Independent record labels are being credited with helping the music industry. For only two weeks of the last three months of 2012, a non-independent label album topped the Billboard 200. The two records were Unapologetic by Rihanna on Def Jam and Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys on RCA. This is important because it was what sold the most during the ever-important holiday season. The albums leading the charge included Babel by Mumford and Sons on Glassnote, Night Train by Jason Aldean on Broken Bow Records, and Red by Taylor Swift on Big Machine Label Group. Also fitting the trend, the last 5 Grammy Album of the Year winners, Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Fearless by Taylor Swift, The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, 21 by Adele, and Babel, have all been independent label releases.
But how independent are these releases? How do a small band like Mumford & Sons and an indie label like Glassnote get so big they are industry darlings? The truth is they get there with the support network major label releases get. Most independent labels have a distribution deal with one of three distribution companies owned by a major label. The most prominent one is RED Distribution, owned by Sony Music. The company began its start in 1979 distributing hard rock records as Important Record Distributors. IRD then formed a label called Relativity that became one of heavy metal’s biggest labels. In 1990, new management arrived and skewed the label toward hip-hop. Sony also acquired 50% of the company at this point, laying the groundwork for it’s current position. The company was renamed Relativity Entertainment Distribution as well. The company then began to acquire more labels for distribution in the 1990s. Sony took over full control in 2007. Following the success of RED, Warner Music Group founded its own distribution in 1993, called Alternative Distribution Alliance. Universal Music also has a distribution arm but it is not as large or successful as the previous two.
Now, some might say that the majors having a hand in independent music be a bad idea but so far, it was worked perfectly. The independent labels and the artists they work with continue to do the work they desire. They in turn take their product to these distribution arms that do the hard work of promoting and marketing he album. They also take out a lot of legwork of manufacturing and getting physical copies to stores. This is why Taylor Swift may be an independent artist but can have her record be a Target exclusive and have billboard everywhere. I think it’s a fabulous idea in an era where the bottom line has become too important a force in how records are made and artists are selected. It allows indie labels to take a chance because less overhead is needed to launch their career. Without, I think many of the current trends in music, such as New Folk, crooner Frank Ocean and the Odd Future collective, and indie bands such as Arcade Fire and The Black Keys wouldn’t have the outreach to breakthrough.