The Indies vs the Majors


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
27 Monday 27th February 2012

Yet how are indie labels managing to keep their heads above water when going head to head with the Big Four (Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI)? On top of that, what sort of tactics can we already see major labels putting in play to make sure they come out swinging at the end of another year? I investigate, in this round-by-round fight.

Adele at the Brits, flippin' the bird to The Man responsible for cutting short her 2nd acceptance speech

Round 1: XL Recordings and Adele
Adele, in the wake of her two Brit wins and six Grammys this month, is turning out to be an indie label shining star: the phenomenal sales of 19 and 21 are largely responsible for independent labels amassing a 25% share in all British album sales in 2011. For a bit more number-crunching, she's had 21 top the charts for 21 weeks since its release, is now the biggest-selling artist of the (yes, short) 21st century and last week had both her albums in America's Billboard 200 top five.

In short, she’s single-handedly boosting independent record sales in both US and UK markets, shaking up what looked like a system locked down by the majors. While EMI-owned Emeli Sandé and Polydor’s Lana Del Rey may be breathing down her neck at the moment, Adele still rings in a victory for the underdog label.

Round 2: Screaming Teen Girls & X Factor

One Direction fans losing their shit trying to see the group in 2011

So how do the big guys respond? At the moment, the formula still seems to be reality TV and manufactured pop. Record labels like Simon Cowell’s Sony imprint, Syco, and Island records are refining their ability to churn out pop acts who can straddle the pop-urban mix currently dominating mainstream airwaves. It seems there’s nothing quite like managing to sell an artist to both eager tweens and older X Factor viewers to push singles to the top of the charts (see Matt Cardle, who ended 2010 atop the singles chart and seems to have done little since).

Acts like Ed Sheeran, The Wanted, One Direction and Rizzle Kicks show this (somewhat gendered) appeal at work and prove that the majors haven’t given up the ghost quite yet.

Round 3: The Indie boys, and Ministry of Sound
On the other hand, there’s still a crop of male talent on indie labels that reels in both the groupie-style listener and more of the blogosphere music fans. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, signed to 4AD, has had a pretty big year following the release of his band’s second and self-titled album. Although he didn’t leave with any Brits this year, he was nominated for two, nabbed two Grammys and had the album debut at #4 on the UK charts.

Arctic Monkeys, on Domino Records, have also flown the indie flag over the last year: album Suck It And See shifted over 220,000 units in 2011 and entered the charts at the top spot. As guitar music has recently fallen behind dance-based hip hop, it’s not a bad showing.

In dance music itself, Ministry of Sound are an indie label capitalising on the success of the hip hop-house movement. Signings like Example, Wretch 32 and current chart-topper DJ Fresh are pushing radio play and digital downloads for the company, while making the sort of music most people would expect from a Big Four imprint.

Round 4: Hopping on Hype Bandwagons

Harlem's A$AP Rocky, whose October 2011 mixtape garnered enough online hype for his signing to RCA this year

Finally, major labels are hitting back by signing rappers and singers who have already worked to garner strong online followings, but lack the cash flow to take their projects further. Acts like Lana Del Rey (Universal), A$AP Rocky (Sony/RCA), Azealia Banks (Universal) and Ed Sheeran (Warner) are prime examples. The fact that some of those names may not be huge now, but soon will be, shows the adaptability of the major label in the internet age: they know how to pinpoint and court artists who in turn benefit from the wider fan reach of a major’s marketing team.

Stumbling across a YouTube video with a million hits from an unsigned and young artist before signing them is a pretty fool-proof way to boost sales, and Lana Del Rey in particular demonstrates this model; she won a Brit Award within three and a half weeks of her album’s release. Three and a half weeks, people. Though single 'Video Games' blew up months after she originally posted it on her personal YouTube account in June 2011 (that version’s now been removed), most people only gained wind of it once she was on Polydor.

And so the battle will continue, with both label types united in their efforts to sell more music but each knowing they’re in direct competition with the other. Who do you think will come out on top?

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