Lives, likes and streams: the challenges of independent music in digital | Culture

Independent music has never been more pervasive – from Spotify playlists to TikTok video tracks. From small niches in its physical spaces, it has overcome barriers in recent years, reaching other cities and countries. But technology also poses challenges for artists who work without the support of major brands or labels.

A survey by ABMI – Brazilian Independent Music Association published last Thursday (15) reveals that 53.5% of the artists who attended Spotify’s TOP 200 throughout 2019 are independent.

Although the scenario is, in a way, promising, the absolute numbers tell another story. An article from MIDiA Research revealed that 82% of the share in Spotify’s revenue in 2019 corresponds to the group of major labels added to Merlin, an entity that brings together labels and independents.

However, isolating Merlin’s revenue, it is possible to observe the majority participation of renowned companies (Universal, Sony and Warner, called “Majors” in the table below).

Spotify revenue by MIDiA Research. (Image: Playback / MIDiA Research)

Still, there is talk of growing participation by independent artists on streaming platforms – which is a fact. In 2019, this growth was 48% on Spotify, according to data from MIDiA Research, but in absolute numbers, the category earns less than the mainstream (which is a minority in number of aristas).

According to Dani Ribas, specialist in Cultural Management and Policies and director of the research center DATA SIM and of Sonar Cultural, this phenomenon is explained by the great adhesion of independent musicians and bands to new technologies in recent years, but it is necessary to interpret the numbers so as not to fall into “pranks”.

What happens is that there are many artists joining the new tools now. So there is this growth in participation, it is normal. But there are many [artistas] and in digital, they compete for attention with all kinds of services – even with Netflix and Games. It is what we call “Attention Economy”.

Dani Ribas

The rise in production quality

Producing, even independently, at home, became more accessible with the advancement of technology. Proof of this is the proliferation of Home Studios, which started in the 1980s, with the arrival of the MIDI protocol, the interface that facilitated communication between instruments and computers in real time.

In the 1990s, sequencing software and digital recording allowed more producers to start working on their own. In the second half of the 2000s, programs to create electronic music became even more popular, especially among mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones.

Equipment for recording music became more accessible. (Image: Pixabay)

Equipment for recording music became more accessible. (Image: Pixabay)

It was a time when independent music had that scratched record player sound. You can even find that vibe, if you want, but it is much more a matter of choice of the artist than technical limitation.

For Leo DaCosta, an autonomous music producer, technological advances provided benefits in production, but also compromised the visibility of new artists.

Nowadays there are excellent equipment at affordable prices for most artists. The technology “got there” and made it feasible for anyone to record with commercial quality in a simple home studio with relatively cheap equipment. […] The biggest disadvantage is that, making a parallel with social networks, it’s great that everyone has a voice, but not everyone has something good to say. So, there is a saturation of artists beginning on digital platforms, and we end up once again dependent on algorithms such as musical “curation”. This generates artistic bubbles that are not always interesting neither for the artists nor for the public.

Leo DaCosta, music producer

Leo, who is also a musician, draws attention to the importance of trained professionals during the production of a new material, with more advanced knowledge in capturing, mixing and mastering

As independent as an artist is, it is very difficult to transcend to the point of seeing one’s own work with an external view. This is essential to obtain the best possible result. […] Even in the independent market, the search for good producers (especially those that work with specific niches) remains on the rise. Great results can be obtained with simple equipment and the music producer is usually the “missing link” between the low budget and a well-finished album.

Leo DaCosta

Dani Ribas also warns of the differences between qualification and professionalization of the class. “Musicians have the tools at their disposal. (…) I can arrive and produce a song and put it on a digital platform, all of this independently. But how I am going to make money from it, attract the public, is another story ”, he explains.

The steps for distribution on streaming platforms

To have your music on platforms like Deezer, Spotify and Amazon Music, you must send it through partner distributors. There are several companies that provide this service, such as CD Baby, ONErpm and Record Union, just to name a few.

These distributors charge a fee for you to submit a single, EP or full album. They can also generate the UPC for their music (something similar to a product barcode, which allows you to control sales of that material).

Spotify on mobile (Image: Unsplash)

Spotify on mobile. (Image: Unsplash)

The process is less complicated than it seems – in general, the distributors have a very simple interface, which directs the artist to fill in the necessary fields, set a release date and decide on which platforms the music will be distributed. Also through this system, you can upload songs to Instagram Stories or the TikTok sound library.

On YouTube, you can still upload a video on your own – but the platform requires a partner distributor to turn your channel into an official artist channel.

In the industry as a whole it can be interesting for an independent artist to have a partner who helps him distribute the music, as an intermediary between the artist and different players, and play this role of managing the releases with all available platforms and partners for the artist. When signing the contract, it is important to understand the terms of the contract and the division of royalties

Natalia Julio, Partner Manager for Artist Development on YouTube

The ‘jabá 2.0’

New forms of distribution also find new “shortcuts” to overcome the competition. For this, many musicians (or their representatives) end up resorting to “jabá 2.0” – just like in radio programming, the artist pays to appear in popular playlists of streaming services.

For the artist, the initial advantage is the explosion in the number of reproductions of the song. But the practice is not well regarded in the spotlight.

“You can even pay to have a lot of ‘plays’ on platforms, but that doesn’t buy a sincere indication from the media”, comments the editor of Hits Perdidos. He says the work must be consistent to please many stakeholders and enter to be recommended and rewarded.

According to Bernardo Bassin, relationship manager with the Deezer artist, the company is against the practice of buying space in playlists, and also has anti-fraud systems to overturn possible schemes that are forging the number of reproductions.

Training is important and urgent

Mastering new tools and forms of communication in the digital world becomes a mission for the independent artist who wants to succeed online. For Rafael López, editor of the website Hits Perdidos, there is a lack of understanding on how to approach the vehicles correctly, when it comes to publishing a material released.

I once received a release about the release of a material, and I thought ‘wow, [a banda] I shouldn’t be sending this work to blogs or websites, but to producers’. (…) I think there is a lack of understanding about how to speak, research about what the vehicle usually addresses.

Rafael López, editor of Hits Perdidos

Rafael is constantly “pulling the ear” of artists in a relaxed way on his Twitter profile. He says that creativity is the key to winning over the media and captivating the public.

In the pandemic [da COVID-19], everyone wanted to make music about isolation. Okay, but how will this song be seen later? What can she pass beyond that moment? Does your audience want to consume this theme melancholy or not?

Rafael López

Some companies already have audience analysis tools with a friendly interface (Spotify for Artists, Deezer Backstage and YouTube for Artists are examples). Through them, the artist can have an insight into his audience and other consumption data, such as the days and songs that performed best in a given interval.

Audience data on Spotify for Artists. (Image: Playback / Spotify)

Audience data on Spotify for Artists. (Image: Playback / Spotify)

For Bernardo Bassin, from Deezer, it is important that the musician or band also teach their fans about how to interact with the platforms, so that the music can reach more people.

With the Flow mechanism at Deezer, the public can meet new artists through a selection made with the help of artificial intelligence. So it is important to like that song and ask your audience to interact too, so you teach the algorithm about the relevance of that work. The tool is able to identify the context of the music and indicate it to people who are likely to be interested.

Bernardo Bassin

Bassin also stresses the importance of connections that promote the rise of artists, such as independent music collectives that arise in different niches and can give a voice to musicians and bands in different styles or cultural settings.

The independent artist is also important to YouTube. The platform has NextUp, a mentoring camp for artists at the beginning of their careers, and Foundry, a channel optimization monitoring in partnership with independent distributors and labels.

Thinking about the training of musicians who are new to the digital environment, Dani Ribas gives courses and workshops on career strategy. She also produces content about the music market on her Instagram profile.

Perspectives on the future of streaming

The future of the music industry is still not entirely clear, but there are market trends that are beginning to consolidate. Streaming, despite illustrating new forms of consumption, is yet to undergo reforms in the coming years.

One of them is already addressed by Deezer today. According to the company, the remuneration for the artist may be more fair with the implementation of a new user-centered payment system (UCPS).

With this dynamic, what you pay for signing and listening to music on streaming platforms goes only to the artists you listen to (discounting the platform percentage, of course).

It is a different scheme from what happens with the market share today, where the revenue of all subscribers is not treated with distinction, and ends up composing the same amount, which is passed on according to the number of plays that each artist receives.

For Polyana Ferrari, PR Manager at Deezer, it is a matter of time and market maturation until more players are willing to change this system, which would bring more benefits to artists of different genres and specific niches.

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