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Indie Label Market

Wednesday May 25, 2011

The Direct-Selling Challenge to Retailers

Traditionally record label executives would run a mile rather than meet a real living, breathing member of the public, but this Saturday London's Berwick Street saw something really rather strange.

Here were some of the most renowned and successful, even legendary, independent label owners in the UK - among them Rough Trade's Geoff Travis (The Smiths, The Strokes), Mute's Daniel Miller (Depeche Mode, Moby) Heavenly's Jeff Barrett (Manic St Preachers, Doves) and XLs Richard Russell (Prodigy, Dizzee Rascal and of course the biggest breaking artist worldwide this year, Adele) - manning market stalls, selling their product direct to music fans.

They sold exclusive releases, merch (Mute offered a working synthesiser), even the worldwide rights to a new master recording (XL).

They enjoyed it. And so did the customers. 

The first Indie Label Market (ILM) - unashamedly inspired by Record Store Day - was a success. It will happen again. 

ILM is the brainchild of Angular Records founder Joe Daniel. Originally he approached the organisers of Record Store Day with the idea of Indie Label Market being a part of the retailers' event. That didn't go down well.

The word "hijacking" was bandied about - as was some riper language. Labels selling direct to consumers on a day all about labels coming to the aid of hard-pressed indie stores was never likely to win friends among retailers.

Many indie record stores made it clear they would rather Indie Label Market didn't happen at all, but Joe was adamant, and after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, Indie Label Market was postponed to May 21, the last possible weekend before the festival season begins in earnest.

Walking down a sunny Berwick Street on Saturday morning at around 9.45am, the first thing to be seen is a queue outside renowned indie record store Sister Ray. One-nil to the traditional retailer. Further down the road, the market comes into view. A large banner declares 'Rough Trade' - but not of course the store, the label. One-all.

The next stall sells fish.

Clearly this retailing lark is posing some challenges for the assembled labels. Despite the planned 10am start, some stalls are still empty. On the Domino stall, the cash box - clearly bought specially for the occasion - is still in its wrapping.

Joe Daniel struggles across the road dragging a large Calor Gas canister to heat the tea urn.

It all looks a bit school fete. And there is virtually nobody here.

But then something happens. People start turning up. In droves. The next minute Jarvis Cocker is DJing on the Rough Trade stall. Oh, look, there's Steve Lamacq. And Bernard Butler. And lots and lots of people.

Mute have lifted Record Store Day's "indie cupcake" idea, but they've gone one better. Each cake has a little flag in it with a "QR" code. Just snap it with the camera and you get a free download.

Being Mute, these are not just cupcakes, these are conceptual cupcakes, a statement on the value of music in the digital age: Cupcakes £1.50, Music free, reads the sign.

There's a palpable enthusiasm in the air.

The sun is shining. It is like a school fete. But the coolest one you've ever been to.

* * *

Indie Label Market was undoubtedly a success on its own terms, but whether the organizers like it or not, it finds itself slap, bang in the middle of the most controversial debate in entertainment retailing - the growing trend by content owners to sell direct-to-consumer, by-passing retailers.

Since the dawn of the internet age, the threat of being "disintermediated", has hung like a sword over retailers' necks.

If, mused the labels, the internet allows me to reach music fans directly, why do I need retailers at all?

Of course the labels have faced a disintermediation threat of their own, as some managers have tried cutting record companies out of the loop and selling direct themselves. In a declining market it should be no surprise that everyone tries to eat everyone else's lunch.

In truth direct-to-consumer has so far not come to much. The labels have had too many other battles to fight.  Some of the big plays to establish D2C service businesses, most notably Trinity Street, have ended in tears.

But 2011 is shaping up to be the year when direct-to-consumer comes to the fore once again. And the threat to retailers is clear.

The first to hit the fan was Now 78. The CD booklet for the compilation included six pages of promotion for the new website which allows consumers to download Now compilations and buy physical Now CDs without ever troubling a retailer.

Retailers did not take at all kindly to effectively distributing promotional material for a service which aims to take their customers off them.

Strong words were exchanged.

At the other end of the scale there's a constant background drip of exclusives, vinyl editions, box sets which are only available from the record company or - a common cover - from the artist's website.

And then along comes Indie Label Market.

In scale and intent, it is as far as it is possible to get from Now 78, but to many of those who have worked hard to nurture independent record stores with Record Store Day, Indie Label Market feels like the latest in a long line of kicks in the teeth.

So where to draw the line with direct-to-consumer? Are we past the point when it is reasonable to try and draw lines in the sand?

In a series of ERA meetings this week, retailers will grapple with just these problems. It could be quite a long drawn out discussion.

Posted at 15:31
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