Indie music biz blows its own trumpet

A2IM will honor Mills at first Libera Awards

Statistically speaking, times have rarely been better to be part of an indie label. With half of last year’s Grammy nominations (not to mention the last four album of the year Grammy winners) going to independent releases, and indies representing nearly a third of total album sales, once marginal imprints have been making larger and larger waves in the music business’ shrinking pool.

All that’s missing, given the instinctively kudos-happy nature of the entertainment biz, is an awards show specifically for the indie music business.

Enter trade org the American Assn. of Independent Music (A2IM), which will next week ring in its inaugural Libera Awards. The kudos will cap off the org’s Indie Week confab, running June 19-21, and culminating with the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Beggars Group chairman Martin Mills.

Over the past seven years, Gotham-based A2IM has taken on the difficult task of uniting the nation’s compositionally and geographically disparate indie labels into a single-voiced lobbying force. Considering that its members include everyone from the Nashville giant Big Machine, which has enough pull to negotiate its own royalty deals with Clear Channel, all the way to influential yet tiny boutique imprints like Kanine and Duck Down, maintaining parity would seem a tall order.

If A2IM head Rich Bengloff has his way, then, the Liberas will be a showcase for the fraternity of the group’s members, depite their divergent makeups.

“We haven’t had a vote, other than for approval of new members and the prior meeting’s minutes, in over five years. We come to consensus on just about every issue,” claims Bengloff. “Different issues are important to different members, but our larger members — Beggars, Concord, Epitaph — remember when they were small, and tend to bend over backwards to help our smaller members.”

Appropriately, the Liberas split label of the year honors between labels with five or fewer employees, and those with six or more. There are also awards for best synch usage and “road warrior of the year,” highlighting the increasingly essential elements of the business that are rarely recognized in such a fashion.

And in Mills, the org has chosen perhaps the most obvious lifetime honoree candidate from among its members. A kingpin of the U.K. independent scene for decades, Mills’ Beggars Group comprises a number of indie music’s heaviest hitters, with its four labels boasting a current roster that runs from Adele to Radiohead, Vampire Weekend and the National. Which perhaps explains why the U.S.-focused A2IM is giving its inaugural kudo to a Brit.

“I was surprised they hadn’t given it to an American citizen,” Mills said, adding that receiving the lifetime achievement kudo made him feel “like a greatest hits album.” (Bengloff conceded it was an unusual move for the org, but noted, “fortunately, I’m not a birther.”)

“Herding cats is a good analogy,” Mills said of the task of keeping indies organized. “It’s to the credit of the people involved in the various organizations that they’ve been able to. Until (A2IM sister organization) AIM in the U.K. started, indie organizations were anarchic, underfunded, irresponsible, and had no full time staffs. (Since then), they’ve become at least as well respected as the traditional mainstream organizations, and had huge impact on the success of indies over the last 10 years.”

Voicing concern over maintaining a level playing field with the pending Universal Music Group acquisition of EMI’s recorded assets, he stressed that despite the rise in indie fortunes, the music business will always be “David fighting Goliath.” For Mills, the key to maintaining success lies in continuing to play to indie strengths.

“The kinds of artists independents work with certainly don’t sell as many units as the majors, but they do sell album units rather than singles units, which are obviously worth around 10 times as much,” Mills said. “And that’s fundamentally what’s made this, to the extent that it may be, the era of the independents.

“When you look at the album chart, the independents are considerably more represented than they have been for the last 40 or 50 years. Then you go to the singles chart: hardly there. Pop radio playlists? Hardly there. Endorsement arena? Hardly there. It’s quite a different world, and quite frankly that suits us. You can be the Arcade Fire and sell however many hundreds of thousands they’ve sold, and actually have a very good career doing that.”

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