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An independent record label (or indie label) is a record label that operates without the funding of major record labels; they are a type of small to medium-sized enterprise, or SME. The labels and artists are often represented by trade associations in their country or region, which in turn are represented by the international trade body, the Worldwide Independent Network (WIN).
Many of the labels started as producers and distributors of specific genres of music, such as jazz music, or represent something new and non-mainstream, such as Elvis Presley in the early days. Today, music appearing on indie labels is often referred to as indie music, or more specifically by genre, such as indie hip-hop.
Independent record labels are small companies that produce and distribute records. They are not affiliated with or funded by the three major records labels. According to SoundScan and the Recording Industry Association of America, indie labels produce and distribute about 66% of music titles, but only account for 20% of sales.
The distinction between major and independent labels is not always clear. The traditional definition of a major label is a label that owns its distribution channel. Some independent labels, particularly those with successful artists, sign dual-release, or distribution only agreements with major labels. They may also rely on international licensing deals and other arrangements with major labels. Major labels sometimes fully or partially acquire independent labels.
Other nominally independent labels are started and sometimes run by artists on major labels but are still fully or partially owned by the major label. These labels are frequently referred to as vanity labels or boutique labels, and are intended to appease established artists or allow them to discover and promote newer artists.
According to the Association of Independent Music, "A 'major' is defined in AIM's constitution as a multinational company which (together with the companies in its group) has more than 5% of the world market(s) for the sale of records or music videos. The majors are currently Sony, Warner and the Universal Music Group (UMG), with EMI and BMG (RCA/Ariola International) being the other two majors that made up the 'Big 5' of the 1980s and 1990s. If a major owns 50% or more of the total shares in a company, that company would (usually) be owned or controlled by that major."
Independent labels have historically anticipated developments in popular music, beginning with the post-war period in the United States. Disputes with major labels led to a proliferation of smaller labels specializing in country, jazz, and blues. Sun Records played an important part in the development of rock 'n' roll and country music, working with artists such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich. These independent labels usually aimed their releases at a small but loyal audience. They relied less on mass sales and were able to provide artists much more opportunity for experimentation and artistic freedom.
In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the American music business changed as people began to more quickly learn the industry. Several companies set up their own recording studios, and the number of label owners began to increase. Many of these owners realized that whichever label first publishes a song is legally entitled to receive compensation for every record sold. Following the original pioneers of the music industry, many new labels were launched over the following decades by people with industry experience. During the 1980s and 1990s, many rap labels were started by artists looking for new talent.
In the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 1960s, the major labels EMI, Philips, and Decca had so much power that smaller labels struggled to establish themselves. Several British producers launched independent labels, including Joe Meek (Triumph Records), Andrew Oldham (Immediate Records), and Larry Page (Page One Records). Chrysalis Records, launched by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis, was perhaps the most successful independent label from that era. Several established artists started their own independent labels, including The Beatles' Apple Records, and The Rolling Stones' Rolling Stones Records. These labels tended to fail commercially or be acquired by the major labels.
The punk rock movement was another turning point for independent labels, the movement's do-it-yourself ethos creating an even greater proliferation of independent labels. In the United States, independent labels such as Beserkley found success with artists such as The Modern Lovers. Many of the United Kingdom labels ended up signing distribution deals with major labels to remain viable, but others retained their independence, such as Industrial Records, Factory Records, Warp, Ninja Tune, Wax On, and Blanco Music. Another factor that came to define independent labels was the method of distribution, which had to be independent of the major labels for records to be included in the UK Indie Chart.
1980s: Post-punk and Indie music
The late 1970s had seen the establishment of independent distribution companies such as Pinnacle and Spartan, providing independent labels an effective means of distribution without involving the major labels. Distribution was further improved with the establishment of 'The Cartel', an association of companies such as Rough Trade Records, Backs Records, and Red Rhino, which helped to take releases from small labels and get them into record shops nationwide.
The UK Indie Chart was first compiled in 1980. The chart was unrelated to a specific genre, and the chart featured a diverse range of music, from punk to reggae, MOR, and mainstream pop, including songs by artists like Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan on the PWL label.
Even though PWL's releases were mainly Hi-NRG-influenced disco-pop the label was independently distributed and did have a music fan (Pete Waterman) at its helm, of which the label was closely associated with. Whether indie fans dismiss Stock Aitken Waterman as cheesy pop or not, this was as true for Waterman as it was for Ivo Watts-Russell (4AD), Alan Horne (Postcard), Daniel Miller (Mute), Alan McGee (Creation) or Tony Wilson (Factory).
The UK Indie Chart became a major source of exposure for artists on independent labels, with the top ten singles regularly aired on the national television show The Chart Show. By the late 1980s, the major labels had identified an opportunity to establish new artists using the indie chart, and began setting up subsidiary labels that were financed by the major labels but distributed independently. This allowed the major labels to effectively push the indie labels out of the market, and the independent chart became less significant in the early 1990s. The term "alternative" was increasingly used to describe artists, and "indie'" was more often used to describe a broad range of guitar-based rock and pop.
The Scouting Party Index of Independent Record Labels (1986) by Norman Schreiber includes a list of over 200 independent record labels, their artists, and examples of their work.
1990s: Britpop and Alt. Rock
Rough Trade Distribution went bankrupt in 1991, causing a number of indie labels to stop trading (including Rough Trade itself and - indirectly - Factory, who had already spent a large amount of money on various projects such as their headquarters at Fac251) and others to be sold off in part to majors.
However, the indie chart was still a valuable marketing tool (especially when targeting readers of the NME, Select and various student publications), and so the Britpop-era gave rise to the idea of the 'fake indie'. The 'fake indie' would be a record label owned by a major company but whose distribution did not go through the parent company's distribution arm, going through an independent in order for those records to be eligible for the indie chart. Acts promoted this way initially included Sleeper on BMG's Indolent Records and Echobelly on Sony's Fauve Records. However, at this point its worth noting that Sony owned half of Creation Records at the time (with Alan McGee too important within the scene to be labelled a 'fake'), that Fauve Records was set up as part of a labels deal between Epic and former dance music label Rhythm King and as the bands got bigger the releases ended up going through major distribution channels like Arvato (its also worth pointing out that BMG would be seen as being one of the largest independent record companies of the 21st Century after Sony BMG was dissolved).
The Offspring's 1994 album, Smash, was as of April 2007[update] the best-selling independent record of all time. The album was certified six times platinum in the United States and sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.
2000s: Hip Hop
As the indie hip hop or underground hip hop scene began to grow, so did the attraction of creating independent labels for the genre. MF Doom's album Madvillainy sold over 150,000 copies, making it Stones Throw Records highest selling underground album.
2010s: Heritage acts and re-issues
In the 2010s, due to platforms such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud, a number of the larger indies moved away from signing unknown acts instead acquiring back catalogues and working with 'heritage acts' (for example, those popular in a pre-digital age). New independent BMG, which had been spun-out of the Sony BMG joint venture that included Arista and RCA, ended up with the catalogues of Echo, Infectious and Sanctuary (the biggest independent record label in the UK before it went bankrupt), whilst Cherry Red Records, who had a few 'heritage acts' like Hawkwind on their main label, were mainly were concerned with their re-issue labels such as 7T’s Records (1970s music), 3 Loop Music (indie music) and Cherry Pop (mainly chart pop from the 1980s)..
2020s: K-Pop, Grime and Kylie Minogue
Apart from a couple of appearances from Kylie Minogue and a few releases on XL Recordings, the Official Independent Singles Chart Top 50 would be alien to anyone who remembered the Indie chart from 1990. It is now more likely for grime, dance and K-Pop artists to be in the Top 10 than indie bands, with the chart of 20 November 2020 to 26 November 2020, having KSI and Craig David at number one with their BMG released single "Really Love", BTS at number two with "Dynamite" and AJ Tracey at number three with "West Ten". Apart from re-issues and oldies by people like the White Stripes and Arctic Monkeys, the nearest to a new indie band hit is pop guitar band McFly at number 30 with their song "Happiness", only charting after an special called "McFly: All About Us" was broadcast by ITV on November 14, 2020.
Worldwide Independent Network (WIN)
The international peak body for the indie music industry, Worldwide Independent Network, was founded in 2006. WIN is a coalition of independent music bodies from countries throughout the world.
Alison Wenham spent 17 years leading the UK's Association of Independent Music (AIM), which she launched in 1999. During this time she also helped to found WIN in 2006, remaining at WIN for twelve years, with the last two spent as CEO. As a driving force in helping indie labels being able to compete worldwide with bigger companies, Wenham featured in Billboard’s "Top Women in Music" every year since publication. She stepped down from her role at WIN in December 2018, the following year taking on a non-executive director's role at Funnel Music.
On 4 July 2008, WIN ran "Independents Day", the first annual coordinated celebration of independent music across the world, for which the Australian Independent Record Labels Association created a list of the greatest independent records of all time.
After Wenham's departure, WIN's former Director of Legal and Business Affairs, Charlie Phillips, was promoted to the leadership role, named as Chief Operating Officer. He would report directly to the recently elected Chair, Justin West, of Canadian company Secret City Records.
As of August 2019[update] other member organisations of WIN included A2IM (USA), ABMI (Brazil), ADISQ (Canada - Quebec only), AIM (UK), AMAEI (Portugal), A.S.I.A.r (Argentina), Audiocoop (Italy), BIMA (Belgium), CIMA (Canada), DUP (Denmark), FONO (Norway), HAIL (Hungary), IMCJ (Japan), IMICHILE (Chile) IMNZ (New Zealand), IMPALA (Europe), indieCo (Finland), IndieSuisse (Switzerland), Liak (Korea), P.I.L. (Israel), PMI (Italy), Runda (Balkans), SOM (Sweden), stomp (Netherlands), UFI (Spain), UPFI (France), VTMOE (Austria) and VUT (Germany).
Particularly active are the trade associations in countries and regions with well-established music markets: AIM (UK), A2IM (USA), AIR (Australia), CIMA (Canada), VUT (Germany), IMNZ (New Zealand), UFI (Spain); IMICHILE (Chile), ABMI (Brazil), and IMPALA (Europe).
In 2016, WIN's WINTEL report, an analysis of the global economic and cultural impact of the indie sector, showed the share of the global market as 37.6%. The sector generated worldwide revenues of US$5.6 billion in 2015.
21st century by country
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A 2017 report commissioned by AIR, titled AIR Share: Australian Independent Music Market Report, was the first market analysis of the industry in Australia. It showed that indie labels represented 30% of revenue generated by the Australian recorded music market, and that 57% of independent sector revenue was from Australian artists, which put the Australian sector in the Top 10 global list of mainly English-speaking indie music markets, according to then CEO of WIN (Worldwide Independent Network), Alison Wenham. (By comparison, the US indie market had a 34% share while the UK had 23%.)
The report valued the Australian recording industry as worth A$399.4 million, sixth largest music market in the world in terms of revenue and ahead of countries with higher populations such as Canada and South Korea. Digital revenue, at 44%, had overtaken that coming from physical sales, at 33%. A spokesperson from the company Unified Music Group said that governments were beginning to recognise the financial and cultural worth of a thriving music industry, but there was still a big challenge for the independents to compete with well-funded tech companies that have an anti-copyright agenda.
In 2017, Finland's indie market share had the lowest share of the total music market, at only 16%.
In 2017, Korea's indie market showed the healthiest share of the total music market, 88%.
In 2017, the UK indie market had a 23% share of the total music market.
In 2017, the US indie market had a 34% share of the total music market.
- Sun Records (US, 1950– ) was the first label to record Elvis Presley and other big names in early rock 'n roll.
- Trojan Records (UK, 1968– ); from 2001 under Sanctuary Records (now part of BMG Rights Management)
- Stiff Records (UK, 1976– ); now owned by UMG along with sister label ZTT
- Beggars Banquet (UK, 1977– ); now used for re-issues by parent company the Beggars Group
- Factory Records (UK, 1978–1992)
- Mute Records (UK, 1978– )
- Rough Trade (UK, 1978– ); now part of the Beggars Group
- 4AD (UK, 1980– ); now part of the Beggars Group 
- Dischord Records (US, 1980- ); set up in Washington DC by members of a punk band called The Teen Idles
- Flying Nun Records (New Zealand, 1981– ); founded by Roger Shepherd but owned by Warner Bros. between 1999-2010 with the label's back catalogue reissued by Captured Tracks in 2017
- Creation Records (UK, 1983-2000); sold to Sony
- Go! Discs (UK, 1983-1996); now owned by UMG. After selling Go! Discs, Andy Macdonald set up Independiente though through a distribution deal via Sony BMG.
- XL Recordings (UK, 1989– ); this indie label was originally a rave music label spun-off from Beggars' Citybeat label.
- Warp (UK, 1989– ); this indie label was originally a dance music label specialising in "Bleep"
- Heavenly Recordings (UK, 1990– ); this indie company has had distribution deals with London, Sony and EMI in the past
- Nude Records (UK, 1991– );
- Domino (UK, 1993– );
- Fierce Panda (UK, 1994– );
- Red Bull Records (US, 2007- )
These are labels dating from before the punk era, which had become 'too big' by the 1980s. Like many famous indie labels of the period 1976-1990 they are usually associated with a 'talisman figure' (usually the person who set up the label) and have strong associations with certain types of music (prog, folk, reggae etc) though by the 1980s they had become more focused on mainstream pop and had distribution deals with the majors.
- Island Records (UK, 1959– ); now owned by UMG
- Motown (US, 1959–2005, 2011– ); now owned by UMG (sold to MCA Records in 1988 and then to PolyGram in 1993. Merged into Universal Motown Records in 2005 and relaunched as a standalone label in 2011).
- A&M Records (US, 1962−1999); now owned by UMG. A&M was a very successful independent label. Founded in 1962 by trumpeter Herb Alpert (A) and record promoter Jerry Moss (M), A&M was initially the label and distributor for Alpert's own Tijuana Brass recordings, but the label quickly began signing other artists. Alpert and Moss sold A&M Records to PolyGram in 1989 with the caveat that Alpert and Moss would continue to manage the label. PolyGram was bought by Universal Music Group in 1998, and A&M folded the following year.
- Chrysalis Records (UK, 1968–2005, 2016– ); EMI-owned from 1991; recordings outside the UK owned by UMG, bulk of British recordings controlled by Blue Raincoat Music, the rest under ex-EMI label Parlophone (see also The Echo Label).
- Virgin Records (UK, 1972– ); now owned by UMG as part of EMI (see also Virgin EMI Records for more information).
- Australian Independent Record Labels Association
- Independent music
- List of Billboard 200 number-one independent albums
- List of record labels
- Open-source record label
- Terms related to "indie" at Indie (disambiguation)#Music
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