Transformation of The Indie Music Industry

Transformation of The Indie Music Industry.

A lot of barriers within the production, promotion and distribution system were broken for the indie artists with the introduction of digital formats in recording instead of analog formats in the 1980s. When advancement in technology began to break down the previously rigid infrastructure of the recording industry, the strongly held oligopoly of the industry was shaken and almost eliminated after being predominant for over half a century.

Internet brought with it an increasing number of affordable and powerful software that made the production costs of music fall drastically in the 1990s, with new technologies making robust recording equipment available to indie musicians. Today, there continues to be a reduction in the necessity of expensive studio time, enabling indie artists and musicians to take the DIY approach in creating music.

In 1981, Sony, in collaboration with Philips developed the compact disc and surpassed the sale of records in less than a decade. Being the first widely used digital format, the CD earned a lot of money for the record labels before their soon-to-come doom. Recording companies arbitrarily raised the prices of CDs, justifying it with high quality of sound and establishment costs for the facilities required for the new format. While the matured and streamlined process of manufacturing and shipping CDs was far cheaper than the cost of records, the labels continued to charge higher process for CDs. Transportation and storage expenses of recording companies largely reduced due to the inherently economical production system of CDs. They were lighter and dimensionally smaller than records and therefore required little transportation cost and lesser storage space in stores and warehouses, not to forget that their smaller size led to reduced manufacturing costs. Yet, the record companies continued to charge high prices with reduced expense.

As I have written in my blog The Evolution of Indie Music, independent music or Indie music has been known as music produced by an individual, a group or a commercial record label independently, where the recording and publishing is done by the individual, the group or the brand at a smaller and less commercially complicated level. Historically, Indie music used to be defined as something that was not published by the big four players in music publishing, namely Universal, Sony, Warner, and EMI. However, growing and being noticed without the support of a label, in times when there was no internet, was difficult and therefore, most Indie bands of those days went unnoticed.

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The only issue with the digital format was piracy. This presented potential problems for labels as unlike analog phonograph records whose quality reduced with every copy that was made, the particular characteristic of the digital format was that it could be replicated infinite number of times without losing its sound quality. While this made copies perfect substitutes for the original, it caused labels to consider watermarking, to avoid issues of piracy and prevent loss of sales. They however, eventually elected against the decision. At that time, the labels obviously did not know that it was not going to be CDs but another digital format that would actually have a major impact on their sales!

The casual use of internet spread like fire and by the mid-90s personal computers were becoming a household thing because of the internet. At that time, introduction of a new format called the MP3, as a product of the European Union project related to MPEG-1 video, led to the possibility of compressing audio files and making them easily transferable through the internet and fit on personal computers. In 1995, the first MP3 player ‘Winplay3’ was introduced with the ability to decompress and playback digital MP3 files simultaneously and automatically. The WinAmp MP3 Player followed the WinPlay in 1997 and boasted improved functionality and an intuitive user interface.

The MP3 format was popularized by WinAmp and remains a prominent media player even today.   The stage for renovation was not set only by the increase in internet usage and development of a new digital format in the industry. Another major technological change was the creation of a digital audio tape recorder (DAT) in 1986, by Sony and Phillips. This was the first device that could both record and play these formats. However, it is important to note that due to legal battles, it never truly broke into the US market.

I will discuss about the legal issues related with the introduction of DAT in a separate post. In my next article, I am going to discuss the legal backdrop that would eventually be at the centre of countless lawsuits on the part of record labels.

Please share any information that you think might be important for all indie artists and musicians and I will add it to my future blogs. Let’s learn and grow together!

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