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Indy Music: Fair Trade with a Beat

Indy Music: Fair Trade with a Beat

Recording artist Ani DiFranco told The Washington Post that the music business is "dehumanizing and exploitative"--and "not much different from any other big business." She sells her records through her own Buffalo-based label, Righteous Babe Records.

October 8, 2007 —

For years, music aficionados and fans have complained about the high cost of albums put out by the major music labels. For instance, CDs have remained at the relatively the same price since the mid-1980s when they first became widely available, despite the fact that the cost of making a CD has dropped. These high costs have been at the center of a battle over file-sharing, or pirating.  The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) blames file-sharing for the poor financial state of the music industry.  The association has sued everyone from schoolchildren to elderly grandmothers. (The RIAA’s image was damaged in 2005 when it subpoenaed an 83-year-old grandmother, Gertrude Walton, accusing her of swapping rock, pop and rap songs. Mrs. Walton died a number of months prior to the case).

Since the early 2000s, the RIAArepresentative of the major record labelsargues that ‘piracy’ is stealing from the industry and especially the artists. Yet, the industry has also been widely accused of unfair practices involving radio play and its exclusion of independent artists. Critics allege that the RIAA is, in effect, an organized monopoly which artificially inflates and fixes the prices. The “Big Four”EMI, Sony-BMG, Universal Music, and Warner distribute over 95 percent of all music CDs sold worldwide, and that the share of the price of an individual CD actually received by the artist is negligibe compared to the share retained by the record company as profit. 

The controversy surrounding major labels, file-sharing, and monopolistic activities have led many consumers to look to independent artists.  The indies have more control over their product and are less beholden to the major corporations that run the music industry. And though many of these artists do not sell at the big box stores (who only carry ‘guaranteed’ best sellers), this has added to their appeal among many consumers.

Traditionally, the definition of a ‘major’ record label was one that owned its own distribution channel, but since the piracy lawsuits began in the early 2000s, many people in the music industry see non-membership in the RIAA (or foreign counterparts) as a prerequisite for a label to be considered ‘independent.’  Many consumers and activists hold out hope that independent artists can save the music industry.  According to Zach Hochkeppel, director of marketing at Capitol/EMI-owned Blue Note Records, “There's a lot wrong with the record industry as a whole, and a lot of it comes from the fact that the major labels have too much power.”

The majority of artists have difficulty making a good living (and often wind up in debt) because everything from studio time to limo rides are charged against their royalties, which might be only $1 per disc sold. In comparison, some independent artists can sell a CD for $15 at a concert and if they make $5 profit a disc on 5,000 discs, they pocket $25,000.  Think of it as fair trade with a beat.

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