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Thriving on Chaos. Indie Music 2006
by Mike Grebb.

This article first appeared in The Musician's Atlas' December 2005 Atlas Plugged Newsletter and is used by permission. The Musician's Atlas is a fantastic resource for musicians, containing over 30,000 music business contacts.

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Okay, kids. It’s that time of the year again! With 2006 breathing down our necks and the music industry in its continued state of turmoil and uncertainty, it’s time for us to make some predictions about what the New Year will bring.

I contacted a few industry luminaries who confirmed some of my own suspicions and, in many cases, pointed out growing trends that I hadn't considered. In the end, no one can say for sure where all of this is going. The music industry remains in flux because of changing business models, morphing modes of distribution, technology and the general sense that "we haven’t figured it all out yet."

But one thing is true: Music creation and distribution is on a tear. More artists than ever are creating tracks and making them available to the world. The filters that used to limit the global musical menu have eroded to a point that the old gatekeepers are simply powerless to contain it.

In my quest for soothsaying wisdom, I called Don Rose, president of a brand new organization, the American Association of Independent Music, a coalition of independent music labels charged with making sure that they continue to gain fair access to the larger music business. As a co-founder of legendary Boston-based indie label Rykodisc, Rose is an indie guru of sorts and reminded me of something important when I asked about all the uncertainty out there. "When the industry is in flux and new technologies are driving new economic models, that’s great for the independent community," he says. "We thrive on chaos."

According to Rose, indies will become even stronger in 2006 as they continue to harness new distribution methods and technologies and take advantage of the growing opportunity of music licensing. "It used to be that music supervisors wanted to license hits," says Rose. "Now it’s become the norm that what they’re looking for is freshness. They don’t want the hits." As ironic as it sounds, indie music is already starting to go mainstream and that trend will continue next year. "We have an opportunity to brand indie music as something that’s almost fresher than major-label music."

One challenge, however, is making sure that new music power brokers such as the wireless phone companies include indie content when they sell ring tones and song downloads to their customers. Meanwhile, Rose says the recent move by Warner Music to start its "Cordless Records" digital-only label should inspire more indies to do the same, noting that releasing songs in "clusters" could help bring back artist development, which has gone out of fashion in recent years.

I also contacted Wendy Harman of Future of Music Coalition, (I figured I couldn’t go wrong, considering that the word "future" is in their name) a great organization that lobbies for musicians and artists in Washington D.C. Harman says that in 2006 indie musicians will need to deftly navigate the "now legitimate do-it-yourself landscape" while also tracking larger issues such as Congressional action on payola, the digital TV transition, rewrites of major laws like the 1996 Telecommunications Act and media ownership (If you’re unfamiliar with some of these topics, you can find out more at the FMC web site). As for the coming year, the FMC staff came up with the following list of "hot trends":

  • Content (music, news and video) will be time-shirted more than ever.
  • The struggle over who controls the Internet will continue. FMC will work for network neutrality so musicians and fans can access each other fairly and easily.
  • Major record labels will continue to lose their once almighty power as new technologies will allow indie labels and independent musicians avenues for do-it-yourself distribution, promotion and licensing.  
  • Mainstream culture will become sick of being mainstream. Large corporations will look to obscure podcasts, blogs and MySpace pages for branding and licensing deals.
  • Hardly anyone will like digital rights management that encroaches on fair-use rights.

And for an even broader perspective on the future, I contacted David Kusek, the co-author of "The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution." If you haven’t read his book, you should pick it up. Top of Kusek’s list was the continued movement toward direct customer relationships, and continued rise of niche labels that satiate very specific listener desires. "Mass-market labels are a thing of the past," he says. "Niche marketing is everything. Identify your audience and talk with them." He believes the next year and beyond will bring even more integration of music marketing efforts "around the opportunities for the artist"—whether those involve recordings, performances, merchandising, publishing or related activities. Kusek also has some controversial advice for artists interested in future-proofing themselves in 2006. "Post all of your music on all the major file sharing networks," he says. "Obscurity is death."

So what are my predictions? First of all, I expect the artist-manager-label relationship to continue to change significantly next year, with labels taking on far more managerial responsibilities. So far, this has happened primarily at the major-label level, but there’s no reason why this can’t happen more often at the indie level as well.

Secondly, I think 2006 will be the year that digital distribution really comes into its own. Sites like iTunes, Yahoo! Music, Musicmatch and others are already a huge force in the game, but it seems like every day there’s a new site popping up with unique ways to access music (If you don’t believe me, check out CD Baby’s ever-expanding list).

I also expect more song "rental" services in 2006. So far, this has been a niche market plagued by somewhat buggy and intrusive Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes. But that’s already changing. In fact, I’ll even go out on a limb and predict that most of the major download sites—including iTunes—will eventually give users the option to pay a flat monthly rate to access unlimited music rather than pay song by song (similarly to Yahoo! Music, Musicmatch and the new Napster). That may not happen in 2006, but it will happen eventually.

My third prediction is that podcasting—both audio and video versions—will grow to record levels in 2006. But as happened with the blogging craze of the last couple of years, that growth will taper off considerably and even shrink after the novelty wears off. In fact, I think the real growth for podcasting going forward will be among established artists and other celebrities trying to reconnect with fans. The commercialization of podcasting is already happening, and the trend toward corporate sponsorship and advertising will explode in 2006. In the same way, sites such as MySpace.com will increasingly stray from their indie roots—creating yet another platform for major labels to promote big acts. However, MySpace will remain a great place for indie bands to find new fans as well.

At the end of the day, none of us really know what’s going to happen in 2006. We can only speculate. But at least so far, the public’s demand for absolute control and flexibility over music will continue. And that can only be good for everybody who creates, markets, distributes or compiles music in new and interesting ways. So have a great holiday, and let’s all look forward to a wonderful New Year in which great music reigns supreme!


(Mike Grebb is a writer, journalist and singer/songwriter based in Washington, D.C. He just completed his debut solo record, Resolution, which is available at www.mikegrebb.com, as well as digitally on iTunes, MSN Music, Musicmatch, Yahoo! Music Unlimited and other sites. You can also be his friend on MySpace! www.myspace.com/mikegrebb).

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