Merlin the Magician

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

The record business is a highly misunderstood industry, filled with imbalanced perspectives that play out in heartbreaking realism. One common misconception is that major label artists must have great talent. Not true. Just look at the pop charts. They are littered with reasonably mediocre talent.

But having said that, you do need major label bucks to build a mainstream career, unpopular a thought as it might be. Bands like Radiohead, and Nine Inch Nails risked little by declaring independence after major labels helped launch their careers. Once firmly established in the business, these bands could afford to walk away from the major-label machine.

But emerging talents should think carefully about how to build their careers. The truth, rarely told, is that the sales charts in this country are controlled by major labels. It's almost impossible for an independent developing artist to generate enough commercial-radio airplay, to finance the numerous nationwide tours during an album cycle, to generate mainstream press coverage of their talents and to be allocated the appropriate shelf space at large retailers. These standard marketing tools are, in large measured, controlled by the relationships from the major labels.

That is not to say new recording artists can't create their own music and upload tracks for iTunes and Amazon sales. And they can get press, in store product positioning and may be able to tour on their own. Independent artists can carve out a very nice cottage business but, because of the current business practices, they stand little chance of breaking into the mainstream. That means for all their hard work they might maintain their base, but growing and thriving into a multi-million-dollar business is an entirely different matter. There are exceptions to this rule, like Arcade Fire and Evanescence, but you can count them by name. The unfortunate reality is, despite all the hoopla, much of the record business is stacked against independent artists succeeding.

A prime example of the major label hold on the business is the recent deal MySpace Music made with the four major label conglomerates. The online giant recently announced they'd be retailing major label music on their soon to be launched, new and improved MySpace site. The site will be jointly owned by MySpace and the major labels. Independent labels have not yet been invited to participate in the financial splits. This move has angered many indies because MySpace's meteoric rise in popularity was built by independent artists.

But one group is hoping to change that and find level playing ground for independent labels. Merlin is an international consortium of independent labels with over 12,000 members. The group was created to protect revenue streams previously unavailable to independent artists. By creating a cooperative worldwide organization, Merlin is hoping to be considered the “fifth major label” negotiating at the table with the trade.

If you have any doubts about why Merlin is needed in this country, consider this. Last year, 13% of all albums sold came from either the Disney or American Idol brands. There may be talent there but let's remember - popular music defines the culture it represents. I think America deserves much better representation.

God speed, Merlin.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.