Has the consolidation of the major labels, combined with fewer signings, given rise to more opportunities for indie artists?
Two of 2013’s Top 5 Albums Are on Indie Labels, While the Year’s Biggest Single Is Self-Released. What the Hell Is Going On Here?
This week’s SXSW is a fitting occasion on which to take a look at the newfound power of the indie sector, a phenomenon marked by impressive album sales and a growing number of crossover hits. (Not that SXSW is a remotely “indie” confab anymore, though it still showcases hundreds of bands that fit the definition.) This burgeoning trend could signal the biggest sea change since the alternative explosion that altered the landscape of the mainstream in the early ’90s, and the near-simultaneous rise of indie hip-hop labels like Sugar Hill, Profile, Ruthless, Priority and Loud.

The current revolution was led by Sigh No More, the 2010 debut album from Glassnote’s Mumford & Sons (now at 2.8m), following the same label’s ice-breaking 2009 release Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix from the French band Phoenix (708k); The Suburbs from Merge’s Arcade Fire (2010, 758k), which won the 2011 Album of the Year Grammy; and Barton Hollow from The Civil Wars, on sensibility (2011, 583k).

These left-of-center hit LPs kicked open the door for bands like Dualtone’s Lumineers (1.1m), whose self-titled album has been powered by the smash “Ho Hey” (3.7m); ATO’s Alabama Shakes, whose Boys & Girls (496k) is growing in tandem with the single “Hold On” (320k); and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, whose self-released debut album The Heist (445k) is starting to take off, thanks to the massive “Thrift Shop” (4.2m).

Simultaneously, Mumford & Sons’ follow-up, Babel—this year’s Album of the Year winner—has broken 2.1m, with first single “I Will Wait” (1.85m) now in the teens at Pop and Top 5 at Hot AC. (It’s worth noting that the last indie-rock record to cross to Pop before these singles was The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play,” released on Epitaph in 1994.) Other indie bands selling significant numbers of albums include XL’s Vampire Weekend (541k) and The xx (440k), Jagjaguwar’s Bon Iver (507k) and Sub Pop’s Fleet Foxes (348k).

These multiple and concurrent success stories lead to a number of intriguing questions. Why are so many indie acts breaking this way? Has the consolidation of the major labels, combined with fewer signings, given rise to more opportunities for these artists? Many believe the indie labels’ ability to slowly develop their acts is their greatest virtue.

How does the growing strength of the indie sector impact the majors’ independent distribution arms—RED, ADA and Caroline—which continue to play a huge role in the indie sector? Will we see a move away from their present control of digital distribution? The Lumineers switched from ADA to INgrooves Fontana for digital, while The Civil Wars’ album was self-distributed through Tunecore (digital) and Super D (physical).

iTunes has played a huge role in selling indie albums and singles by recognizing the early signs of success through its sales tracking and giving them added exposure.

At the center of the indie boom is Karen Glauber, who has been instrumental in the marketing/promotion of such bands as Arcade Fire, Phoenix, Mumford, The Civil Wars and The Lumineers, formulating and executing plans that combine Triple A, Non-Comm and Modern Rock. The highly respected Glauber is currently in the process of developing Modular’s Tame Impala (distributed by INgrooves Fontana), which has sold 85k without a speck of airplay. And this week, she’ll once again be among the most visible and active participants at SXSW, including moderating a panel (“Inside the Artist’s Studio”), as she does every year.

With nearly 20% of the year now in the books (though Q1’s anemic sales obviously won’t account for 20% of 2013’s overall sales tally), two of the Top 5 albums are indie releases—#1 Mumford and Sons and #4 Lumineers—as indie-sector marketshare grows to 25% of the business, led by Bob Morelli’s RED, with 6%.

So far this year, Monte Lipman’s Republic is dominating new-release marketshare with 9.9%. Peter Edge and Tom Corson’s RCA is second with 7%, and the label’s percentage will be bolstered following the March 19 release of Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience. RCA’s first-week projection of 500k has been upped to 600k following Timberlake’s sensational star turn as Saturday Night Live’s host and musical guest last weekend, followed by this week’s residency on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Concurrently, single “Suit & Tie” is now at 1.25m after a fast start and subsequent stall, and appears poised to explode, while iTunes preorders could top 100k.

Names in the rumor mill: Will Botwin, Nate Yetton, Dominic Pandiscia, Jonathan Poneman and Mac McCaughan.
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