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Apple Sours on Indie Labels

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They were the little independent technology company that could.

Apple built its devoted following by positioning itself as the outsider, the little guy, the alternative. Forty years later, Apple Inc. stands second only to Samsung on the “world’s largest technology company” list, and thanks to the ubiquitous iTunes they are the biggest music retailer on the planet.

Along the way, Apple used its awesome superpowers to turn regional and little known bands into worldwide superstars. Remember this campaign?

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But the party seems to be over at the little indie that could. Ed Christman writes in a recent Billboard article that “some indie executives are wondering if iTunes is transitioning from being like a Tower Records to becoming like a Best Buy store, with [an] emphasis [on] hit titles and leaving the niche genres and long tail as an afterthought.”

Your first question may be, “What’s a Tower Records?” — to which I say you’re so, so young, but your next question is probably, “How can iTunes be like a Best Buy?”

After all, Apple’s “world’s biggest record store” is a virtual space. Unlike that big store in your local mall’s parking lot, iTunes has a seemingly infinite amount of space in which to offer songs for download, so why squeeze out the indies when there’s plenty of room to go around?

No one seems to know for sure, but Christman (and more specifically the indie executives he interviewed) offer some theories:

  1. Blame It on the Beats. In this scenario Apple is prettying up the shop in anticipation of a relaunch of their Beats digital streaming service. Licensing differs between streaming and download; in fact, in the iTunes (download) world, it’s the labels who are responsible for paying the publishers. In streaming land, Apple has that responsibility. Fewer labels means fewer accounting headaches.
  2. Clean Up This Mess of a Room. Apple recently updated its style guide, and if your indie record doesn’t conform to the new standards, it’s gone. Thousands of titles have gotten the axe in recent months. Christman quotes an indie distributor: “In some ways, the store has become a junk heap — with a lot of public domain records, re-records, sound-alikes, karaoke and tribute albums showing up in artist searches.”
  3. Dude, You Just Didn’t Make the Cut. Apparently many indie albums that conform to the new style guide have been taken down due to “editorial discretion.” Another indie executive is quoted here: “If Apple is updating and publishing a style guide and if titles in the store conform to the style guide, it should be in the store. Yet, they are taking down stuff without saying why they are taking it down; they just say editorial discretion; that is not right.”

It’s this last point, editorial discretion, that seems to have the biggest potential to harm independent labels and artists. Of course Apple has the right to choose what they sell, but when you’re talking about the biggest music record store in the world, slamming the door in the little guys’ faces can mean the difference between success and failure for indie artists.

This isn’t just a question of what songs Apple offers for sale, but how they are marketed. Previously, editorial discretion extended to what albums were featured in the iTunes carousels. In the Best Buy analogy, these would be the albums that are prominently displayed on the aisle end caps, and the store manager had the flexibility to say, “This new Belle and Sebastian is great. I think I’ll put it where everybody can see it.”

If you found yourself smiling at the thought of Best Buy featuring Belle and Sebastian, then you know exactly where this is going: Editorial discretion on the iTunes carousels has been replaced by “sales velocity.” In other words, the more you sell, the more time you’ll spend featured on the carousel, just like in a traditional store. That’s great news for Iggy Azalea, but not for Iggy Pop.

"That’s great news for Iggy Azalea, but not for Iggy Pop."

Essentially, Apple can no longer lay claim to being alternative to anything, regardless of their marketing. The days of being a tastemaker who turns bands like Jet into global phenomenons have been replaced by synergistic roll-outs of new phones and U2 albums. Today, Steve Jobs’ little indie that could is by far the biggest rock in the river.

So what will the indie labels do? What they always do — they’ll flow around the rock, not through it. They’ll partner with some small company with a big vision and an innovative concept for connecting us to the music that we love. Some of their artists will hit big, and in 30 years they’ll be the industry giants giving away their new album in conjunction with the latest teleporter/phone/food dehydrator.

And that small company with the the big vision will grow in stature until the once mighty Apple is just another little rock in the big river — and the cycle will start all over again.

iTunes might be over for the indies, but in the end, fans of alternative music will be just fine. There’s no sense worrying over one sour apple.

Next: Musicians vs. Performers: The Endless Debate

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