With technology as advanced as it is today, it is both easier and harder than ever to get your voice heard around the world. It’s easier, because a whole recording studio is now condensed in a smartphone app, social networks have long overcome all degrees of separation and YouTube produces global hits overnight. It is also extremely hard, because competition increases even more quickly than the audience’s attention span shrinks.
Independent labels are nothing new, but, starting in the 1990s, the rise of affordable technology gave them a serious boost, while big names found it much harder to get in line with the changing consumer habits. With their significantly leaner administration and faster decision-making, indie labels seem better equipped to adapt to the new markets, even if they have less resources. Yet, there are artists, who think all the available tools for self-production and self-promotion are making smaller, less connected labels obsolete.
The labels: we make it easier for artists to focus on their art
Label representatives, however, believe that they still have an important role in the market. “Our label is a curator, following the 360 model,” says Ilias Dahimène, founder of Austria-based Seayou Records. The label was founded in 2006 and incorporated in 2008 with funding from the Vienna Business Agency’s Departure (15.000 euros) and other public institutions.
Seayou Records is not a label focused on just one musical style. Instead its portfolio numbers over 20 artists and ranges from hip hop to indie rock and more experimental sounds. “This has advantages and disadvantages,” admits Ilias. “The clear advantage is that you’re not dependent on trends, the disadvantage that you may not have a clear brand.” So far, this seems to work in Austria, where the label has been profitable from the start. Partly, this is due to the fact that Seayou Records operates in a very lean way – all the work is being done by Ilias and one other employee.
Photo credit: Seayou RecordsAnd it is extensive work: “We invest in artists or bands and publish, promote, license and distribute their music. We also do booking and minor management jobs for the artists by organising concerts and events,” he says.
Elena Peneva works in PR for the Bulgarian label Fusion Embassy and is also in favour of the 360 model. She believes that her team takes the burden of the admin work away, leaving the musicians to focus on their art: “The result of all [our efforts] is that not only the artists are managed, booked and promoted, but the Bulgarian music, country, heritage and present cultural realities are promoted abroad. So I would say what we do is a very small but important contribution.” What’s more, the label is organising the fastest growing music trade fair on the Balkans – MusicPRO: Meet the Balkan Soul.
Unlike Seayou, Fusion Embassy is quite the team effort, with four people at the core: Tim Gubel (co-ordinator & international bookings), Alexis Kolarov (Production Manager & Bulgarian Bookings), Julia Dencheva (Partner Account) and Elena. There are many other enthusiasts at hand to help – some in a more official manner, others as volunteers. “We are a venture of professional enthusiasts, who love what they do and know exactly why they are doing it,” says Elena.
Elena is of the opinion that the key for a working music industry on the Balkans is communication. “This is why we started MusicPRO,” she says. “If we were only focused on making money, we would have been in another field. It is more about the mission of communication and promotion of the rich musical landscape of the region first. If this succeeds, the money and interest from outside will come.”
Keeping abreast of a changing market
While the two labels may seem to be structured quite differently, they both try to make the best of the rise in new technologies and employ personal experience in understanding their clients.
Elena Peneva on stage with her band Photo credit: Vladislav HristovThere are, no doubt, many opportunities in the digital age: “It has become easier for indie labels like us now if you compare it to the 90s,” says Ilias. “The indie sector has doubled from 12 to 25% over the last years. I think the reason for this is because with the rise of the internet, the relevance of gatekeepers in TV and print media has declined. The final bastion is radio. But the music industry has become more democratic and we benefit from that.” He also comments on the relevance of labels in light of YouTube and Myspace, where artists can become big on their own: “I think the brand identity of labels has become a little less important. But still, the major artist marketing is done by labels, so that hasn’t changed.”
Elena agrees and comments on the need to explore new communication channels in reaching out to the audience: “we put out the album of Oratnitza [one of the label’s flagship clients] for free download in the biggest torrent tracker in Bulgaria – Zamunda.net, the third most visited website after Google and Facebook. Sales of CDs at concerts and donations immediately went up. The world is changing – even Madonna is releasing her next album on BitTorrent Bundle. We do our best to keep up.”
Ilias has been part of the music scene for almost two decades, playing and touring with bands from the age of 14. He still sings and plays with rock ‘n’ roll band Vortex Rex so it is not so hard to imagine himself in the shoes of his clients.
Having represented five different indie labels in Bulgaria, and toying with the idea for a while, Elena recently joined the band La Text, making her appreciate the work that labels doeven more: “My band is a small innovative underground niche band. And it would be so easy to delegate to someone else all the everyday efforts and activities – self-management, strategy and tactics, booking, producing, rehearsals, videos, recordings, digital and social media promotion, PR, and the like.”
The musician: I want my artistic freedom, but some help with the merchandise would benice
Boyan “Hellbobz” Genov has been the frontman of Bulgarian band Fyeld for over 15 years. In that time, the band, whose self-described style is dirty grooves, has lived through a three-year hiatus and published two albums – one with a label and one without. They are currently working on their third album, again, choosing to do it on their own. Interestingly, he believes the money is in an area that seems to be somewhat overlooked by indie labels, namely merchandise. “It is where we see the biggest return on investment,” says Boyan. “In an age where tons of music is available for free, we cannot afford to sell our CDs for more than 2-4 euros a piece. Although each CD costs us about 1,25 euros to produce, the profit isn’t that big and we couldn’t survive on CD sales and live appearances alone.” This is where merchandise comes in. “You can do more with it… to date, we’ve seen the biggest profit margin, about 50-60% or about 2-3 euros each, from the sales of baseball caps, T-shirts, hoodies, and the like.”
Boyan Genov in Fyeld’s upcoming video Photo credit: FyeldFyeld’s frontman explains that, in lieu of a label, the studio recording costs for about two-thirds of the tracks in their upcoming album were paid for by merchandise sales and live gigs. The band also turned to some unusual sources of funding, roping in friends and like-minded people. Their song All Stars Ablaze, featuring one of the staples of the Bulgarian punk rock scene – Millena, was funded by the National Commission for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, while another song, G.O.D, was sponsored by a local team filming a movie about gamers.
Logically, the question pops out: why not work with a label? Unlike Elena, he is not convinced that labels give artists enough independence: “First and foremost, we want to keep our artistic freedom,” he says, “and while a label can give you a lot of opportunities that would take a long time to achieve on your own, there is never complete artistic freedom with a label.” The band published their first album with the help of Joker Media, but they parted ways years ago and the band has gradually thrown more and more personal efforts in their work since. “Our first album was completely produced through a label, for the second one Stain Studio covered the recording fee but we needed to pay for publishing (750 euros), while the third is completely out of pocket (1.500 euros to date for studio recording expenses alone),” says Boyan. He admits, however, that working with a label again would be nice, except he has a different type of label in mind: “after years in the business, we know a lot about recording, distribution, and how to kill it at a concert. What we really need help with, is the merchandise. We would love to be able to work with a designer, someone who knows the materials, follows the trends, and has the ideas and connections to take our merchandise to the next level. Sadly, there isn’t a label like that in Bulgaria”.
Boyan’s advice to those willing to make it alone is an advice he wishes his band had followed years ago: “Never forget that this is a business. Start your band the way you’d start a company. And realise quickly that no matter how much you think your music means to people, you are an entertainer and once on stage, you need to focus on giving them a show.”