the hard work is worthwhile. Well, for one thing, without label executives climbing all over you during production, you can come up with something that approximates your personal vision. Then, because the indie artiste generally has at least some share in funding the record, you are therefore in for a share of the total income derived from record sales, in addition to any artist royalty payouts. Further more, because you have a share of the master rights to the record, you also have a say on how, when and where your record is released.

This means the fate of the record and your financial status is partially or entirely in your own hands. So, if even your fawning mummy won’t be found dead with your CD in her collection, then there is no one else to blame but yourself. On the other hand, if your record becomes a sleeper hit and rake you fame and fortune, you can bath in the satisfaction of having done it your way.

Sounds good?

Yep, it’s good, except for this: the 5 biggest record labels in the world account for more than 85% of worldwide record distribution and sales. This means that the chances of an indie record being stocked in more than a handful of record stores is almost non-existent unless an established label agrees to distribute it. But, for all sorts of reasons, very few indie records get picked up this way. This is why, out of the 50,000 independent records made every year in the USA alone, less than 1% ever sees the light of general distribution. This is also why, before your dart punctured his cranium, the indie musician youĂ­d just murdered was probably selling his records out of the back of his truck on the street below.

Now, before you stop your child’s music lessons for fear he might condemn himself to a life of indie hardship, you should also consider that the indie community is characterised by a camaraderie that is unique in the entertainment business. Sure, we have our share of bitchery, but generally, indie people stick together. We play together, complain about our day jobs to each other, laugh at Mariah Carey together, and suffer disappointments together. Now and again, one of us breakout, then we celebrate together. It’s all very healthy. And, apart from the occasional drunkard like me, not all of us are alcoholics. Hell, have you read the latest statistics about alcoholism in the medical profession? Terrible. Well then, leave that poor kid alone.

Anyhow, what I really wanted to say is this – never throw darts out of windows. Instead, get off that armchair and go down to support your local indie event. You might even enjoy it.