WHY WE NEED AN INDEPENDENT MUSIC CONVERSATION

Composer & Label Manager Neil March argues that everyone involved in the independent music sector needs to join a new game-changing conversation

In a digitally liberated but consequently overcrowded music industry the independent musician spends a considerable share of his or her energies seeking ways to reach people. This article is my first attempt to begin a conversation about the changing role of genuinely independent music media and associated players in expanding the possibilities for artists. But that conversation also needs to be about how the artists and their supporters can contribute by reciprocating that support. It doesn’t end there either. It is a conversation that needs to involve online media, independent labels and managers, live events promoters, merchandise makers, promo people, basically anyone and everyone who has a part to play in bringing independently produced music to the widest possible audience; but doing so without relying on an instinctively conservative and commercially driven mainstream establishment.

In the United Kingdom the State’s public service broadcasting agency is of course the BBC. The BBC deserves praise for the innovations it has introduced to provide a wide spectrum of bands and artists with a platform. The BBC Introducing system offers a user-friendly and cost-free means by which aspiring artists can upload their new tracks and be listened to by the new music show for their region and, depending what categories they have selected to describe their output, specialist shows on national radio. The development of BBC 6 Music as a flagbearer for non-mainstream interests and, to a lesser degree, 1Xtra have aided this process and it would be churlish not to acknowledge the continuous volume of bands and artists whose music is brought to the attention of a wider audience through receiving support through these avenues.

I should also mention Fresh on the Net. Not just because I am a moderator and reviews author for the platform. But because it stands alone as an independent resource invented, funded and overseen by BBC broadcaster and music legend Tom Robinson (with amazing day to day management by Steve Harris) offering opportunities for bands and artists to get their music heard and assessed by a loyal discerning new music audience. And while it is entirely independent of the BBC, it has the unique advantage that some of those submitting tracks make it onto the BBC Introducing Mixtape Show (compiled and presented by Tom) and, in some cases, Tom’s Saturday Night show on BBC Radio 6 Music.

Of course I speak as one of the fortunate ones who has enjoyed support from this system. My music career received a quite unexpected shot in the arm when, at the tender age of 53, I was picked up by BBC Introducing. Thanks to Radio 3’s Late Junction, then subsequently 6 Music plus additional support from BBC Three Counties (on account of my having grown up in Hemel Hempstead), I secured some fantastic airplay and the opportunity of performing live on the BBC Introducing Stage at Latitude in 2017. My EP shifted 60K streams (although,  of course, the income that produces would just about pay for a luxury weekend away!). I also got to be interviewed on several BBC radio programmes talking about my music.

I have however seen the other side of that coin. It has been difficult at times to get the same radio shows to take an interest in subsequent releases because I am no longer a new name deemed to be in need of Introducing assistance. But I am hardly a household name based on a little run of airplay. I still need support. I still need airplay. I have had to learn that the only way to build on and continue to experience success, even on a minor scale, is to take control of the situation and make things happen rather than hoping someone else will be impressed enough to do that for you.

One of the key platforms I have been consistently grateful for has been genuinely independent radio. That does not mean what the corporates refer to as independent (i.e. radio stations owned by Global or Bauer Media including Capital, Heart, Kiss, Smooth, Magic and all their offshoots as well as virtually all established regional FM and DAB channels that are not under the BBC umbrella). It is ironic that they are bracketed together as independent radio when in fact they have centrally dictated playlists that exclude any music that is not either currently or formerly in the pop charts. They have no specialist shows; not even token ones aired in the wee hours. Those that purport to be local stations are forbidden from supporting local artists unless, of course, they are already famous. Even then they have to fit the narrow model of what is approved centrally.

That is why it is such good news that the growth of internet radio continues. DAB is limited in its usefulness as most non-professional (by which I mean those operating in spare time or at best part time) cannot afford the equipment and licenses necessary to broadcast. All the same, stations with a great track record of supporting new and non-mainstream music like Resonance FM and Resonance Extra plus specialists like Mi-Soul (Soul & House), Reprezent (Urban) and others have chosen to go down that path and DAB is now the principal means by which most of us listen to the radio with FM being phased out and unable to match the sound quality or the pinpoint accuracy of frequency that DAB offers.

Internet Radio is another matter altogether though. Although it does involve some cost in meeting the important terms of PRS and PPL licenses, online hosting and adequate equipment and facilities through which to successfully broadcast, it offers a low cost option and the ability for real music lovers, enthusiasts and historians to create shows that are not restricted by corporate policy or central playlists. The evolution of social media has helped too. Many online stations post every single track played on Twitter so that others can see a constant stream of tracks and potentially be enticed into listening in.

What is most significant about this birth of mass internet radio stations is the potential it offers to independent musicians to utilise new channels for getting heard. And there are some who are already proving to be not just open to receiving new tracks by unknown or emerging artists but who usually do play them at least once, sometimes multiple times. They include but are by no means limited to Exile FM (Melton Mowbray), Radio Dacorum (Hemel Hempstead), Radio Wigwam (Cardiff), The Source FM (Truro), Conquest Radio (Hastings) Radio North Angus (Arbroath), Union Jack FM (Oxford), Radio Verulam (St Albans) and non-UK stations like RKC (Paris), XTended Radio (Amsterdam) and Lonely Oak Radio (California). I know that there are scores of others and I am doing my best to discover them as I continue with my work.

These stations represent a mix of models. Radio Dacorum and Radio Verulam are, for example, community radio stations set up in accordance with Ofcom rules, supported by local government, reliant on local sponsors and advertisers and staffed by volunteers. Radio North Angus and Conquest Radio are hospital-based but, unlike the hospital radio we once experienced in pre-digital times, these ones have UK and worldwide followings due to being able to broadcast on line. RKC, Xtended Radio, Radio Wigwam and Lonely Oak Radio are all completely internet-based and rely on donations. Exile FM, on the other hand, is run by a small musician-led group broadcasting from home and driven by a passion for new music.

What all these stations have in common, apart from the obvious fact that they are all independent, online and sit well beyond the remit of corporate commercial radio, is that they are all prepared to play music by unknown and emerging artists. And that alone is a reason to support them. But there is a relatively simple point we need to pause to consider. As things stand, one can never be sure how many people are genuinely listening most of the time. And we can either view that as a reason not to take them all that seriously or we can do what I suggest is far more constructive and pull together to play an active part in building their audiences. That way they have a bigger reach (and with that the potential to raise more income) and we get our music heard by many more people.

So what can we do? Social Media offers the first and most obvious means by which we can all freely and rapidly spread the word about positive developments like a radio show that plays an eclectic mix of non-mainstream music and is providing a platform for new artists. We need to share the information far and wide. Encourage others to abandon listening to frustrating shows on unsuitable stations in the hope of the hearing the odd gem and listen instead to a show that shuns the commercial mainstream and supports new music.

A good many of these stations produce podcasts which means not having to listen to the show at the specified time of broadcast. But for those who can only broadcast live, such as Conquest Radio, we need to share information about the dates and times of key shows. The capacity is there for a sustained campaign to change listening habits and build a formidable audience for new music radio.

Of course it cuts both ways. Artists need to know that the support from independent radio shows won’t suddenly vanish if their audience figures grow and they inevitably then find themselves being courted by the major labels wanting their artists to be playlisted ahead of less mainstream ones. Radio stations also need to make it as easy as possible for artists and labels to send them new tracks. A modern radio show ought to be able to play a track by either clicking on the Soundcloud link or accessing it on Spotify or Bandcamp. But there are still some who insist either on receiving a physical product (which immediately rules out a vast amount of new music that is only available in digital form) or for files to be submitted using their own online submission forms which can be cumbersome and do not always enable artists to provide the relevant information about themselves or the track(s).

Ultimately though, what independent musicians and media need is a community. That includes but is by no means limited to artists, labels, managers, radio stations, online media (including regular and significant blogs), live music promoters and venues, independent and specialist booking agents etc. It should involve fans too. It is a big conversation that needs to take place and will not happen overnight. But with more and more people (fans, artists, new media etc.) feeling increasingly disengaged  from the pop mainstream and corporate-dominated markets, the old adage that unity is strength is especially relevant here.

Consider the potential. A network of radio shows for artists and their labels and managers to easily submit tracks and albums to; a network of well-established and active blogs and online platforms willing to review new music; a network of promoters and venues across the UK (and maybe beyond) who are inclined to offer slots for aspiring artists to play on the same bills as more well-known acts who can pull a crowd, especially in their own localities. It would take a lot of work, time and good will. But the benefits would be enormous.

If this all sounds a bit idealistic and hopeful, remember it is just an opening gambit. But one ambition that is already brewing in my continuously hyperactive brain is to host a Conference - perhaps the Big Independent Music Conversation - with funding from the likes of PRS Foundation, Arts Council, Sound & Music, AIM or other appropriate organisations. It would be a fantastic opportunity to get as many key stakeholders in the same room discussing how we can all help one another and, in so doing, significantly enhance the opportunities for independent music to reach a wider audience and that wider audience to also be choosing online and other non-mainstream media through which to access, listen to and read about new music. Involving representatives from the live music scene would open up exciting avenues too. The conversation could be extended to involve start-ups specialising in merchandise, music shops and equipment hire outlets. Basically the more the merrier!

In guidance I have published about managing independent music careers, I have pointed to a hierarchy of potential income streams with merchandise at the top of the pile followed roughly by physical CD (or vinyl) sales at live events, ticket sales for gigs and royalties claims for broadcasts (on larger stations) and for live performances in licensed venues. Streaming is way way down the list. For these aims to succeed, artists and independent entrepreneurs need avenues for merchandise and CD or vinyl production at competitive rates that are good for them whilst simultaneously supporting the wider independent sector. They also need to understand the benefits of membership organisations but that is a debate for a different article.

Getting this conversation started will be one of the biggest challenges in itself. I can post to my heart’s content on social media and hope others share, retweet etc. I will of course start by sharing this article. Some will be sceptical and will argue that they have heard these kinds of arguments before. They probably have. But then the game has been changed by events in the past five years alone. If I can get one hundred people engaged in independent new music in any capacity to both read and share this article, it will be a great start. The conversation has begun. Can we keep it going or will it fizzle out like so many past conversations? Fingers crossed that it leads to a real and lasting legacy.