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Independent Labels Thrive On-line

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

This week, several record industry veterans left their posts at major labels after decades of service. I imagine we'll see many more veterans depart in the future, because the business is just not the same as it once was.

It's not that the record industry has changed so much. It's just become much more challenging to earn a living. A business built on half a century of hype and excesses which has been completely eclipsed by technological advances, changing buying habits, shifts in manufacturing, widespread piracy, declining interest in CD's and shrinking profit margins, is not going to turn around. That genie will not go back in its bottle. So where is the recovery?

Smart labels have wisely chosen to build a vibrant online presence around the main artists they represent. Yep Roc takes pre-orders on Paul Weller, with added value singles and signed, numbered editions to encourage website sales. Thrill Jockey offers an insiders club to loyal buyers with free downloads, bonus tracks and videos.

Sub Pop offers access into their amazing catalog, including select 7-inch vinyl from their now defunct Singles Club of the 1990s. Saddle Creek gives fans the opportunity to buy tickets to shows on-line, in advance.

Most of these indy labels stream their releases first online, long before the traditional trade gets copies, to give diehard fans an early listen. Most indies also sell at least three configurations of music – CD's, 180-gram vinyl and MP3's. Vinyl has become a defining element in the indy rock world, and it sets these labels apart from their major label counterparts.

Labels like Alternative Tentacles, Thrill Jockey, Kill Rock Stars and Sub Pop not only offer their own artists music, but they also offer music from other cool labels. But regardless of what these labels sell, the most important element in their online world is the community of fans and bands they serve. When the band, The Concretes', gear was stolen from their van in New York City, their label Astralwerks posted the description and serial numbers in hopes of finding the equipment. Omaha-based label Saddle Creek hosts a weekly movie of the employees hanging out. Alternative Tentacles' staff hosts weekly radio shows.

For many decades, the music business and the fans have always put having a good time at a premium. In the last decade, the tables have turned. Big business has overtaken the vision.

But indie labels understand that the bands and the fans rule the day, and they're working hard to make sure no one forgets. They realize they are but trusted servants of the artists they represent.

As it is true for all great art forms, it's the fiercely held understanding of just how fragile the line between art and commerce really is, that still keeps many in the record business engaged.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

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