To Sum It Up: Small is Beautiful

By Gary Couillard & Dan Belnap

Big label music goes by the numbers, not the notes.
sumitupMy friend Andy Monaco got a favorable review of his new CD “Maybe” in the November Catalyst. His first CD “Nobody Said Love” was excellent! This fall I heard him perform a song from the new album at Carolyn Turkanis’ backyard concert series, and I’ve been looking forward to getting a copy of his new release.

Andy’s album is an independently produced album. Independent as in “Art for art’s sake. Money for god’s sake.” (10 cc lyrics). He’s the songwriter, the band leader, the marketing department and the retail sales division at www.Andy You won’t find his CD at Wal-Mart, the nations largest $$ record store. Half of all music is sold by Wal-Mart, Target or Best Buy. It won’t be on any Clear Channel radio station playlist, one of four corporations that control 62% of the Top 40 radio market. Record labels pay thousands of dollars to get their songs added to a radio station’s playlist to generate hype and keep their profits in deep green. And, don’t expect “Maybe” to crack the best-album survey Billboard 200 which is weighted 20% to sales and 80% to radio airplay and has very little if anything to do with the intrinsic quality of the music.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is the trade group that represents the major U.S. record companies and distributes approximately 90% of the recordings sold in the United States. You might recognize RIAA for their attempts to impose a flat tax on blank cassettes, their involvement in conservative copyright legislation and their door-busting litigation assault against music bootleggers on the Internet. The music industry’s big four record labels—Universal, Warner Music, EMI and Sony BMG—account for approximately 85% of all music sales in the United States. 

Artists have fought the major record label system, but the alternative means surrendering any prospects that their music will have widespread popularity. According to the artist Prince, “Record companies don’t really want the public to like good music. They want it to buy whatever ‘product’ they come up with, whether it’s musically good or bad. Record companies don’t really want young people to develop a sense of what good music is.”

To maximize profits and minimize marketing expenses, major record label artists are expected to deliver albums that are commercially acceptable to broad audiences. Otherwise, the albums can be shelved and not counted towards contract required albums owed the label. Broad appeal wins out over creativity in an effort to reach a larger audience and produce greater profits.

There are plenty of alternatives to the major record label’s predictable mediocrity of grocery store music. The digital music site, which doesn’t sell any major record label music, offers 1.4 million tracks from 4,000 independent record labels.  Independent records and DIYs are estimated to account for approximately 60,000 to 70,000 CD releases each year. The web site lists 192,248 bands and, a free membership site, has a wide sample of indie music. Locally, you can find independent music at both Graywhale and Orion Records or on the air at KRCL.

It is extremely rare for major label artists to actually receive any royalty from the sale of their music. Less than 10% of CD releases ever pay any royalties, and before any royalty is paid to the artist, record companies deduct the cost of recording and promoting the album, making a music video, and music tour expenses. Artists are left to live from album to album on the “advance against royalties” that a record company may pay. 

Indie may be economically advantageous to the artist. will attempt to digitally distribute a CD to Apple iTunes, Rhapsody, Yahoo, and ring tone companies at a cost of 9% of any income received. The artist makes 91% of the income plus retains all ownership rights to the music. In contrast, not only do the major record labels take complete ownership rights to an artist’s music in perpetuity, it also owns the rights to the artist’s name for a website.

RIAA’s major music labels also disguise themselves as independent recording labels nominally  “indie labels” or artist vanity labels. How do you know if a CD you want to purchase is a RIAA major label release?  Check RIAA Radar is a tool that music consumers can use to easily and instantly distinguish whether an album was released by one of the major record label members of RIAA.

Aldous Huxley said “after silence, music comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible.” Andy Monaco, on the “Maybe” album notes, puts it this way: “There isn’t much music like this out there. I (jokingly) say that there might be a good reason for that (smile). This is real music straight from the heart. A place we have all been to before. Please enjoy the visit.”

None of us need some mega-corporate entity to tell us what “good” music should sound like or what is or is not popular. What we do need are independent artists who have the creative freedom and the economic resources to express the music in their hearts. We can do our part in this process by supporting local independent musicians—give them a listen and buy their music.

This article was originally published on December 1, 2006.