The halcyon days of record labels, as depicted in the Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger produced HBO series 'Vinyl', are gone.
At the inaugural Indie-Con Australia, the independent labels, artists and managers who have survived the fallout of the digital age have converged to ask: after the gold rush, what about me?
The dawn of the digital music age was perhaps heralded by the founding of Napster in 1999. The 18 years since have been a tale of two streams: the rivers of gold that once flowed from record sales have slowed to a trickle, while online content now gushes from a plethora of platforms.
As such, those that remain in the industry now and who are attending Indie-Con are those that are inspired by a passion for music rather than by dreams of cocaine-fuelled bungalow parties in LA.
Two such passionate people are the seemingly disparate personalities of Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson and Portland’s Portia Sabin. As a judge on 'Australian Idol', Dicko aimed to make pop stars, while Sabin is president of indie label Kill Rock Stars. The two are not as dissimilar, though, as that sentence would suggest.
Dicko, began his career in the heart of the '80s UK indie movement, working at Creation Records with The Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream; Sabin’s Kill Rock Stars is synonymous with the US indie-hub of Portland, Oregon.
While many complex themes were discussed on day one of Indie-Con, they can be neatly summarised by referring to the work of one of Dicko’s proteges, Shannon Noll, and one of Kill Rock Stars’ brightest lights, Elliott Smith.
Elliott Smith, disenchanted by the direction of his band Heatmiser, whispered his haunting vocals onto a four-track recorder in his basement. Elliott was the epitome of an indie artist; his work, now lauded and revered, would never have made it past the first hurdle at a major label.
Indies allow an artist to grow and evolve, said Aussie indie pioneer Sebastian Chase in his opening keynote address. The major labels must burn and churn; they cannot take the same risk. As such, the sadly and recently departed Dr G Yunupingu’s angelic gift could only be broadcast to the world by an independent label that held no fear of the dangers of promoting a blind, indigenous man who sang in his own language and played a guitar upside down.
So indie labels are a more open-minded gateway to the market but in the digital age, though, an artist doesn’t even need a label at all to publish. Why are they needed then? Shannon Noll, on his debut single, sang "what about me, it isn’t fair, I’ve had enough and I want my share. Can’t you see? I want to live but you just take more than you give."
While this was sung from the perspective of a little boy waiting at the corner shop, it is also perhaps succinctly conveys the plight of independent artists and labels who are struggling to make a living in a digital market where consumers are often taking content either without paying or in exchange for a nominal subscription fee.
Sessions were held to address this dilemma. The mind-boggling intricacies of Neighbouring Rights and Blanket Licensing Deals were explained, as was blockchain, an emerging technology that may perhaps be able to provide a cohesive and centralised ledger for online transactions. (I think that is what it means. Don’t troll me, tech nerds!)
In summary, the money is still out there. But getting your hands on it requires expertise. For most artists, then, to maximise their earning potential, they really need a label that understands how this new world works. A label will also assist an artist stand out from the bustling crowd.
Without a label, an artist runs the risk of becoming like a former reality singing star: screaming “don’t you know who I am” to an ambivalent public that refuses to listen.
Indie-Con Australia was held 27-28 July, 2017 in Adelaide, and will be held annually in Adelaide until at least 2019.