Internationalising Indies: advice for labels going global


According to indie licensing agency Merlin, 40% of its member labels now make more money outside their home territory than inside it, compared to 16% in the industry’s purely-physical days.

At the recent NY:LON Connect conference, Merlin boss Charles Caldas hailed the “truly global audience” for independent music. “Your accessibility to fans is no longer limited to marketing within your immediate environment.”

At AIM’s Indie-Con conference in London today, a panel of labels talked about the implications, as well as providing their tips for making the most of this global market.

The panel included Matthew Rogers from Unified in Australia; Merida Sussex from Stolen Recordings in the UK; Jeffrey Chiang from Fluxus Music in South Korea; Justin West from Secret City Records in Canada; Carlos Mills from Mills Records and ABMI in Brazil; and Elli Delsart from Nowadays Records in France. The moderator was WIN boss Alison Wenham.

West kicked off. “There was a day where if you got distribution in a foreign territory, it meant a lot. That was the goal,” he said. “Today it’s quite the opposite. Distribution is easy to get. You can have access to global markets on digital platforms.. but being able to cut through the noise now and be heard everywhere is quite difficult.”

He added that there are many different approaches to achieving that, from licensing music to local partners, to sending the core team of a label travelling to markets to up the company’s profile.

Chiang said that in South Korea, working with a local partner is much more effective, although for a label that knows its niche and has done its research “you can definitely take steps to attack that market on your own”.

How do labels find the right people? “That’s the most crucial thing,” said Sussex. “For us, everything we’ve tried has been about trying to find the thoroughfares that work for us… and when you find that throughway that’s worked with you, with the people that you trust, you know you can flow something else through that channel next time without worrying about it… Travelling to the territory is essential to find the person who understands you, who works with you and knows their territory.”

Rogers said labels have to realise that “contrary to popular belief, you’re not the centre of the universe: you have to get out of your country” to build a global business. He and Sussex both mentioned the need to find “kindred spirits” in countries around the world: a matching mindset, as well as the professional skills required.

What about labels that don’t have much of a travel budget, but still want to find partners and reach fans elsewhere in the world?

“Then you just have to consolidate on the territory you know. Work on what you have and hope it reaches out,” says Sussex, telling the tale of how Stolen Recordings secured a sync deal with a prominent movie producer, simply because he discovered and loved some music they had put out. “There’s no right or wrong here,” added Wenham. “These people are gold dust for you.”

West talked about Secret City Records’ experience licensing music out to labels elsewhere in the world, partly to ensure its artists got reasonable distribution. “And also the learning that we can gain from licensing to a third party and then working with them in their markets… We learned a lot about the UK and a lot of the European markets with our first record that we licensed 10 years ago, and then slowly did some things ourselves… And now we don’t do any licensing.”

“You have to do the right thing by your artist,” agreed Sussex, although she said one of her best learning experiences was going to Japan and working with partners there, rather than simply licensing to them. “It was fascinating.”

The panel was asked about relationships with the editorial teams within streaming services around the world. “One of the reasons I went to South America was so I could meet the Deezer team,” said Rogers. “Now we can start building a relationship with them. I don’t flood them with tracks.” The same thing goes for Spotify. “We tend to focus our attention on the bigger global playlists to build relationships with those people, and then we rely on our digital distribution partner to service all of the territorial playlists.”

Delsart said her label works with a digital distributor, but is now working hard to establish similarly-direct relationships with curators at Spotify and other streaming services.

Sussex talked about the solidity of Stolen Recordings’ back catalogue now, and how that helps establish relationships with digital services. “I remember a few years ago with iTunes, we had to have a certain amount of things to get a meeting with them, and we had to bring cupcakes I remember! But now that is much easier,” she said. “But cupcakes are good!” added Wenham.

The conversation turned to Brazil, Mills’ homeland. “Brazil and music is very well evaluated worldwide, so we have a lot of potential to export, just as the British music, the American music and the Cuban music as well,” he said. “We have a huge market inside Brazil, but we have a lot of potential to exploit our music… But there are a lot of difficulties for a small label, and I don’t see how to do it without travelling and knowing your partners.”

Chiang talked about South Korea. “Everyone’s goal is to be worldwide. You want to share your artist’s music with as many people as are willing to listen to it… it does have a saturation where it’s spread out too thin. On one hand it’s really good to try and be worldwide and global, but you should be a little bit cautionary not to eat too much and implode.”

He added that for Korean music, its second biggest region is Mexico, Brazil and Latin America more generally, despite the language barriers. “The main issue is South America and that region, from Asia is quite far, so how can you be effective. Is touring going to be effective, and can you support the cost of that?”

Merida Sussex

Delsart talked about the success of Christine and the Queens in 2016 as proof that artists can break out of non English-speaking markets, meanwhile.

The panel were asked about labels’ responsibilities regarding collecting societies and performance rights around the world. “The bad news is there’s nine collecting societies alone in Brazil,” said Wenham. “The best thing to do is use your local partners and work it out. There’s no simple answer to that.”

“In general the streaming services handle the mechanicals and the performances side,” added West. “And in general, for downloads too, apart from in the US.”

The panel also talked about data coming out of digital services. “If somebody is not letting you access that data, they’re gatekeeping. So it’s up to you to negotiate access to it. And it’s key,” said Wenham. She warned labels against “becoming completely hooked on the data” rather than using their experience and gut instincts to influence their strategy. “You start to go down this potentially pointless investigation! But with caution, there are all sorts of trend analyses that can help you.”

How do labels set about evaluating a new partner in an overseas territory, if they’re another small, independent label without necessarily having many references to offer in evidence of their suitability?

Wenham suggested that trade associations like WIN could do more to help on this score. “It’s like you’re passing your children on to somebody you don’t know!” she said. “Obviously word of mouth is the main one,” added Sussex. “We have tried to have a policy of ‘have a go’, but it’s that cultural exchange that’s difficult initially, if you don’t have the chance to go there a lot… It’s instinct I think.”

Keep asking questions. If you’re not sure, don’t jump,” said Wenham. “Somebody out there probably does know something… I think it is less scary than it was before the digital markets opened up… when if you didn’t get paid, it would probably take you down.” In her label days, Wenham once pulled out of the US when she was unconvinced of the financial sustainability of a partner, despite worrying how she’d explain this decision to her artists. Her instincts were correct: the partner went out of business.

“We hold back more than let go. We’re control freaks! We say no to things more than we say yes, because we want to maintain control and not let things get cocked up,” said Rogers. “No one has as much passion about your artists as you do. We don’t get the same service if we license stuff, when we did used to license stuff, with the same passion for our artists as we did. We prefer to just do it.”

The conversation moved on. Sussex would like to see a “truly global chart” of what’s being streamed, factoring in markets like India and China as well as the big western territories. Wenham noted that in South Korea, the market is 88% independent – even if some of those indies are enormous corporations in their own right.

“In Korea, there are its own domestic majors,” said Chiang. “It’s simply the usage of their own tools. Everyone here might Google something, but we Naver something. A lot of people here use Spotify, but Spotify is not available in Korea so people use MelOn. There are a lot of tools that fit within our own ecosystem, so we are able to maintain our own music industry without needing funding or for companies getting bought out.”

Wenham brought the session to a close by stressing the need for the global indie community to work together. “Everybody is here to help, even if they’re a competitor. They might be after the same band as you, but there is a mutuality, a support network,” she said. Key pillars also include: the importance of research; the ability to be flexible; and leveraging those relationships beyond a home market.

“You’ve also got the right to say no. Don’t be desperate, be sure,” said Wenham. “And the dreaded c-word, which is a contract. Write it down. What do you expect, what do they expect? There’s nothing wrong with putting a piece of paper in place which sets out the expectations.”

Stuart Dredge

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