A Good Year For The Indies

(Vampire Weekend)

With 273 Grammy nods this year, independent labels picked up just over half of the award nominations.

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Jim Mahoney, Vice President of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), a trade organization that represents independent record labels, says that when he worked at indie labels in the ’80s and ’90s – like Profile Records and Roadrunner – winning a Grammy award wasn’t as important to independent labels as he thinks it may be now.

“I never really thought the Grammies were for me,” Mahoney says.

While he doesn’t want to credit the trade association with the indie labels’ recent Grammy success, he hopes that as a byproduct of A2IM’s community building efforts that more independents are engaging in the Grammy process.

But what does it even mean to be an indie in the day and age when Taylor Swift, one of the biggest artists in the world, is on an independent label?

Jim Mahoney says the psychological and emotional meaning of “indie” is purely with the listener. He pulls out a copy of Billboard and picks out Ray LaMontagne’s name – number 30 on that week’s chart. LaMontagne’s record God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise is listed under RCA. “It’s been a long time since RCA could claim to be independent,” Mahoney jokes.

But, for LaMontagne, Mahoney says, “Someone is assigning psychological feelings like ‘that sounds indie’.” On the other hand, people feel that Swift couldn’t possibly be indie because she’s so mainstream.

“While we are of different sizes, different genres, different business models, different distributor types, we’re all independent when it comes down to the might. There’s the majors, and then there’s everybody else,” says Mahoney.

Those psychological responses also contribute to the fact that many artists feel they have to sign to a major label to achieve success in the music industry.

But, while majors can make big waves, they also work records less time, acts change more frequently, and executives bounce around.

There are plenty of indie labels that carry the same weight as majors. Glassnote, Beggars, XL, Matador, and Domino have artists like Phoenix, Mumford & Sons, Vampire Weekend and Animal Collective.

Mahoney says Stones Throw, an L.A.-based label, has found recent success with Mayer Hawthorne and Allo Black, two artists who the label believed in and worked for a long time – and who are starting to see dividends.

“I see how they’re taking on the challenges of the marketplace. They’re working different angles and finding ways to do business that works for them,” says Mahoney.

Mahoney says the most successful indie labels today have mastered the art of staying alive. He learned the mantra of successful labels during his stint working at indies in the ’90s: “Work the projects hard, but let each amount of money that you put out on that artist show and prove something before you put more money in.”

Mahoney brings up the example of Ghostly International, a Michigan-based indie label who has built up success with significant electronic artists like Matthew Dear and Gold Panda. “Ten years ago, Ghostly invested time learning and mastering the licensing business, publishing, the value of controlling master copyright and songwriting copyright so that they could make more attractive offerings to people who want to use their music for TV and film.”

“But today,” Mahoney says, “success and or failure happen faster than they did 10 years ago.”

He says that just because licensing may have been an indie’s best weapon in 1999, today it’s something else. “All of [the successful labels] whisper to me, ‘It’s my direct to fan business. I got into it a couple years ago and now my fans know to come here to get special products’.”

Plenty of companies like TopSpin, Nimbit, and AudioLife have popped up to service the direct-to-fan business, while some labels have built their own proprietary systems.

“People think ‘DIY’ and they think about DIY artists who are unsigned, but labels are doing DIY. It gives you tools, it doesn’t dictate how you do business.”

But Mahoney says doing-it-yourself – and competing against the better-heeled majors – isn’t easy.

“DIY is brutal, and artists are finding that out, but at least the tools are there,” he says.

Mahoney says the same rules apply to unsigned artists and independent labels. “The more things you can do for yourself, the better off you’re going to be down the path,” he says. “That doesn’t mean keep on doing it forever. Just make sure you know how that job works.”

For more information and updates on independent labels, visit A2IM’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/independentlabels.


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  1. Is INDIE the future of the industry?

    Taylor Swift indie? She’s certainly no Ani DiFranco! However, this brings up the very same question we encountered while filming “What is INDIE?”:

    Where do you draw the line?

    At one extreme you have an artist who is unsigned, has no distribution, etc. They do EVERYTHING on their own, they are 100% certified “DIY”. At the other extreme, you have an artist like Taylor Swift, not to mention all of the many, many shades of gray in between:

    – What if an artist is signed to an indie label, has total control over their career, owns their masters, and is simply distributed by a Major Label? Are they “indie”?

    – What if an artist is signed to a 100% certified independent label with no affiliation to a major label or distributor, however, the artist does not own their masters and is not in control of their career? Are they “indie”?

    – Or, what if an artist is unsigned, doing everything themselves, but really wants to “get signed” and would gladly sign any contract just to be on a major label? Are they really an indie artist simply because they have no label at the moment?

    Maybe being “indie” is more of a philosophy/state of mind rather than a strictly defined term?

    With the many DIY success stories popping up around the world, and if you consider A2IM’s definition of “indie” to be valid, then indie is clearly the future of the music industry.



    Dave Cool
    (Yes, that’s my real name!)
    “What is INDIE? A Look into the World of Independent Musicians”

    Twitter: @dave_cool

  2. Hi Dave. I believe there are two (maybe more) conversation threads at play here. On one hand there is the fan’s interpretation of “indie” and on the other there is the all too real commerce angle of how independently owned music masters are valued in negotiations by platforms that benefit from the use of music.

    While I’m sensitive to the fact that major labels sometimes market a new band intentionally as “indie” to gain “cred” and that, I think, drives some of the debate on this topic, there is something deeper at play that is of primary concern to A2IM and to our independently owned/controlled label members (which, by the way, includes a great number of artist owned entities including Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records). Our concern is a fair marketplace that allows independent labels and artists to offer the same possibilities to artists they sign (or music they make) as the majors if the artist or the music is good enough.

    Where it concerns commerce and how “independent” music is valued by YouTube (or any other commerce platform), independents – that is to say anyone that is not signed directly to a major label – have more in common than they have differences. While there are independents distributed by major labels (or major label owned “indie distributors” like ADA, Caroline, Fontana, etc.) and there are 100% DIY’ers, you can be sure that there is only ONE WAY that most companies making money off of the use of music are trying to compensate anyone that is not distinctly a major label: lesser than! And that is harmful for ALL independents. How? Well, if major labels are compensated greater than or provided greater access to market than independent labels or artists it will become harder for independent labels to sign exciting acts or independents will have no choice but to sign distribution deals with majors which, in turn, would strangle independently owned distributors (like E1, Redeye, Burnside, etc.) and so on down the chain ultimately having the potential to result in a world where there are only hobbyists and artists deemed “good enough” to get signed to a major.

    Taylor Swift, for instance, is signed to the independently owned Big Machine Records who has a distribution deal with Universal but who maintains their own separate A&R, marketing, promotion, and business staff. To discredit the claim that her GRAMMY nominations are rightfully counted in the tally of independents’ nominations is not only to discredit the efforts of the Big Machine staff but also to damage all independents (DIY’ers to large, established independently owned companies). Whether on Big Machine Records and played on mainstream outlets, on Righteous Babe Records, or self-released like 2009’s Best Reggae Album GRAMMY winner Burning Spear, it is valuable to the cause of ALL independents to be able to point to independent successes so that commerce partners understand that we bring great music – and even HIT MUSIC – to the market and deserve to have our music valued fairly.

    Music has a long and very rich history of independent labels investing in and exposing great music to fans. Just because artists can now elect to go “DIY” or because major labels sign directly and then use marketing ploys to get indie cred should not mean that independently owned/controlled labels should have less claim to the term “independent”.

    Anyway I hope that whereas it concerns the business of music I’ve helped define an important consideration for you in your fairly regular comments about “What Is INDIE?” and I continue to look forward to reading your thoughts on the many forums that you contribute to.

    Best regards,


  3. ALL so called Indies will be Bought out by a Major…. look at History!…
    they will make them an OFFER they Can’t Refuse…(just like the mob !)
    how can you Argue with Money/Power /distribution And… well you know!,..most Companies and People are just Dreaming to “SELL OUT”…..or is there some HIGH moral point to Business ?…just Keep Writing/Producing/Singing/Publishing so you have “Something to sell”… Good Luck. if you Need any Help. Contact: Nicoletti Consulting/Promotion P.o.Box 386 Laguna Beach California #92652 USA Ph 949-715-7036 [email protected]

  4. Hey Davis,

    Great article. I do believe that the Indie Music is here and here to stay. We are getting to a point where anyone can create music videos, anyone can record their music, and anyone can get it viewed by millions online. Why do we need these massive labels anymore?

    In fact, we have actually just launched a website for the Indie artist – StageOff.com, the online talent show. Basically, it’s where YouTube meets American Idol.

    We have launched 5 days ago, but have already been in the news. Davis, let me know what you think of what we’re trying to do!

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