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Grammy Awards provide a big boost for indie music

February 16, 2011 |  3:20 pm

Arcade Fire-Grammy Robert Gauthier 
Arcade Fire’s album-of-the-year Grammy award on Sunday night for “The Suburbs” was a victory for a lot of people, and not just because it seemed as if the Canadian rock collective brought half the population of its native Montreal onstage during its show-closing musical performances.

It also was a win for the grassroots community of independent musicians and record companies to which Arcade Fire and its label, Merge Records, belong. Combined with the win in another of the top four Grammy categories -- jazz bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding’s upset for best new artist -- indie labels and artists came away from Sunday night’s ceremony with two major boosts to their self-esteem.

“A lot of the jaws that hit the floor when those two categories were announced were those of independents,” said Jim Selby, chief executive of Naxos of America, the independent Nashville-based classical label that racked up 35 nominations and took home 10 awards for its artists and distributed labels Sunday. “Independent artists winning against Eminem? A lot of people were thinking, ‘This is insane!' "

Those marquee category wins represented the tip of what may not represent an iceberg, but a growing presence for smaller music companies in an industry dominated on many fronts by the four major conglomerates: the Universal, Sony, EMI and Warner music groups.

Indie artists and labels -- broadly defined as any musician or company that owns and control its master recordings -- often have watched from the outside as major label acts have gone home year after year with the music industry’s most prestigious awards.

But in recent years, they’ve made steady inroads in the world of industry honors.

This year, indie labels and musicians accounted for just over half the total Grammy nominations, picking up 273 of 542 possible nominations across 108 categories. Indies took home Grammys in 45 of those 108 areas, all the more impressive given the dominance of the majors in the marketplace. That’s up from 195 nominations and 36 wins four years earlier.

Additionally, Arcade Fire’s win sent the album-of-the-year Grammy home with an independent label for the third consecutive year, following last year’s trophy to Taylor Swift’s “Fearless,” on Nashville-based Big Machine Records, and the previous year for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ “Raising Sand,” released by longtime folk and roots-music label Rounder Records.

Esperanza Spalding Grammy-Robert Gauthier

Such high-profile wins, Selby says, create a precedent demonstrating that “there’s a chance for everybody who’s an indie artist to win.”

Several factors are at work behind the increasing representation of independent artists and labels at awards time.

Historically, independent labels often operated like rogue comets, charting trajectories that rarely intersected with those of the major labels or other independents.

In 2005, however, a consortium of indie labels formed its own trade organization, the American Assn. of Independent Music (A2IM). Since that time, A2IM has worked to instruct independents on how to become active in the Recording Academy, which bestows the Grammy Awards.

“Joining anything doesn’t come naturally for any independent,” said A2IM vice president Jim Mahoney. “This community hasn’t always participated at a sophisticated level in mainstream activities like the Grammy Awards…. Now, if it’s in your brand’s best interest and part of your ethic that you don’t want to participate, fantastic. But if not, we tell people how to join in and become voting members of the Recording Academy.”

The increasing number of indie nominations and wins is all the more impressive in light of the dominance of the majors.

According to a market-share breakdown released by the Nielsen SoundScan sales monitoring service, Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI were responsible for 89% of total album sales in 2010, while nonmajor labels collectively tallied just 11%.

But the statistical waters get muddy because many independents contract with majors for physical and/or digital distribution services, while retaining ownership of their master recordings. Nielsen SoundScan, however, typically credits sales of indie releases to the marketshare of the major that distributes them.

In reality, A2IM’s Mahoney said, recordings on indie labels actually constituted 30% of the physical market and 38% of digital sales last year.

Another key factor is the rise in the last decade of social media that have amplified indies’ ability to target fans of specialized genres and artists, further helping them compete despite far more limited resources.

“The indie community has always been a great incubator of creativity and new music and new directions,” said Glen Barros, president and CEO of the Concord Music Group, whose releases garnered 24 nominations and took five Grammys, including Spalding’s new artist award, on Sunday. “Now it’s easier for indies to connect with an audience in all the different sectors: in the very commercial ones and the not-so commercial ones.”

“The barriers aren’t what they were before,” added Dave Hansen, general manager of Epitaph Records, whose Anti- subsidiary label released Mavis Staples’ “You Are Not Alone,” which won the Americana album Grammy on Sunday, Staples’ first. “Great artists can break through without getting airplay from that small handful of [major market] radio stations or MTV. We can get through all that now.”

The struggles of the majors to compete with the plethora of entertainment options available to consumers have further mitigated some advantages they enjoyed in previous decades.

“The fact that we can promote our music and get the same amount of airplay on Pandora, on different websites, on Internet and satellite radio, on MySpace and Facebook, it’s all helped level the playing field,” said Naxos’ Selby.

“The fact that we are independent and doing so well, our peers proved that to us on Sunday night through voting for our recordings,” Selby said. “It’s more exciting to be an independent now than ever.”

-- Randy Lewis


 Critic's Notebook: A night of bold moves and noisy risks at Grammys

 Grammy Awards: Lady Antebellum, Arcade Fire take top honors

Top photo: Lead singer Win Butler and other members of Canada's Arcade Fire accepting a Grammy Award on Sunday at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.

Second photo: Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding, named best new artist at Sunday's Grammy Awards. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.