Indie labels embrace streaming on own terms

New York TimesJuly 7, 2014 

The rise of streaming music services such as Pandora, Spotify and Beats Music has been a boon for listeners, serving up songs for a modest monthly fee or, with ads, free. But their effect on artists, especially those with smaller audiences, has been less positive.

But rather than fight what looks like an inexorable shift in how consumers listen to music, some independent record labels and their artists are embracing the streaming revolution – but on their own terms.

Last month, Sub Pop, an independent label that introduced artists including Nirvana and the Shins, announced a partnership with Drip.fm, a subscription streaming and download service. Fans who sign up for the Sub Pop feed on Drip.fm will pay $10 a month in exchange for albums, singles and special exclusives from the label.

Sub Pop is among the most prominent indie labels experimenting with subscription models that connect them directly to their fans. Labels such as Fool’s Gold, Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian have signed on with 2-year-old Drip.fm in an effort to attract fans with exclusive music, a sense of community and an intimate connection with bands and artists. Other younger, digitally savvy musicians are starting their own services to appeal directly to their fans, such as Nicolas Jaar’s Other People and Ryan Hemsworth’s Secret Songs.

Richard Laing, Sub Pop’s director of sales, sees the partnership with Drip.fm as a way to capture some of the same intense brand loyalty the label engendered in the CD-and-cassette era of the early 1990s.

“Instead of people seeking out recommendations from any kind of algorithm, they’re seeking that out from our label and what we’re looking to put out,” he said.

With their limited musical offerings, Drip.fm and its ilk are niche products unlikely to appeal to a wide audience. But they are giving indie labels a chance to cultivate and make money from their most loyal fans amid the growing number of streaming services. And the ability to sell their music has become an increasing challenge. Digital downloads declined nearly 12 percent in the first half of this year compared with the first half of 2013.

“That’s what labels like ours were built on,” Laing said. “People bought Sub Pop records and hopefully still do based on seeing the label. So hopefully this is a digital equivalent of that.”

Streaming services make sense for mainstream artists such as Rihanna and Katy Perry, who are popular enough to generate substantial revenue from the royalties they make from streaming (usually a fraction of a cent every time a song is played).

But for independent artists, the economics of streaming is a tougher proposition. Consider Jaar, who has developed a small yet loyal following since the release of his 2011 debut album, “Space Is Only Noise.” As an electronic artist who experiments with what could roughly be called “psychedelic future-jazz,” he lacks mainstream appeal and cannot rely on the masses to stream his music over and over again.

In August, Jaar started Other People, a subscription service that distributes his music and that of friends and collaborators. Subscribers pay $5 a month or $50 a year for a weekly offering of songs, all of which can be downloaded through the service’s website. The venture started paying for itself within six months, Jaar said.

“The truth is that touring can be really bad for making music, bad for the creative process,” he said. “When I started Other People, I was really trying to find a way to have a self-sustainable label so I don’t have to be touring all the time.”

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