Independent electronic labels are embracing the digital future of a post-Napster society that eliminated vinyl and the ability to sell records.
Vinyl records are a novelty
Since the digital revolution of the music industry in the mid-2000s, vinyl records have become more of a novelty than a practical way to listen to music. Artists and collectors love them for their aesthetic appeal, but you would be hard-pressed to find a DJ still mixing with 12-inch discs on traditional turntables.
"It's much more convenient to have Serato (a vinyl emulation software) and a laptop in your bag," said French producer Jean Baptiste de Laubier, who goes by the stage name Para One.
For the last eight years, Laubier was signed to Institubes, an independent French electronic music label founded in 2003. Dedicated to the belief that artwork and graphic design should play an equally important role in the label as the music itself, Institubes released albums primarily on vinyl.
The company carved out a niche market of vinyl enthusiasts and emerged as one of the three big French labels to spearhead the electro boom of the new millennium. But the idea of buying records only remained attractive until around 2006, when downloading went mainstream and people no longer wanted to pay for music.
Rather than restructuring the label to accommodate the shift, Institubes stuck with their vision and remained committed to the physical product.
The end of record sales
The marketplace for music exists almost purely online
Institubes shut down last week, citing a "post-apocalyptic, terminally pauperized" music industry that can't reconcile the public with the idea of buying records. It was as clear of an indication as any that the marketplace for music now exists purely online.
Since the close of Institubes, Laubier has launched digital-only Marble Records along with former Institubes labelmates Benoit Heitz and Hugues Rey, who perform under the names Surkin and Bobmo, respectively. They say trying to make a profit selling music is a lost cause.
"We plan on finding money in different places, but not by selling music," said Laubier. "I know it sounds weird, but that's the way it has to be now."
One of those ways is by playing live shows. Para One, Bobmo and Surkin play one to two gigs per week, and nightly when they're on tour.
Since most indie label managers are artists themselves, a significant amount of a record company's income still stems from music production. Music is also monetized when it's played on the radio or used in advertisements.
"Two hours of work paid for two years of my life," said Laubier, who had one of his tracks picked up by French carmaker Renault.
But he was quick to point out that these offers are a gamble and can't be relied upon.
The bottom line: selling music
The key to all of this is building a personal brand, says UK-based producer Graeme Sinden, who first started playing at Institubes parties in 2006.
Radio playtime is still one source of revenue
"There are fewer revenue streams and the ones that are there are tight," he said, adding that merchandise sales are a growing source of income for indie artists. "You need to find other ways to make your product extra special to make people dig into their pockets a bit."
But while he admitted that the landscape for selling music looks bleak, he is optimistic that people will begin to start valuing music again.
The market for online music sales is growing, despite record-low numbers in sales overall. Services like iTunes and Beatport are filling the void left by closed record shops and are providing artists with an outlet to sell music.
Still, it will be a while before these online music retailers revive the industry, if at all. The alternative sources of income do allow some artists to continue producing full-time, but selling music to individual listeners ultimately determines whether or not indie artists can afford to live off their craft.
For now, in order to cover the costs of promotion, artwork and web hosting, Marble Records gives two to three parties a year featuring their signed bands.
"We hope the records are going to sell so we don't lose too much money and don't rely too much on parties," said Heitz.
Author: Christian Nathler
Editor: Kate Bowen