Last year, in 2022, independent record labels grew faster than major labels and make up 34.6% of all market share.
Indie record labels have long had a dominating influence in music and slowly but surely, it continues to grow.
While 34.6% may seem small, this is largely positive news for independent record labels that are truly independent as well as those operated by major artists. Though major labels still own and oversee the distribution of most talent and album releases, many independent labels have been able to build product on their own accord and deliver their vision however they see fit.
How Does An Independent Record Label Get Distribution?
While independent record labels are artist-owned or truly independent in ownership, they are still highly vulnerable to the distribution network that the major labels have created. To get distribution, a deal is often struck between indie record labels and major labels.
As of 2022, approximately 86 percent of all independently-distributed labels generate their sales via major label distribution.
This leaves only 14 percent of independent record labels that some would define as the only ‘true independents.’ It’s hard to say whether this is a badge of honor or not, however. Distribution is key but incredibly tough to obtain without the involvement of a major label partner.
Major labels have a stranglehold on distribution even though the ownership of labels appears to be going the way of independent ownership.
Who Are The Biggest Record Labels In The Music Industry?
The Big Three record companies are Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group.
Years ago, there were many more big record labels but slowly over time, they got bought out. The 1980s and 1990s saw dozens of record labels get purchased by what would become these four. These four corporations essentially control record distribution in North America and hold significant influence internationally.
Who Are The Best Indie Record Labels?
- XL Recordings is a UK-based independent label that has worked extensively with Adele, FKA Twigs, M.I.A., Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, The xx, and Basement Jaxx.
- Brainfeeder is an L.A.-based EDM and instrumental hip-hop record label with acts like Thundercat, The Underachievers, Lapalux, Daedelus, The Gaslamp Killer, and more.
- Ninja Tune has helped release music from a wide variety of artists including Bonobo, Kelis, Lee Bannon, The Cinematic Orchestra, Helena Hauff, and more.
- Epitaph Records is a label that is directly connected with a mix of underground indie record labels, from Hellcat Records to ANTI-, Burning Heart Records, and Heart & Skull Records, specializing in punk, alternative rock, and post-hardcore.
- Rough Trade Records has long been a post-punk and indie pop darling label dating back to the late 1970s. They have helped popularize the Smiths, Sleaford Mods, Dead Blunt, and others.
- Warp is the home of some influential acts like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada, Flying Lotus, and others.
- Jagjaguwar is based out of Indiana and has helped spearhead artists like Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten, and Julie Doiron.
- Domino is an indie label that has been gunning it since the 1990s with acts like Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, The Kills, Wet Leg, and more.
As you’ll find with a lot of independent labels, there are some that have been around since the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In terms of real music culture, so much of it has come out of these smaller, indie-run companies. They have much less overhead and arguably a lot more passion than the majors who are focusing more on maximum profits.
How Does An Indie Record Label Develop An Artist?
In terms of artist development, an independent label can develop artists, building their rosters while eventually seeking out major label distribution deals when these artists are ready to capitalize on a major release.
There are many artists that have grown out of this system, garnering mass plays on YouTube views and streaming services like Spotify, and making an impact in niches of the consumer base. The ‘negative’ of this system, however, is that the major labels are still controlling the distribution, controlling essentially the product that gets out and the product that doesn’t.
As an artist, the future will likely be about building enough value into their brand so that it would be impossible to deny them distribution.
If Drake, one of the world’s biggest-selling musical artists, were to suddenly drop all label associations, there is such a large amount of value to his name that the majors would come flocking to sign a distribution with him.
Moving this on a smaller scale, if as an artist, you can build stream numbers, social media followers, and essentially deliver the metrics that show that there are people listening and that you have an audience, you should not have any issues securing major label distribution.
Why Signing With An Independent Label Is Smart For Any Musical Artist
The time and money to build followers has to come from somewhere. That is where independent record labels come into play.
As an artist, no matter what one may think, you need a team around you to support you financially and artistically. An independent record label is going to be able to fight for you. They’re going to be able to fund your artistic development to the point where you have a team of experienced marketers and creators at your side.
Indie record labels are going to have an even larger role to play in artist development in the years ahead. This new two-tier system – indie labels for artists and major labels for distribution – has the potential to build the first generation of truly independent artists.