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Indie Artists & Labels: What it Takes to Play Today

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Independent music operators talk about SoundCloud, social, streaming and much more—takeaways from Music Connected 2015

Change, as the ancient wise guys all observed, is inevitable. And nowhere is that truer than in the realm of digital music marketing. A recent conference grappled with the new realities, and we wanted to share some of the conversations with you.

Put on by AIM (Association of Independent Music) in London earlier this month, the day-long Music Connected get together is a chance for indie music people to address the seismic shifts going on in music distribution. This year’s event offered some interesting insights about the challenges and opportunities the industry faces. Here are a few of them:

Is YouTube still a viable channel in a post-Music Key world?

When YouTube rolled out its new pay-to-play policy in June 2014, indie labels and self-releasing musicians weren’t happy. Unless they coughed up some dough, they would effectively be invisible on YouTube.

Indie labels have since acknowledged that the video streaming service is still huge, devoting staff and cash to getting seen. Leon Grant Bussinger of Warp Records acknowledged, “It’s more of a help than any kind of hindrance. We’re exposed to far more audience than we would be on any other platform. It’s the largest streaming music service in the world, so it’s obviously a help.”

Making a living in a streaming world

A hot topic at the conference, dealing with the shift from the ownership model to a streaming-music model, brought out a lot of unhappiness over Spotify’s ad-supported free streaming tier. Many attendees would like to see it go away entirely.

But many see it as inevitable. Nicolas Rizzi from indie music distributor The Orchard says, “Technology is what’s moved people away from owning and into as easy access to music as possible. You can’t fight technology, we just have to find as many ways of getting people onto that boat as possible”.

There is clearly an upside in streaming for indie music. Part of that comes from the fact that indie outstrips mainstream music on streaming services proportionate to its size. Gerald Youna of Beggars Group notes, “As indies we over-index on streaming, and within streaming we over-index on premium, because the type of music we’re releasing will appeal to early adopters”.

Playlists—the new payola?

Indie label people worry that playlists which pick up gazillions of followers are becoming a hot commodity on streaming services. They see them as a glaring opportunity for bigger labels to game the system by offering all kinds of inducements for list creators to include the tunes they’re pushing.

Spotify spokesperson Chris Stoneman counters, “It’s certainly something we’ve heard is happening, people asking for money.” He then went on to point out that listeners choose playlists because they like them, “People aren’t going to follow a playlist that is throwing tracks in because it gets money.”

Instagram—should it be a big part of your social toolbelt?

Sarah Gasperi from the Mute label thinks so. In her popular session she described how making Instagram the centerpiece of Muse’s promotion of the Liars LP Mess on a Mission made sense. Seeing that the band has a strong tradition of communicating visually and feeling that Twitter or Facebook weren’t the right media, she took a different approach.

Muse put up 15-second video teasers on Instagram, only later sharing them on other platforms. Gasperi recalls, “We could clearly see that Facebook and Twitter were not the platforms that were fitting the band. The way they were using them was quite sparse, not always regular…Instagram was really the heart of that campaign and the start of any engagement and interactive effort that we put together.”

Mailing lists: non-sexy but essential

Mailing lists are hardly cutting edge, yet they continue to be a big factor in promoting music, both recorded and live. As numerous indie marketers testified at the conference, great fan lists continue to produce great results.

“Every time we work with clients who have large email lists, you can see that they drive a hell of a lot of sales,” observed Darren Hemmings of the digital marketing agency Motive Unknown whose roster includes bands such as Drenge.

What’s your take on where digital music distribution is headed? Weigh in below.

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