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March 28, 2014

Independence - the power is in the network - Mouthzoff column

This is my eigth column for Mouthzoff magazine. It was published in November. This one concerns an essential skill that any business owner - especially an independent artist - needs to develop: networking. You can't do it all yourself, so you need to find people who are willing and able to help you.

Last edition we discussed the importance of recording and releasing music early and often so as to build fan base including people from the music industry. This week we look at the down side of attracting industry attention and how this can compromise an artist's independence.

So what does "independence" really mean? Well, anyone who's been paying attention to the Australian music scene lately would know that Kate Miller-Heidke, after four albums released through Sony, has decided to make her next album on her own with the help of some crowd-sourced funding through Pledge Music. This campaign has been so powerful that she is now the fastest and most successful fan-funding artist in Australian history, for O Vertigo.

Similarly, Amanda Palmer left her record label and tried to raise $100K to make her Theatre is Evil album and go on tour. She raised almost $1.2million in two months. Radiohead tried a variation on this when they left their label, EMI, and recorded and released In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-like digital download. Radiohead's lead singer, Thom Yorke, is quoted as saying at the time: "I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one."

So, does this rejection of record labels make these artists independent? What are the advantages and disadvantages of rejecting labels and maintaining artistic independence?

The first answer is a rather unconvincing "not necessarily". The reality is that achieving any level of international success requires an artist to partner with a range of other companies: distributors, marketers, media, etc, any of whom can influence an artist's work simply by refusing to do their thing with the artist's latest work. For example, Radiohead were able to record In Rainbows at their own studio and make all of the creative decisions themselves, but they still needed Warner Chappell Music Publishing to put their CDs in stores all over the world.

By contrast, Amanda Palmer distributes her physical CDs, as CDs or vinyl to stores via Alliance Entertainment and has signed a quite unique deal with record label Cooking Vinyl. In doing this she retains full creative control of her future and also ownership of her materials. The label just helps with "distribution, project management, marketing and promotional services for her forthcoming album in the UK and Europe", while her personal record label, 8ft Records, oversees the process globally. Clear as mud?

And that's the greatest advantage of independence: the artist gets to make all the decisions about who to work with, where to record, where to distribute, how much to charge, where to promote, how much to spend ... and so on. They have complete freedom within the laws of business and the artist's ability to negotiate with the people they need to achieve their goals and meet their needs.

And that's also the biggest problem: the artist HAS to make all those decisions and enter into all those negotiations. There is no-one else to turn to. Even worse, when the artist's negotiating power is limited by their lack of funds, there is no record label there to advance them some capital.

That's why artists like Ani DiFranco and John Butler have worked hard to create their own record label to help out. As their careers grew and they solved the problems they needed to get achieve success, they hired people they worked well with and built relationships with companies that were mutually beneficial. For each artist, this network of contacts and relationships has become its own record label.

The lesson? Musos should look to the power of their networks and build long-term relationships with people they meet to who turn out to be trustworthy, valuable and honest. Of course, if the artist starts to gather any kind of momentum, the industry will come calling on them - but that's a topic for another column.

Posted by DrHuge at March 28, 2014 12:05 PM

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