Why Indie Labels’ ‘Fair’ Fight is a Worthy Cause

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 07.16.14 in News

As the music industry grapples with listeners’ shift toward streaming, independent labels are staking out the high ground. A new “Fair Digital Deals Declaration” would commit indies to a set of principles meant to treat artists fairly and transparently when working with digital platforms such as iTunes and Spotify. More than 750 labels have signed on to the initiative, according to the Worldwide Independent Network, the global indie trade group backing it.

On first blush, the idea of labels supporting fairness might seem as obvious and unobjectionable as politicians championing liberty and apple pie. But the declaration — whose signees include Beggars Group, Domino, Sub Pop, Secretly Canadian, Saddle Creek and more — comes as some prominent indies have been facing off against YouTube over the licensing terms for the Google-owned company’s upcoming subscription service. And the new initiative singles out industry practices that have enriched major labels at artists’ expense, at a time of ongoing debate over the economics of streaming and its effects on lesser-known musicians.

By signing the declaration, indie labels are on the record standing up for a tough-to-oppose principle — fairness to artists — as part of a broader race for digital revenues, in which majors and streaming providers are also competing for their share. Assuming listeners care about the money going to the people who actually make music, rather than some anonymous suits, the initiative could be a brilliant public-relations move, further setting the indies apart from the Big Three (Sony, Warner and Universal). Independent? Fair? Sign most people up! With any luck, the declaration will give indies some leverage in their negotiations with YouTube and others.

But more importantly, the indies’ commitment here is worth applauding because it’s right.

One key promise in the declaration states that signees will cut artists in on any payments from digital services “that stem from the monetization of recordings but are not attributed to specific recordings or performances.” As Billboard points out, some large labels and rights holders, as part of their deals with digital service providers, currently get money or stock that isn’t passed on either to the indie labels they distribute or the artists. It’s money made possible by the artists’ music, but it can’t be attributed to any specific recording so only the big guys get paid. See? There may not actually be any lawmakers who actually oppose apple pie, but there must be people in the music industry who are against fairness.

Under the declaration, indies also agree to explain artists’ share of download and streaming revenues clearly in royalty statements. They vow to prod digital services for “better standards of information” on the use and money made from music. The signees promise they’ll “support artists who choose to oppose, including publicly, unauthorized uses of their music.” And they endorse a separate “Global Independent Manifesto,” which contends that indies “deserve equal market access and parity of terms” with the majors and opposes “further consolidation” in the industry.

Darius Van Arman, cofounder of the Secretly Group, framed the issue as a fundamental one for all labels. “The bedrock of trust between artists and labels is artists receiving a fair share of the revenue that is earned from their work, where labels convey financial terms transparently and comprehensibly to artists,” he told Billboard. “Our signing of the labels’ ‘Fair Digital Deals Declaration’ demonstrates our commitment to this ideal and is an invitation to all industry participants to make the same commitment.”

It isn’t just labels who like the new initiative, though. Future of Music Coalition, an artists’ advocacy group, has also cheered the declaration. “FMC supports these commitments because we understand how musicians can be disadvantaged when major labels are allowed to dictate terms on digital services ranging from Spotify to YouTube,” wrote Casey Rae, VP for policy and education at FMC, in a blog post. “The past decade has seen a lot of criticisms of labels in general, but we’ve always taken pains to point out that this is a diverse community that includes proudly independent businesses that strive to do right by their artist partners. And that’s something to celebrate.”

Martin Mills, group chairman of the Beggars Group (4AD/Matador/Rough Trade/XL/Young Turks), was more blunt. “Why wouldn’t we treat artists fairly?” he said in a statement to Billboard. “It seems so obvious that we shouldn’t have to say it, but let’s say it, loud and proud.” To signal your support, tweet using the “#fairdigitaldeal4artists” hashtag.