Digital music distributor Record Union has launched a campaign targeted at music-streaming services on behalf of independent artists. But it’s not demanding higher royalties or more playlist slots, but rather some way of acknowledging on their platforms when music is ‘independent’.

“We want independent music creators to have the ability to tag their music in your product – just as you tag explicit content. This would help independent music creators to stand out in a crowd full of major label backed artists and it would also help consumers to actively choose to listen to independent music,” explained its open letter to services including Spotify, Apple, Amazon and YouTube.

How such a tag would work practically isn’t clear: would users be able to use a setting to *only* be presented with independently-sourced music, in the same way that the explicit-content setting ensures they only get non-sweary music? And the definition of ‘independent’ could be tricksy too: would it apply to artists operating through distributors like The Orchard, Caroline and ADA, who are owned by the major labels? Perhaps these are discussions worth having, though.

Alongside its open letter, Record Union published the results of a survey of 1,191 artists who’ve released music through the company, asking about their careers. Among the findings: 73% saying that promotion is a big or very big obstacle to reaching their full potential as an artist, while 69% said marketing and 63% said budget. When asked who’d benefit their music career the most, 31% said a marketer or PR person. More than two thirds of respondents think that today’s streaming playlist culture ‘favours mainstream music rather than independent artists and/or niche music’ meanwhile.

That’s a debate in itself. In May, Merlin CEO Charles Caldas told us that indies were “over-indexing in streaming” partly thanks to the non-human-curated playlists like Discover Weekly and Release Radar. “You’ve got this personalised curation that looks at what you are listening to, and what you might engage with,” he said. “And from the data we’re seeing, if you put great music in front of the consumer, they don’t care if it came from the label with the biggest marketing budget. They just care that it connected to them.”

“I see these debates: that streaming playlists are about hits and only about the majors. But the most mainstream, accessible music has always gone to the top of the charts. There’s always been a head, a middle and a tail. The real difference that we see now is that while the vast majority of value used to be in the head, now that value has shifted further down the chain… Outside that RapCaviar world, you can still build a successful and lucrative business.”

Still, Record Union’s survey and open letter will continue the debate about how independent music is presented on streaming services, and just as importantly, how independent artists perceive it to be supported by those companies. And remember, some of Spotify’s recent moves – from licensing music directly from artists to launching a direct-upload tool in beta – are a challenge to the businesses of distributors. These deals and tools are another form of supporting independent artists that promises disruption ahead. It’s thus sensible for Record Union and its rivals to be closely monitoring artist attitudes towards streaming.

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Music Ally's Head of Insight

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