Independence Days: Can Australia’s indie music industry survive in 2018?

For nearly 20 years the music industry has been buffeted by change, digital disruption and, for some, opportunity. Artists and fans are more empowered than ever, but is anybody actually breaking even? As music industry figures descend on Adelaide for Indie-Con’s second year, keynote speaker Molly Neuman and Chapter Music co-founder Guy Blackman offer cause for optimism.

It’s been a challenging decade for the independent and artist-run labels of Australia. The spectacular bursting of the Great Australian Music Festival Bubble and a shrinking music media has left a handful of influential players – promoters, national youth broadcasters – as gatekeepers to mainstream audiences and commercial viability. Meanwhile the rise of Apple Music and Spotify may have helped turn audiences away from piracy, but, for many, streaming royalties are pale substitutes for the incomes decimated by torrents.

“In the past, if 1000 people wanted to listen to your music whenever they felt like it, you would basically sell 1000 copies of a record, and get paid a few dollars per sale,” Blackman says. “Nowadays 1000 people can stream your music whenever they want, and you might only get a few cents. To [make money] you pretty much have to make music that, even if it means something to you, is palatable enough to work as musical wallpaper for casual listeners, people who just put a playlist on in the background while they do other things.”

Guy Blackman (photo: supplied.)

But for labels that have been smart or lucky enough to adapt, the new playing field holds as many opportunities as challenges. “Most labels have had to adjust their planning pre- and post-release to the new marketplace and as we’ll be discussing at Indie-Con, many have with great success,” Indie-Con keynote speaker Molly Neuman explains. A key figure in the ‘90s Riot Grrl movement and co-founder of influential label Lookout! Records, Neuman’s career now sees her support artists find innovative new ways to make a crust through stints at Kickstarter and global digital rights managers Songtrust. “The margins are different than they were in the ‘90s but the companies that have weathered the changes have largely done so to arrive at a better, healthier place.”

Neuman’s work as Kickstarter’s first head of music is one example of how digital platforms have bucked the status quo, essentially reversing the traditional ‘make the record, then recoup the costs through sales’ model. Nearly a decade on, crowdfunding has made the all-important start up capital once provided by a label less essential, empowering artists in new ways. “My experience at Kickstarter showed me the power of creative projects to be supported by a community,” Neuman says. “For some artists, it’s an incredible platform creating even more autonomy and self-determination than has ever existed.”

It still means a lot of hard work for artists who now juggle ever-diversified income streams while also finding time to record personalised thank you videos for the 116 fans who kicked $110 or more to their crowdfunding campaign. Even independent labels now often find themselves running their own festivals and touring projects to keep the community alive – and the money coming in.

“There’s definitely a sense that you can’t just wear one hat anymore,” Blackman says. “You can look at the branching out of indie labels into other parts of the music world as just another example of the independent ethos at work. It’s next to impossible to pay the rent just running an independent label, especially if you’re focusing on music that takes any kind of chances, but if you’re committed to doing it yourself then you’ll find other things you can do to keep the wolf from the door.”

“The adjustment all stakeholders have had to make to the new economy requires more vigilance and responsibility with the various income streams,” Neuman says. “It’s more important than ever to make sure you’re collecting everything being earned and planning responsibly around that.”

Molly Neuman (photo: supplied.)

It also means independent labels are more willing than ever to collaborate and share resources with their fellow travellers. “So much money has drained out of the music industry as a whole, that for the most part all the assholes have left,” says Blackman, whose label Chapter Music recently celebrated a quarter century. “It’s only people who are really passionate about music who are still involved – so we enjoy helping each other out!”

It can be seen in projects like the Split Singles mail order club, a popular initiative started by Courtney Barnett’s self-owned label Milk! Records and Brisbane DIY label Bedroom Suck. After a successful 12 months of pairing artists from their rosters the baton has now been passed to fellow labels Poison City Records and Our Golden Friend. Or in the work of festival-headlining acts like Nina Las Vegas and Violent Soho, who have now established their own label imprints NLV Records and Domestic La La to give a platform to emerging acts like Adelaide’s own Strict Face and West Thebarton.

As for the future? Just as streaming has given a competitive edge to music that can fade into the background, Blackman suspects another mini-revolution is on the way. “I’m not exactly sure how it’s going to happen, but I know music is going to have to become a lot less tied to screens in the next few years,” he says. “All these voice activated Alexa or Google devices will do away with the visual playlist, the way most people choose what to listen to currently. How to get your music heard when people don’t get to see even your song titles or cover art is going to be one of the next exciting new challenges!”

But one thing is certain: there will still be people like Blackman and Neuman trying to figure out how to help the musicians they love find an audience. And, hopefully, a pay cheque, too.

Indie-Con Australia
T
he Hindley
Thursday, July 26 to Friday, July 27
air.org.au/indie-con-australia

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.