Independent Labels: A tentative overview

Panorama, Labels

An insight into a series of meetings and informal chats that attempt to grasp the main issues of a changing reality.

Julie Henoch - 2019-05-02
Independent Labels: A tentative overview - On the road to visit Robin Girod à " La Becque" ©Julie Henoch
On the road to visit Robin Girod à " La Becque" ©Julie Henoch
Independent Labels: A tentative overview - At the "A Tree in a Field Records" office ©Julie Henoch
At the "A Tree in a Field Records" office ©Julie Henoch

Welcome to this extensive research project of several months, involving phone calls, meetings and random discussions. My first port of call is Robin Girod, head of the Geneva label Cheptel Records. We meet in the prestigious setting of La Becque at La Tour-de-Peilz, an artists’ residence hub, housing roughly sixty the musicians he’s involved with. It’s a bit strange to meet him in such a flashy location, since he’s usually associated with old bayou- type farms or decrepit concert halls.
Robin Girod wears many hats: full-time musician, ex-Mama Rosin member, co-founder of the now defunct label Moi j'connais, current guitarist/singer of the soul-surf-garage group Duck Duck Grey Duck (riding a nice wave of success), and lastly, he’s also an independent producer. Robin always has a thousand and one projects on the go and is constantly moving around. He’s therefore got a lot to say, sometimes with a vehement acidity that could be called “punch” because of the considerable energy he often deploys.

The artistic power in question

"It’s sometimes said that I’m always complaining, but that’s not true. I’m a very happy person, it’s just that I express myself very openly when I don’t agree with something! We inhabit a really strange ecosystem: a Swiss music scene that's been permanently dying. I don’t mean in terms of the quality of music being made, but in terms of recognition, including internationally. In fact, there’s no such thing as a music business economy here, not in pop anyway. There are two or three groups that are doing reasonably well… We also have some big bureaucratic institutions like Pro Helvetia, Fondation CMA, Swiss Music Export, but they are a thousand miles away from the reality at ground level and they often make major decision errors.There’s something of a usurpation of artistic power going on here, because we work most often on a voluntarily basis, part of a cost-cutting utopia". Battling against the main trends, Robin Girod has moved away from the phenomenon of the reissue that had briefly seduced him, from what he called "the race for World Music", which distorts traditional musical projects and is continually an apology of the past. “You can find reissues at flee market for 5 francs, it doesn’t make sense. Cheptel Records started off with three guys in a bistro who wanted to gather people according to a particular musical aesthetic. The idea was to create a scene in its own right, create an identity because Switzerland doesn’t have a real musical identity of its own, luckily in a way. I thought there’s everything to be done at this particular period in time, (momentarily glancing at the breathtaking panorama of Lake Geneva and the mountains). My business partner Nicolas Scaringella and I, we now have our flock of musicians, groups call us three times a day, we serve as an important link, there’s stuff going on but with no real end goal because music is essentially about community. The administrative side takes up so much time that we’ve stopped doing it. Besides, there’s no salary available, and the association system (which would be the only way of paying anyone) is full of phoney organisations capable of just about gathering some crumbs. We’ve got 17 groups that play live a lot and sell out venues. We live off ridiculously low gig fees and merchandise sales, but we don’t feel the need to beg or to prove that we exist.”

MELISSA KASSAB - Honeycomb (Cheptel Records)


Reversed roles.

Although calmer and more relaxed, it’s the same kind of discussion with Gaëtan Seguin, the head of Three:Four Records, who I met at an outdoor café in Lausanne. He has to his name about fifty releases, including those of the band La Tène, currently doing very well in France. "I've been doing this passionately for 10 years at a loss. The label is known among musicians thanks to word of mouth, and yet I have no particular ambition or mission, I'm just a guy who releases records with a job on the side. Some groups actually manage to live well in Switzerland, in other words, some can survive without a job on the side, but the structures that surround them are struggling."

LA TENE - La Thouraz di Sopra (Three:Four Records)


It's a fact that the role of the label, with its legendary cigar-smoking producer who invests in the artists has indeed disappeared. There are a few exceptions like Two Gentlemen, helped by the fact that they are also bookers, managers and the label of the few Swiss artists with consequential international careers (Sophie Hunger, The Young Gods, Erik Truffaz) which allows them to operate a certain run-off on the rest of their artists. But for the most part, it’s now the musicians who are financing the labels out of their own pockets. In fact, a lot of labels have lost some of their prestige, and some have even become pretty empty infrastructures that just fulfill the mandatory criteria for obtaining subsidies. This situation is not just a Swiss thing, it's a generally emerging worldwide reality. Even according to Daniel Miller, boss of the very prestigious Mute Records (Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, Nick Cave, etc...), who I caught up with in Lausanne on the occasion of his masterclass at the HEMU school (Lausanne’s University of Music). “We don't really sign artists any more. In fact, records no longer sell. We continue to make them, but they’ve become a simple business card that allows groups to get live gigs. You have to diversify in order to survive, and most of today’s market is very clearly on the Internet where everything happens very fast.”

SOPHIE HUNGER - Tricks (Two Gentlemen)


Let's pause here. There’s a complex problem at play that requires a certain amount of reflection and appears difficult to solve: the schism between the new reality of the indie labels and the political system that provides the subsidies. The former has to move quickly with the changing times, whereas the latter is deeply slow due to the administrative and bureaucratic weight of its infrastructure.

A devilishly complicated market

Christian Wicky, former singer and guitarist of the legendary 90s Lausanne rock group Favez, is now working full-time for Irascible, the main distributor of Swiss independent labels. It’s a diversified job that consists in making music accessible to everyone via record stores, web platforms, journalists, etc... He is also committed to defending the rights of labels and their political representation by officiating within IndieSuisse, “a lobbying platform that brings together independent Swiss labels. Together and united in this entity, we can step up to assert some rights at national level.” Structures of this kind already exist in Europe, such as IFPI (the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) which has branches in many countries including one in Switzerland, which groups music labels of all genres. The only problem is that "the big record companies' market share is almost 65%, which creates legal problems and conflicts of interest. Since they control the market, they won’t go against their interests” explains Andreas Ryser in a large Bernese open space where he occupies two small offices and a recording studio, owner of Mouthwatering Records and President of IndieSuisse.

One of the great victories of this association, formed in 2014, was to help change the SWISSPERFORM distribution system for the manufacturers of phonograms. In the old system, based on turnover, the distribution of royalties among manufacturers was based on their share of the commercial market, which excluded small independent structures in favour of the large record companies - the famous "majors" as they are known. “But now, each radio play is counted and paid for as such. It took us 4 years to achieve, but it was a very important breakthrough because radio stations like Couleur3 and SRF3 for example only broadcast a lot of music from independent labels. The stakes were high because it’s a Swiss particularity, due to the linguistic borders, to have so many national and private radio stations. Records from independent labels are widely broadcast in our country, All the market generate more than 10 million francs per year. Best ensure that as much of this sum falls directly into the right pockets ..." (More information about the new distribution system here)

A notch above, we find Impala, an umbrella association of independent international labels (featuring major labels such as PIAS, Beggars and Domino to name a few), which also includes IndieSuisse. Once again, combined into a single strong body, Impala has gained enough weight internationally to be a business partner with giants like Youtube or Spotify. For the benefit of the artists, Impala implemented the famous "article 13" which now obliges Youtube to compensate the creators of content.

BLACK SEA DAHU - In case I fall for you (Mouthwatering Records)


An all Swiss problem: atomisation

To recap: the physical records hardly sell anymore; musicians and labels continue to manufacture them just for fun and for a few afficionados who buy them from hand to hand; it’s imperative to include the "joy profit" in the turnover (when there is one) in order to be able to stand the difficult situation; the music business has become so complicated that some have given up and have stopped hoping to ever make a profit; others are trying at best to defend their rights.
But what about the music in all of this? “I find there’s a quality so far unsurpassed. The level has gone up considerably!” says Edgar Cabrita, librarian at the RTS organisation (french-swiss public broadcasting organisation)  in charge of selecting and obtaining new releases for the radio’s immense music library used by the presenters and programmers. Himself a long-time member of Rec Rec Music, a cooperative that acts as a label and distributor in Switzerland, specializing in experimental music, free jazz and rock, which went out of business in 2007, the majority of whose catalogue has been sent to Irascible. “We couldn’t survive off our record sales at the time because what we were releasing was too left field. The distribution company was developed to help the label stay afloat. We distributed foreign independent labels such as Crammed Discs and World Circuit, the latter was the cause of our brief moment of glory in 1997-1998 since it was the label of the Buena Vista Social Club which sold more than 100,000 copies. The original idea of Rec Rec's founder, Daniel Waldner, was to break away from the shackles of the “majors" and for every employee to have shares in the cooperative in order to live from one’s passion. It worked for a while, but at a certain point I decided to find something else because I could sense it was going to end badly!”
His job at the radio station allows him to continue to navigate the world of records and to work promoting certain artists, as a sideline. “The problem is that there are lots of people doing tons of things in their own area and we have no idea about it”. All the people I’ve dealt with say the same thing: in Switzerland, we’re champions of doing things each in our own little corner. "There should be a way of pooling all this information" says Edgar Cabrita. “Personally, I try to keep my ear to the ground as best I can, and must admit that I’m working a lot with Spotify at the moment.”

WOLFMAN - Mad Woman (Irascible Records)


So where are things heading?

“Everything is very unstable, we are in an experimental phase. I think that streaming will continue to increase, which is a good thing,” Christian Wicky tells me during a coffee break near the Irascible offices shared with Two Gentlemen. A few years ago it was common to rise up against the digitalisation of music and the derisory revenues that downloads generated, but now the argument has changed regarding streaming. “In fact, Itunes hardly exists anymore except in Switzerland where some people continue to pay 1.30 CHF to download a piece of music, but it no longer generates a real income. However, quite a lot of money can be made out of streaming”. Oh really? “Yes, in a sense streaming is worse than the download, since a stream pays the artist just 0.0045 CHF. Basically, it takes 1'000'000 streams to reach 4'500 CHF. But a million streams changes everything and above all, it lasts longer” recounts Andreas Ryser, who with a sophisticated Excel spreadsheet patiently manages to explain this fundamental upheaval to me. “Everything has changed financially speaking. Previously, you bought your record before listening to it, then you filed it in your record collection and that was it. Streaming is good because people have an easy access to the music and if they like what they hear, they may then go to see the band on stage and then buy the album after the show. What these platforms essentially offer is music you can listen to in the long term. If your track is selected in a Spotify playlist, then it’s bingo! It’s important to know that Spotify receives now around 40'000 new songs a day, so offers 280,000 new songs a week. “A week!” exclaims Andreas Ryser jumping about in his chair, “we can’t even talk about competition, it's pure madness!” 
But the platform, in addition to the algorithms that automatically offer songs according to the preferences of the Internet users, has a team of 300 specialised programmers who select and have a very important role of curation. “If your song is chosen and put on the big editorial playlists they do, it gets listened to over and over again millions of times over several years, which can give you a fixed and consistent income per month if you perform very well and have found your public."

A large part of independent labels are currently doing a lot of back office work, “a real war on visibility on the Internet”, and can no longer do without the new distribution structures that have appeared on the market: the DSPs (digital service providers) or specialists in online platforms which are expressly mandated for that role. “What is certain today, adds Christian Wicky, is that being alone and fragmented means you cannot make any money. More than ever, unity is strength. I think we’ll find a balancing point in the next five years, the situation will even out and we’ll be surprisingly stronger than in the year 2000. The physical product market won’t change very much, artists will continue to manufacture records that they can sell via their websites or Bandcamp or at their concerts. But the big money will come from streaming.”

Capitalism and schizophrenia


Marlon McNeill, head of A Tree in a Field Records label, but also secretary of IndieSuisse, summarises the schizophrenia that most independent labels find themselves in today. “Like many others, I started my label rather naively. I wanted to create an identity, a logo, to release friends' records who cared little about me at the time. Until Fai Baba in 2010 who is the first artist that I didn't know personally. His music was successful and we grew together. I try to keep my enthusiasm intact and above all to remain honest in this business. I mainly invest my time, the artists pay me a little or I work at a percentage rate according to each different case. I earn some money as the secretary of IndieSuisse, but basically I work mostly on a voluntarily basis if you look at the work hours VS payout ratio. Like everyone else, I multitask. Social media is a drug, frankly it destroys your soul. It takes up so much of your time, but you have to be on it. I regularly ask myself serious questions about my role in all of this unbridled capitalism, the market that makes everything we do here in the office count as secondary, far from the actual music, which is above all something social. But online, all these events, this corporate stuff, this need for visibility is quite toxic”. 
In front of his pretty, cosy little office, in a Basel backyard where a beautiful tree sits nonchalantly, a certain spleen is occasionally felt. We talk about capitalism’s annoying tendency of creating complex structures that are empty of content but which everyone feeds and uses for free, like cash registers, Youtube, Facebook, etc... It’s a trend that threatens even niche sectors such as independent labels. But there are moments when a candid and spontaneous glow rekindles the gaze of Marlon McNeill: "What we're trying to do, especially with IndieSuisse, is to find new ways of financing the labels, allowing them to exist without having to lean on the artists! It’s important to inform and raise awareness so that politicians are abreast of the situation. Music is very important in a society, it's education, culture, it's good for the brain. Things are starting to move slowly, there are new initiatives like the super One of a Million Festival in Baden which invites politicians and opens up the discussion. None of them can quite believe it when they realize under what conditions we work, it’s a reality too far from their reality. Our goal is to bring those two closer together.”


FAI BABA (A Tree in a Field Records) - Live on KEXP


The question of the relevance of state support is sometimes debated, and certain players such as Jonathan Nido, young hooligan from La Chaux-de-Fonds and head of Hummus Records, has managed to create a thriving autonomous community (see our article). He questions whether is it’s right for the state to finance these kinds of activities which are nevertheless business-based. “I don’t know. Could the real problem be somewhere else? ” “Music is like football” , says Andreas Ryser, "there should be several leagues, A, B, C, D. But everyone wants to be in league A and generate money from what they do. The real problem is that everyone who's doing music wants to sell his music and do it as a job, instead of doing it as a hobby. There are real differences in quality, and at the institutional level, there’s clearly a lack of skills to judge what’s what”. To sum up, these final words resume the situation well: "We are living through important, interesting times that are actually quite crazy for the music industry. Several conceptions of the profession exist and are mutually contradictory. There is a great deal to be done to professionalise the sector and define its modus operandi.”