Dig That Groove: How Streaming Affects Independent Labels in Bloomington
Hipster fans bop their heads up and down in a small, dimly-lit room at a house party off Walnut Street and watch local band Flower Mouth perform at the band’s signature venue.
Flower Mouth has released two singles on the free music-sharing app SoundCloud, and they are set to release an 8-song EP. They hope to get picked up by a record company, but for now, they aren’t hoping to sign with a major label.
“Ideally, an indie label would be the best fit for us,” said Gus Gonzalez, the lead singer of Flower Mouth, “we like Secretly Canadian and Fat Possum.”
An independent record label is simply any label who does not receive funding from what is referred to as the Big Six — Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony Music, BMG, Universal Music Group and PolyGram.
In Bloomington, there are almost a dozen of these independently-funded labels. Jacob’s School of Music and Kelley School of Business feed labels like 1212 Records, Secretly Canadian and Flannelgraph Records.
The survival of independent labels in the college town depends on the popularity of people streaming music on the internet. Today, a subscriber can stream entire catalogs of artists on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon or YouTube for under $5. As a result, the infrastructure revolution in streaming culture has paved the way for an all-time ease of access to independent music.
Ian Rogers, former Beats and Apple Music executive, said streaming culture plays a big role with the survival of independent labels in 2018.
He referenced two brothers, both graduates of IU, who embody this story of chasing their dreams while remaining in Bloomington — the story of Ben and Chris Swanson. Along with a few of their friends from school, they started the independent label Secretly Canadian.
Since its inception, indie record label Secretly Canadian has grown substantially. Formed on the Bloomington art-rock scene in the ’90s, the label achieved modest success selling the music put out by its local roster. Since the rise of streaming culture, the label now has two gold records and offices in London and Paris.
“Why has Ben Swanson been able to do what he has been able to do with Secretly Canadian, Dead Oceans and Jagjaguwar?” said Rogers, “He didn’t say, ‘You’re gonna pry the old model from my cold, dead hands.’ He said I’m gonna figure out how this works.”
The label employs big-name acts like the War On Drugs, Tig Notaro and Yoko Ono — and they’re selling them across the world. While printing vinyl contributes to their success, Secretly Canadian makes sure its artists’ music is available on Spotify and Apple Music.
At WIUX’s annual music festival, Culture Shock, posters of abstract art are for sale underneath a tent full of organizations promoting their eccentric businesses. A bearded man wearing a smile sits behind one of these tables. He hands out free stickers and promotional merchandise featuring the words, Flannelgraph Records, printed on them.
Flannelgraph Records started a decade ago in Bloomington in the back of Jared Cheek’s house. He released some of the music from bands who were plugged into the Bloomington house-show circuit. Then, the label expanded and signed bands from outside of the hipster college town.
“We use Instagram and Twitter, but not as much Facebook—since you have to pay to promote your stuff,” he said.
His philosophy is unconventional, but Jared Cheek likes it that way—with a quirky and humorous appeal.
“The most recent thing we have coming out is a spoken-word album interview with this 73-year-old pro-wrestler I like named Terry Funk,” he said.
As far as business, Jared Cheek says he simply tries to lose as little money as possible. He keeps a day job to provide for the label.
In terms of exposure, Ian Rogers — an IU alum — seems to think streaming culture is great, but whether or not it makes indie labels more money, is a different question.
The way indie royalties get paid isn’t exactly 1 to 1. Rogers said there’s a big pool of money received from subscriptions, advertisers, and investors.
Then, the money gets divided up among listens — the more plays a song gets, the more everyone makes. The problem is, the $5 you pay for a monthly subscription fee doesn’t exactly go towards the artists you’re frequently listening to. Your money helps provide pay for other artists and record labels who are getting lots of plays, not just your favorite band.
“I was always worried it might make for a big problem for the indies,” said Rogers.
He said there are a lot of people, including himself, who care about this issue at Beats Music and at Apple. He said small pockets of independent record companies and the artists signed to its label have made a handsome sum in the online and streaming markets.
“When I ask an independent artist—like A-Trak—they say ‘yes, our revenues are going up,’” he said, “I’m seeing Ben Swanson for dinner tonight, and I hope to hear the same thing.”
So what exactly makes a record sell? This inquiry has plagued the music business since the dawn of recorded music.
Ben Swanson of the Secretly Group said he thinks the record needs to have some emotional resonance to it. People need to feel attached to it on an emotional level.
“Now—with streaming culture—people are more sophisticated in their listening—at the sheer accessibility to their listening,” he said.
The co-founder of Secretly Canadian said it has to do with stars aligning in the sense that an artist is at the peak of their game, recording an album that rings emotionally true to them, then being successfully transferred to tape. On top of that, the album needs to come out at the right time for people to hear it and packaged in a way people are excited about.
“People are able to hear bullshit more than they used to,” said Swanson, “but if there’s something emotionally true to them, they will connect to it still.”