Earlier this month, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) announced its advisory board
, which included Dave Grohl, Killer Mike, the longtime producer/songwriter Jimmy Jam, and even industry legend Quincy Jones. The group was founded last year to represent the interests of independent venues (read: No Live Nation or AEG) across the United States and in rather quick fashion helped pass the Save Our Stages Act
to provide relief for struggling small businesses. Now in working to get that bill passed, the group partnered with large recorded
music interests. That may explain a few other members of its advisory board: Lyor Cohen (YouTube), Amy Cranford (Sony Music Publishing), and Michele Suzanne Ballantyne (RIAA).
In 2020, Spotify donated $500,000
to NIVA’s venue aid fund while continuing to drag its feet as Gimlet, Parcast, and the Ringer workers negotiated their first union contracts with the Writers Guild of America East. YouTube also helped NIVA put on a virtual concert
to raise money for the group’s relief fund and increase awareness of the Save Our Stages Act. Thus, these execs getting a spot on NIVA’s board solidifies many of its professional partnerships, and considering the bill’s successful passage, this horse-trading did pay off. However, when I read that the “National INDEPENDENT Venue Association,” a group explicitly standing against Live Nation and AEG, appointed representatives from major streaming platforms, it raised an eyebrow. A look back at the early days of other small music business associations might help shed a bit of light on this tension.
During the peak and collapse of the CD-bubble, a number of trade groups with the explicit goal of representing the small record label owner started to pop up. The Association of Independent Music (AIM) was formed to represent the sizable contingent of British indie record labels (Beggars Group, Domino, XL Records, etc.). A few years later, in the United States, the Merlin Network emerged to help with independent labels adjust to the rather sudden digital economic shift in music (see: iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify). While the term“independent” may imply a separation from the mainstream record industry, the streaming era has brought with it a similar dynamic. The new model, largely shaped by the major labels, ended up corralling these small businesses into arrangements over which many owners, much less their artists and employees, had little say. Instead of dealing with the Apple Store and similar digital stores, the shift to streaming forced everyone to compete in a market share-based business model. Even the new labels that emerged post-crash claiming independence need to examine whether such titles are applicable.
A few weeks ago, Sony made a couple of noteworthy purchases. The company bought AWAL and Kobalt Neighbouring Rights
, leaving Kobalt Music Group to operate primarily as a music publishing business. Henry Semmence, founder of Absolute Label Services, lamented the purchase of AWAL by Sony and the further consolidation of the music industry in Music Business Worldwide
. Yet, Semmence doesn’t mention that Kobalt Music Group, who bought AWAL in 2017, raised millions of dollars from the private equity firm MSD Capital and Google Ventures
, only a few years earlier. AWAL may not be a major label, but it’s firmly within the center of the financial world powering the contemporary record industry. (YouTube, owned by Google, generates billions for major labels.) The limits of independence rear when we look beyond major labels and consider other financial backers, or even tech firms that are key drivers of major labels profits. The freedom these small businesses claim to have is often fairly fleeting. The freedom these small businesses can claim is often fairly fleeting.
Last year, Mark Mulligan over at Midia Research wrote a couple
of pieces exclaiming
that “independents” are doing really well in streaming. He pointed out that “independent” could include “AI-generated music” and library music companies like Epidemic Sound, which shares an investor, Creandum
, with Spotify. Again, the term independent implies freedom from the three major labels without addressing whether the new companies have different goals or financial backers than major labels and streaming platforms.
Numerous organizations appear to represent the “independent” sector of music, but they often end up acting as small business trade organizations. As a result, they advocate their commercial concerns, not those of their workers or musicians, with larger industry players. The goals of a Merlin are the will of its most powerful members, and though those goals may not align with a Universal Music Group, their methods (e.g., playlist promotion and marketing spend) still benefit this self-selecting group of labels. The increased discontent of musicians, seen in nascent efforts to unionize or push towards ideas like non-fungible tokens, points towards certain communities’ refusal to accept agreements made by big indie labels and streaming platforms.
In 2003, labor historians Stanley Aronowitz and Mike Robert wrote a report for the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802 of Greater New York
detailing that since the late 1970s, American major labels used subsidiary labels, or “indies,“ to undermine labor contracts. The ideological slipperiness of the “independent” concept predates the formation of Merlin, AIM, and many other groups. Still, over the last couple of decades, these small businesses banded together not to reject music’s tech-intermeshed future but to pull up a proper seat at the table in their own interests. If it isn’t independence from major labels or major tech financing, it becomes unclear who these small businesses define themselves against. Instead independent better shows one’s reluctance, not rejection of the current record industry.