The Indie Facts of Life

Last week’s article “Appraising The Strategic Value of Airplay For Indie Artists,” featuring Tom Baldrica, generated a number of heated responses. One person who has been connected with Indie careers and was especially passionate about the challenges outlined in the article had a lot to say, but wished to do so anonymously. We agreed, let’s call him Mr. X.

Baldrica cautioned, “You’re out of your mind to play the national chart game as an independent.” Mr. X agrees. “Baldrica sure pulled the curtains back on this subject. The country music economy is probably a Top 15 or Top 10 marketplace. When you get to those numbers you might start to see sales. It goes back to something I heard Joe Galante say on some panel a while ago. Talking to an artist he said, ‘I can take you to the audience, but I can’t make the audience take you.’ I can’t think of a better line to describe what happens. Between nowhere and No. 25 there’s not a lot of difference on the monitored chart. I’ve had promoters get us to No. 45 and say ‘congratulations.’ But realistically, congratulations on what? The record wasn’t played in morning drive or mid-day, in fact it was completely invisible. So tons of money later there’s little to show.”

But Mr. X is a bit stoic about the fight to break an indie artist. “You know what? Knowing the chart facts of life isn’t likely to keep most people from doing anything any differently,” X says. “The allure of the Nashville dream is so bright and blinding, you could write this article and pin it on every door in America, but there still will be another crop of people coming to Nashville saying, ‘I’m different. It only applies to all those people that weren’t good enough’.”

In last week’s article Baldrica also suggested that independents might be better served working toward a regional approach. But Mr. X takes exception to this idea. “The problem is while it sounds good to build a story regionally, it’s actually used against you and it then becomes impossible to break out nationally. For example great acts that were branded regional such as Jack Ingram, Pat Green and Cross Canadian Ragweed. This is a major label game and that’s a fact. As an industry we need to admit it’s far more label focused than artist, or song focused. If it was based on the song, then you would have more acts in the Top 20 actually selling records. The inherent monopoly of the majors makes it easy for them to chart a Top 20, even if it has almost no relation to audience acceptance. Miranda Lambert sold over a million units before she ever had a Top 15, which means the chart didn’t reflect her audience acceptance. While the chart does launch more careers than any other vehicle, the monopoly of the majors allows for a lot of misses, too.”

And indies also get shut out of a lot of exposure opportunities according to Mr. X. “The majors dug this pond and we’re just asking to fish in it. But they own the fishing rights and as an independent you are relegated to the corners of the pond. Rarely, you might pull in a big fish, but mostly you are just net casting for minnows. We’re trying to say, ‘Our music is good enough to be a part of the system,’ but it’s not our pond. You can’t believe the leverage the majors have. Opportunities for valuable added exposure from vehicles such as Award shows or duets with artists on major labels, for example, are completely shut out for us. I don’t want to sound bitter, but these are just the facts. If there is any frustration in my voice it is the romance they put around a great song, and not near enough emphasis on the leverage of the label which is the reality of the actual forces needed to get to the starting line.”

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David M. Ross has been covering Nashville's music industry for over 25 years. [email protected]

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