The terms “major” and “indie” (independent) can be applied to many different entities in the music business. While we most often think of the words in the context of artists and record labels, they can also be refer to publishing, distribution services, radio stations, and virtually any other sector. “Indie” has even become its own music genre. This guide has been written to make clear what ‘major’ and ‘independent’ actually mean when used in the context of different sectors of the music business.
On a broad level, a major music company is a large, conglomerate corporation, or a part of one. Most often, the term “major” refers to a record label. The companies that are considered major is always subject to change, due to the mergers and acquisitions that constantly shift the music industry landscape (see our Record Labels guide for a complete historical account of these changes). Today, the three major music companies are Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, and Sony Music. These companies own or have equity in many others, which in the case of the record labels constitutes a ‘family’ of labels.
On the flip-side, an indie music company or an indie artist/writer is simply one that is not affiliated with one of the majors. There are indie publishers, distributors, radio stations and record labels. “Indie” has also become a genre. This is primarily due to music curators on online platforms creating separate spaces for music that didn’t come from the majors. Over time, this distinction has blurred, and the music one may find on an Indie playlist could actually be a song from an artist signed to a major label. This music is typically deemed fit for the Indie playlist because it sounds different, off-kilter, or eccentric in some way.
It bears mentioning that the term “indie” has not always signified a mere business affiliation or musical sound. Indie has come to represent a counter-cultural attitude or lifestyle, defined in antithesis to accepted norms in music or other cultural aspects of a society. Due to its proliferation and overuse in the last couple of decades, however, the term as an indicator of lifestyle has become obscure. This guide will focus on “indie” as used in the context of the music business. In the business, labeling oneself as independent, regardless of any business affiliation one may or may not have, has become a marketing tactic to appeal to certain audiences.
Independent music companies often offer “360” services, meaning that they may offer to work for the musician on distributing and marketing their records, publishing copyrights, and managing any other aspects of business. All this is subject to contractual agreement.
*An Important Note:
In practice, it may not matter who owns the corporate entity with which a musician does business, and thus whether that entity is technically “independent.” No company can be sufficiently characterized simply on the basis of whether they are “major” or “independent.” While these terms are useful in denoting business structures and their role in the overall framework of the music business, they are not definitive. *
Major Record Labels
The three major record labels each own many subsidiaries. They also own distribution and other music service companies, which allows them to vertically integrate and more fully control every step of the process. For instance, Sony Music wholly owns both RED Music and The Orchard. RED Music is a label services company that offers promotion and licensing services and partners with other Sony subsidiary labels. The Orchard is a music distribution platform that allows clients to manage both physical and online dissemination of their products. Neither company is specifically branded as a “Sony” company, and both do business with independent companies and musicians. This could perhaps lead to confusion because these companies work primarily with “indie” artists. Nonetheless, both businesses are technically “major.”
Major labels typically have a host of individual departments (i.e. publicity, sales, marketing, etc.) with multiple personnel in each, as well as offices in multiple different cities. For example, Warner Music Group has a “Shared Services” office in Nashville, Tennessee which houses accounting, finance, and rights management operations for all of WMG’s sub-labels. This may be in contrast to an independent company, which may not have large departments with many personnel dedicated to specific areas of the business.
As mentioned above, the majors all have many subsidiary labels under their corporate umbrellas, and these labels are also considered major:
While they account for much less market share collectively, there are many independent record labels across the United States and the world. Indie labels are typically much smaller than major labels, often operating out of only one or two cities. Typically, but not always, the rosters of indie record labels are more specialized. Artists could be from the same geographic area, play in a similar genre of music, or simply all be acquainted with the business owner.
Some artists opt to create their own record label businesses. There is a wide spectrum of how these businesses can operate; some adhere to a more conventional model, signing artists to the roster. Some exist merely as business names for the copyright notices and serve as mechanisms to collect royalty checks.
Third Man Records, started by Jack White, is an example of an artist-run label. Third Man has two physical store locations, one in Nashville and one in Detroit. These serve as vinyl pressing centers, retail shops, and performance venues. Third Man has an eclectic roster of artists, and hosts unique events and pop-up-shops across the country.
Some companies act as resources for independent musicians, distributing and possibly marketing their records in exchange for a service fee. The degree of personalization in the services these companies offer varies greatly; distribution companies can act as record labels without owning the masters, with a full team of people dedicated to one artist, or they can be completed online and impersonal. It is incumbent upon the independent musician to figure out which type of company best fits their needs and to pursue a distribution deal accordingly.
The major music publishers in the United States are Sony/ATV, Warner-Chappell, and Universal Music Publishing Group. Like record labels, music publishers vary greatly in size, scale and business model. While the differentiation between major and indie works for music publishers too, the lines can blur easily.
The terrestrial radio industry is similar to the record and publishing industries in that a few conglomerate corporations own the vast majority of radio stations and thus account for the largest market share. iHeartMedia and Cumulus are the major companies that own the majority of broadcasting stations across the country. There are, however, still a few truly independent terrestrial radio stations, such as KEXP in Seattle and Lightning 100 in Nashville.
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