Terry Currier: A Coalition for Music Freedom
AAJ: I have heard it said that file sharing can actually help independent record stores. Is there any truth to that?
TC: I don't think it necessarily helps the independent record stores but being able to market your music on the internet is a very inexpensive way of promotion. So an artist who is totally unknown has the opportunity to promote their music on a playing field that is a lot more level than ever before.
During the 70s, major distribution companies began forming through mergers. Warner, Electra and Atlantic merged together to form WEA, a major distribution company. Motown was an independent and now Universal Music owns Motown. EMI Distribution now owns United Artists which was also began as an independent and they also own Casablanca and Chrysalis, which also used to be independents. So beginning in the 80s, they began to have clear domination. But it started to change in the 90s. Independent labels were starting to make an impact and develop into respectable labels from the industry standpoint. Today, an independent label like Sub Pop in Seattle can have a gold or platinum record, which didn't happen at all in the 80s.
But I also think that independent record stores today are smarter as they have learned from all of the mistakes made by the major labels. They know how to operate and make money better than the major labels do. They are keeping their overhead in check and they don't have to pay million dollar executives. They are playing the game realistically and they are doing it in a smarter way and importantly, they are also more in tune to the consumer.
Additionally, the majors have been making cutbacks in their staff since the advent of digital distribution. And the people that they have gotten rid of are the street people that know the music and know what's going on. Meanwhile, the heads of state sit in their big corporate offices not knowing what the consumers really want.
AAJ: How would you define the difference between a major distributor and one that is independent?
TC: The major distribution companies are defined as WEA (Warner, Electra and Atlantic), SONY (Sony BMG Music Entertainment), Universal Music and EMI Distribution. Caroline, an Independent distribution arm, has folded into EMI and RED, also a distribution arm, has folded into SONY. And just this past spring, RYKO folded into SONY, and now in December of 2009, ADA has folded into WEA.
In actuality, the independent arms were doing more business than WEA. So all of this is all being done to reduce costs by laying off more staff and hoping that the remaining employees can be effective doing it all. ADA now has over 200 labels and there isn't any way that those labels will get the attention they need in this kind of situation.
Pretty much anything else that goes through the top independent distribution companies are owned by the four major distribution companies with very few exceptions. Then of course there are the independents who are distributing independently owned labels that are not owned by any of those four major distribution companies. And that's where you define the independents from the majors.
AAJ: One of the important if not most important aspects of independent music stores is the knowledge one can receive from those that work in record stores. That's where I received so many recommendations and detailed information on the music. It was inspiring and we seem to be losing that.
TC: Oh yeah, and definitely so. Record stores have always been the information sources. You can receive some of that information online, but there is nothing like talking to an authoritarian who knows their music. And most of the very good record stores have those types of people working for them.
We [Music Millennium] might not have anyone that knows everything about all music, but throughout our staff, we have a very good information source. If you want to talk to somebody about good straight-ahead jazz, there is going to be somebody in the store that you can talk to about that. The same goes for punk, classical or blues. Customers can always find that right employee who is on the same wave length as them. When a customer walks into the store, there is a comfort factor in knowing that there is an employee that understands the type of music that they like and one that can turn them on to new music. And that's missing from the internet.
Amazon can provide recommendations based on what you purchase, but in many cases, those recommendations are not going to appease that particular listener. I have spoken to musicians who have said that they wish Amazon would not make recommendations because the music they recommend has nothing to do with their music. And sometimes the customer's interpretation of what they are looking for and the way that we hear it are two different things. For some customer's, Lyle Lovett might be a blues record and that's their interpretation of blues music. But for someone else, it's Son House and for another person it might be Johnny Winter.