'Indie' Record Labels Say Big Firms Stifle Industry

By | November 19, 2004 at 12:00 AM

London – When the curtain went up on MTV’s Europe Awards in Rome on Thursday, only one of the performers was signed to an independent record label.

And at European pop music’s annual showcase event where fans vote for their favorites either online or by mobile phone, not only were the majority of acts from the United States, but all major prizes went to Americans.

The independent record industry says the business has been taken over by four mega-companies that are helping to entrench American cultural “hegemony” across the music world.

“The record business is stacked in favor of the big company and, more crucially, in favor of American artists,” said Lohan Presencer, managing director of Ministry of Sound Recordings, an independent label specializing in dance music.

Looking at the newly released British charts in his London offices this week, the first independent label record on the albums chart came in at number 31. In terms of airplay on British radio, the first independent act was at number 17.

Presencer and others say the main problem for smaller record companies, seen as crucial to launching experimental artists, is getting access to shelf space in major retailers, to airwaves and television screens.

“The majors have such a grip that if they wanted to, they could really block us getting on to the radio and media and into retailers,” said Harry Martin of Domino Records, which has hit Scottish band Franz Ferdinand on its books. The band was the single independent act to be playing at MTV’s main show in Rome.

The Association of Independent Music (AIM) says the situation for small labels worsened after the merger between Japan’s Sony Corp and Germany’s Bertelsmann was approved this year, reducing the number of majors to four.

Between them, Sony BMG, Vivendi’s Universal Music, EMI Group and Warner Music account for three out of every four records sold worldwide, according to industry figures.

“MINNOW AGAINST GIANT”

Independent European labels plan to appeal a decision by antitrust regulators allowing the merger.

“The consolidation of the industry is not a good servant of choice and access,” said AIM head Alison Wenham.

“Access through market power has become the biggest obstacle to the independent labels.”

Record giants counter that there is room for everyone.

“The reality is that when they have the right music and artists, independent labels are able to be as successful as anyone,” said a spokesman for Universal Music International.

But the majors admit life has got harder for the “indies.”

“In the last 10 to 15 years the mid-sized indies have found it harder to prosper,” said an executive at a major company who asked not to be named. “Largely it is to do with the cost of doing business in the music industry.”

Independent labels say they cannot go global with an act unless they are in partnership with one of the big four.

“The majors and the independents can work together, and I think they need each other,” said Domino’s Martin.

The smaller players are also looking to tap the growing internet download market, but complain that major services such as iTunes, owned by Apple Computers, are ignoring them.

“I am a minnow negotiating with a giant,” said Presencer. “It has not been a priority with those companies to get the independents. Potentially the new technology will give us more of a voice, but we still need to be able to market those acts.”

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