Alison Wenham knows the indie spirit when she’s sees it. The British executive is a legend of the independent community, a fighter who’s gone more rounds than Floyd Mayweather (and probably had more wins).
After 17 years guiding the U.K.’s Association of independent Music (AIM), Wenham last year assumed a new global role as CEO of the Worldwide Independent Network (WIN).
Earlier this month, she opened the Going Global conference with a keynote at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios and a candid conversation with TIO’s Lars Brandle. Below is a transcript of Wenham’s keynote.
Good morning and welcome to Going Global. My name is Alison Wenham and as CEO of WIN, my role is to represent the independents at a global level. Who are the indies? They are the companies that we all know and love like Flying Nun, like Beggars, like Secretly Canadian and the thousands of record companies who’ve been around for many decades.
But there are also Independents who have entered the market in the last 15 years or so, creative entrepreneurs taking advantage of the very considerable market changes. They could be managers who are disillusioned with the old system, and who build a team around their artists and do things differently. They could be publishers who see an opportunity to do the same. They could be bedroom start-ups, artists, they could be people who come from the majors and still have a passion for music and want to continue to work in music. They’re all welcome here. It’s a big family and it’s a very broad church. It’s fair to say, we are at the heart of all the new business models being developed around the world.
A little bit of potted history helps to inform. The record industry as we know it is over a hundred years old. It’s a relatively young industry but it’s still a great, great grandmother’s age. When I came into it, it was a large cottage industry. The idea of “global” was very distant. There were big companies and small companies, but they were all local companies who were exporting in one way or another, through licensing and distribution deals. In the ‘50s and ‘60s a big jolt to the system happened with Elvis Presley and the Beatles, the invasion of different types of music crossing large expanses of sea, and that changed the dynamic.
Bigger companies started to get bigger. In the ‘80s something remarkable happened, which was the invention of the CD. In one fell swoop, the industry could swell its revenues through a new format.
Not only could we charge double for the same music but we could reinvent our entire back catalogue and sell it again at considerably higher prices. The industry experienced rapid growth and that is when the word ‘multi-national’ entered our business. In a multi-national industry, aggressive acquisition became common, to build global market share. In the ‘90s, before the majors acquired huge swathes of the independent sector, the largest independent was Virgin, a company half the size of the smallest major. Imagine that in a planetary system, a very balanced pro-competitive industry, with plenty of opportunities for artists to sign to any number of good, stable companies.
At the end of the 90s, pretty much all that had been swept away. Chrysalis, Island, Virgin, you name it, they were all subsumed into what is now three major record companies, leaving an army of independents across the world and that’s what we now represent. Perhaps through a sense of fear and needing to belong to each other, to band together, AIM was formed in the U.K. I went to the States many times to try and persuade the Americans that they could form a trade association, and they said year-on-year that it couldn’t be done. I kept being informed that anthropologically, the Americans were not collective players, they were fiercely individual players and that when they had success, it belonged solely to them.
When I was at SXSW, once again being defeated, someone in the meeting had a lightbulb moment and commented that in the 19th century in the US, the ones who made it to the west coast and didn’t get scalped were the ones who put their wagons in a circle. It was in that moment that the Americans looked at each other and said, we have historical precedent, we can do this. Today, A2IM is one of the best trade associations out there. Frankly, WIN could not have happened without the Americans forming A2IM.
Another success story attributable to our global collectivisation is Merlin. Merlin recently announced it had distributed a billion dollars to the independent sector. When we started Merlin we set a budget of $10 million and we thought we were being incredibly ambitious. We have come a very long way! Merlin is a tremendous asset, it’s not for profit and it’s not for sale.
Merlin has established the true value of independent copyrights in the commercial marketplace and has stabilised that value around rates which are commensurate with the true value of copyright, regardless of issuing company.
The key strength of the independents has been demonstrated through collectivising our approach, with Merlin proudly representing 14% of the global recorded music market. In creating a fair market place for all, the leaders in our sector believe you don’t pull the ladder up behind you when you become successful. You keep the door open, you help new players in and they will continually reinvigorate the industry.
And that’s good for everybody, big companies and small.
We advocate, protect, promote, connect and empower, unite and invest in indies. We recognize indies are as unique and different from each other as they are from the majors. We don’t expect indies to become homogenized, we respect the spikiness and individuality as that is what drives creativity. We know the majors have no role, no responsibility and no reason to care about the independent sector in the way that we do. The only reason the majors care about the independents is that if you’re successful enough they’ll want to buy you and add to their market share. The big players have no corporate responsibility for the small players, and in a crisis, it is the independent trade associations and WIN who will be the protectors.
Acting collectively, where has it got us? We have – reluctantly – taken on some of the biggest companies on the planet who sought to license independent repertoire on the cheap. We have had to do this, by necessity, as one of the cornerstones of our philosophy is that independent copyrights should not be devalued or thought of as cheaper than major-owned copyrights. In fact, there is an argument so say they’re hewn from rougher stone. The people who put their jobs and houses on the line for the passion of the music, they’re the ones who take the biggest risks of all. In the majors, if you mess up the worst that’s going to happen is that you might lose your job. In the independent sector, a lot worse can happen and that’s why together we try to protect, advise, promote and cushion.
It’s a complicated business for sure. We have been threatened by companies who have issued ultimatums for the record companies to accept terms and conditions “or else” and it’s not particularly clever to do that. You shouldn’t bully people. WIN represents an army of copyright owners around the world who deserve fair value for what they do.
We have been threatened by global companies who have tried and failed to put aside the inconvenient truth that copyright is an economic currency and needs to be respected and valued appropriately.
Copyright is a very inconvenient truth for those companies who have built enormous businesses with other peoples’ content and copyrights. Large companies around the world are pushing to weaken copyright because it suits their business model. If legislators here weaken on the exclusive right that is conferred with copyright, that will play straight into the hands of the biggest companies in the world.
Do we really think Universal, Sony and Warner won’t come to an agreement with YouTube and others over the value of their catalogues for usage? Of course, they will.
If copyright law is weakened, legislators will play into the hands of big business and they will hang out to dry every small copyright owner on the planet. I would ask and suggest that copyright is perfectly fit for purpose as it is.
There are instruments called licenses which have been around for centuries. All you need to do is seek a license and you’ll find some very willing licensors like Merlin for example. In the hands of just big business, the rights of copyright will inevitably be devalued. Except that in the biggest companies of all, they’ll revalue upwards and you are in danger of being left at the bottom of the pile.
Please, legislators, be careful in any copyright review and remember that you have a duty of care to the creative entrepreneurs who drive the creative economy in every country around the world.
Last year WIN published the first independent recorded music market share report measured at copyright level. WINTEL also described the potent cultural contribution of independents around the world, highlighting new genres, the measurable impact on society and on a genre-defying cultural fusion pushing at the margins and creating constant change.
Extraordinarily, collectively we represent the largest market share of all, with 37.6%. That’s an impressive statistic. You have an average of 40 artists per label, which points to incredibly strong local activity, now almost exclusively the preserve of the independent sector. Independent companies in every country in the world are keeping local music alive, and that is vitally important for society and for cultural diversity. You employ an average of four people, large companies obviously more.
You add to local employment by creating an entire supply chain, outsourcing everything from recording and video production to photo shoots, marketing, PR, legal and accountancy. An independent company is often a small, highly creative unit and when it needs to bring in particular skills, it outsources, so small companies produce a very large economic footprint overall.
All these jobs are dependent on the risk takers, the slightly mad people that many of you are, who make music for the love of it and in the hope that the money will follow. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. But it doesn’t stop you from doing it. The independent sector is therefore a serious driver of local economies and this fact should always be borne in mind by Governments.
I call us the global independent nation. We belong to each other. The differences between this country and Sweden, the U.K. and the US, Australia and Brazil etc – we may have differences in language and other wrinkles but the DNA is the same. You get up every morning for the same reason Martin Mills does.
We need to tackle our problems together, do it calmly and professionally. We need to ensure that independents are at every table represented collectively where appropriate and standing up proud for the 37.6%, without which the music world would be a much duller place.
We need to ensure that all revenue streams are flowing to the correct right holders and we need to make sure that independents don’t lose out because they couldn’t get their metadata together.
It may seem like a small point, but as a good friend once told me “content may be king but metadata will buy you the castle.”
In closing, thank you for the invitation to address Going Global and thank you for loving your local artists, together let’s make them go global.