Independent Record Labels of the Internet Era by Kristian Evans

Few people ask me questions these days. I’m probably deluded thinking anyone would actually want to know what I do for a living, and if I told them honestly they would probably think I’m mad. In truth, I like to be left to get on in peace so I don’t really care. I think the last time I faced 20 questions was a round of “German Traffic Police Roadside Mastermind,” but that’s another story. A few months ago, I spent some time on Skype talking to Kristian Evans and answered as many questions as I could, probably more than 20, on the subject of Independent Record Labels in the age of the Internet. We talked about releasing records through a label, and releasing records as a band without a label. We talked about many of the related issues of trying to release music independently and the many contradictions bands and record labels have to face up to. When the call finished I had to get back to work but Kristian put our discussion into writing as part of a larger case study. Have a read, this is the shorter version, you may find it interesting. If you want the full Case study you can download it in full at the end – Mark, Iron Man Records

Independent Record Labels of the Internet Era by Kristian Evans

This report is dedicated to both uncovering and defining the independent record labels during the era of the Internet (i.e. 1998 onwards). A quick look back in history reveals how important independent record labels have been to modern music of the era, helping to alter the perception of contemporary popular music. However over the past two decades, a number of major changes have happened in the marketplace shifting both the power balance and economy.

By utilising primary research (surveys, questionnaires and interviews), it has been concluded that despite large changes to the operations and methods of the music industry, to some degree the essence of what it means to be an indie label has remained constant. Advancements in technology have given musicians and artists more independence and control, however it would prove challenging to realistically compete with what a dedicated label could achieve.


Independent record labels have for decades contributed greatly to the music industry; from the rock ’n roll revolution during the 1950s to the development of other genres such as grunge, alternative rock and countless others. [Cosper, A.2012] Some of the most notable companies to date include Rough Trade, Pinnacle, Mute, Factory and 4AD. Rough Trade and Pinnacle alone stood for almost 30% of the music market during their peak; and throughout the 1980s, independent labels would continuously compete with the majors in the top 20 album charts. [King, R., 2012]


Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web in 1989 hit the music industry like a comet. Over the past twenty six years the world has seen a dramatic change in how we consume, distribute, discover and create music; or any form of media for that matter. [World Wide Web Foundation 2015] The introduction of the Internet resulted in a bleak outlook for the music industry. The introduction of digital audio files such as mp3 in 1995 caused hard-copy sales to plummet and the industry to suffer financially. [Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, 2015]. Illegal file-sharing websites such as Napster and would wreak havoc until their shutdown in 2001.

It was only then that record labels started to integrate into the digital domain. [Cosper, A.2012] [The Napster Controversy, 2015][Kusek, D., 2008.] Record labels (independent or not) seemed unable to keep up with the constant changes that technology brought us. Illegal file-sharing exploded, services such as Piratebay emerged, devastating physical sales. It wasn’t until 2013 that the music had actually seen any form of market growth since 1999. [Neumeister. L., 2015][Admin.,, 2013] [uSwitch., 2015] [Batterbee, A., 2008, p. 82, 83].

With fewer major record labels today, as a result of companies such as EMI being absorbed into Sony and UMG; there has been a reduction in the amount of current market competition. This information also highlights the struggles of the modern music industry as it has attempted to adapt to the changes in technology. [The Nielsen Company & Billboards, 2011] [Pelzie, 2014]

The Nielsen Company & Billboards, 2011
The figure above demonstrates dominance of the four major record labels before EMI’s demise, and to some degree reflects how the independent section relates to them. Although times have changed, the overall picture remains the same as independents are currently a minority.

With regards to the musician’s point of view and the advancement of technology,  research indicates that internet based technology and other technological advancements have resulted in more independent control than ever before, from musicians being able to produce high quality albums in their bedroom to even being able to distribute music without the need for a label, alternatively creating their own. [Reevers C., 2011] [Thomson, K., 2015][ Case, C., 2015]


So following the aforementioned changes in the marketplace, where does the independent record label stand? Interviews, questionnaires and surveys have been used to accumulate information from both the client and business end of the marketplace; this will provide the most accurate and unbiased results.


As previously mentioned, first hand research has been conducted in three fashions. The first being a survey (created via SurveyMonkey), aimed towards the consumer and artists, to determine their overall knowledge about the industry, and also how they have adapted to it. [SurveyMonkey, 2015]
The questionnaire was created as an alternative to the interview. The questions were aimed at the recording labels, and aim to uncover how the businesses are coping.

If the label contacted preferred telephone, a time was agreed to have a recorded interview, where the basis would be the questions used in the questionnaire; interviews were used to get the interviewee to elaborate more in-depth about the inner workings of the indie world.

Record labels were contacted by finding the bands’ homepage on Google, for the interest of aiming it towards the British market place, only British labels were contacted, contact was either conducted via the labels’ online contact form, e-mail or by phoning the company directly.

Social media networking was the primary way of delivering the musicians questionnaire, posting it on social groups dedicated to performing musicians and artists.  Due to the nature of the groups and the style of questionnaire, it was not limited to being answered by British based artists, but was aimed at anybody who produced a product for release.  (Copies of correspondents, questionnaires and survey results can be found in Appendix 1 – 3).


The intention with this research report, is not to prove that record labels are necessary, but rather if they are necessary, and to some degree decipher the future of record labels.

Musicians can completely bypass recording companies to release their music; some even create personal recording labels for their own release. But can this new found control replace what a recording company does for their musicians?

What do modern music services mean for the industry?

Given all this new technology, how have artists adapted to it?

Do musicians today feel confident with the tools they have been given or how does it influence their decision.

As the market developed for 14 years without any real growth, many companies must have felt the pinch.

How has the indie section adapted to the recent changes, and has it affected operations?

How do the remaining major labels relate to the indie market of today, is there any resemblance to how things were before?


The overall research shows that the drive behind running independent labels hasn’t changed much since the before the Internet’s conception; fuelled by the love of DIY, releasing creative and quality records, independent from major label influence.  Although the desire to run one hasn’t changed, the entire marketplace has shifted after the introduction of the internet. Amongst other things, independents were no longer restricted by getting distribution deals in order to get music out there. But on the other side of the coin, the internet caused havoc on physical sales maiming a major source of income; albeit, a recent rise in LP sales has occurred over recent years. As a result both bands and record labels have had “to adapt or die”. [Badger, M. (Iron Man Records) (2015). Interviewed by Kristian Evans for Case Study,21:24]  [Rushton, K., 2013] [Lewis, L., 2015]

Starting an indie label is relatively easy, with a majority of musicians aware that distribution is possible without a label, more than 50% of the survey’s respondents claim they would consider creating their own label for an upcoming release. DIY in itself is not difficult, but doing it right is a different kettle of fish. Especially as there is no true definition to what is right, what is “right” depends on the surrounding parameters. The benefit of using an established record label is that they can potentially provide understanding, knowledge, experience and resources needed to help the product stand out among the masses; “working with a label that is as old as your band is suicide”.  [Badger, M. (2015). Interviewed by Kristian Evans for Case Study, 11:34]

There is some debate as to the existence of the quality filter provided by labels, it is apparent that some labels do specialise in styles, genres or similar and have fan bases that benefit all artists released on that album. With Spotify having 4 million songs that have never been played and countless more struggling due to lack of experience, knowledge or making the wrong decisions.  [Rochell, 2013] It is more important now than ever that labels keep up-to date and well informed on current events, in order to provide their artists with optimal results.

Although the introduction of streaming services has driven some money back into the industry’s economy, research reveals that it is only the labels with large amount of copyrights that really benefit, in other words the majors, in contrast iTunes is a highly regarded source due to its design and operation.  In recent years 50% of artist’s income has been from live performances; it is therefore important to spread music effectively, market strategically, to reach a wide demographic in order to raise ticket sales. This is an area where an established record label is more likely to see satisfactory results; especially in regards to knowing the market and knowing how to proceed.

D, Passman suggests that the next generation of marketing for bands will rely on direct relationships between the band and its fan base. Research shows that more than 80% of the overall respondents claimed to be comfortable using internet based technology for promotion, 72% of the overall respondents use it actively to connect with the fan base. Having personal relationships and interacting with customers and fans at a personal level can raise the overall success of tours, album releases and so forth, and is actively being used at all stages of the industry, though some of this control can be lost in major label deals. [Passman, D., 2013. 69]

With regards to the major labels, it shows that they have little influence over the independent market, and have somewhat less influence than previously in history; at least what we regard as major labels today. Since the introduction of the internet and later online music services, “new” record labels are emerging under the names such as Apple, Amazon, Youtube and other internet based major corporations; causing competition and a shift in power. In addition to this recent changes and coming changes to the internet and how it operates, such as new laws regarding VAT can make it potentially more difficult to truly be independent.


The findings provide an up-to-date insight into how the industry currently looks, and a brief outlook on how companies are adapting to their new surroundings.  The findings in the report are of significant value as they answer all of the aims and questions posed at the beginning of the report, while additionally giving information into what the current events are. These findings also give an insight into the possible future of the industry.

The report reveals interesting facts such as the diminishing influence of the major record labels (Universal, Sony, Warner Bros) which have previously dominated the market, in favour of an increase in the popularity and trading power of major online corporations that deal in a range of commodities (Amazon, Apple, Ebay) and offer a more convenient and efficient service to those customers buying online.

Companies such as these may become the major labels of tomorrow as they regularly cause havoc in the industry; causing major changes in how the internet functions and how customers make use of the various services available.  The days of the Internet providing freedom may be limited with newly established laws and the music industry finally adapting to the monstrous invention that once made the outlook seem grave, though this seems likely to make running an indie label or any indie company more difficult, research has shown how many of these companies are quick to adapt and vigilant in keeping updated about how to deal with coming issues. 
The overall findings are important as they ascertain the importance of indie record labels in modern society, showing that they are as important as they ever have been. Despite many artists being comfortable with their new technological surroundings, and being aware of the options available, the majority still see record labels as a necessity.

All of the aims set for this assignment were successfully met, although not all answers are as comprehensive or as useful as initially thought.  The research assignment’s main weakness is the lack of responses from labels, the entire research period being dominated by lack of replies or not answering the telephone at arranged time and date. In order for the report to have more credibility and accuracy, more time would be needed to collect responses, where the student would avoid limiting the search to labels within the United Kingdom.  The questionnaire in itself requested information that would have been useful to the assignment, but some revisions would be made to it, correcting some phrasing issues and combining questions to make the overall amount less; this might help getting a higher response ratio from participating labels.


The assignment was an attempt to ascertain the importance and market position of indie labels after the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1998. It was also to see how companies have adapted to the recent changes and how this has changed operations and the overall definition of “indie”. To answer questions about their market position and also the clients’ view on the industry, both record labels and musicians were contacted with relevant questions to achieve comprehensive answers.

The research shows that over recent years there has been little change to the core elements of being an indie record label, but the internet has caused for drastic changes in what it means to be a record label. Now often not being required for the recording of the actual album, indie labels function as bands PR agents, providing signed artists with resources, knowledge and experience, arming them to their best ability to survive in an industry that no longer thrives on physical sales, but more live performances and strategically supplying music via the various tools available.

Although from the musicians’ or the markets’ point of view there is no immediate danger, society’s adaptation to the internet and other changes in the market place might cause a raised eyebrow.

In many ways this is an impossible question to answer as there is no set definition of indie, it is instead a combination of past actions and mind-set that have evolved over time. To some indie means a seal of approval while to others it is purely a mind-set. What is counted as indie varies much from person to person, with music from all segments of the industry receiving the tag despite its origin.

What it means to be independent also has its grey areas as even self-releasing music one is constricted to major internet based corporations for distribution, and with the new VAT laws being introduced, releasing music for free might be the only remaining way to be truly independent.

Here it is in full as a word doc Case study – Kristian Evans 2015