January 24, 2013
Own-label musicians start calling the tune
By: Paul Sexton
Although times are tough in the music business – underscored by the recent collapse of retailer HMV – some artists are developing low-key but robust business models for running their own labels.
Folk musician Kate Rusby, for example, whose worldwide record sales recently reached 1m units, has been the sole artist on independent label Pure for 20 years. For her, it is not just a case of better the devil you know, but better the family you know. The company was formed by her father Steve, who continues to run it from a house near the Yorkshire moors with Kate’s mother Anne, brother Joe, sister Emma Holling and non-family member Joy Jackson.
Paul Carrack, once the voice of groups such as Ace, Squeeze and Mike & the Mechanics, has also been his own man since 2000, when he set up his Carrack-UK label. With a loyal fan base and helped by significant airplay on BBC Radio 2 and commercial network Smooth Radio, he is currently on the second leg of a UK tour of more than 50 dates.
Such businesses are part of a growing number of independent labels in the UK. In the past five years, as the majors adjust to a challenging business environment, the number of labels that are members of the industry body PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) has climbed from 5,800 to 8,500.
This, however, is against a background of generally low earnings for professional musicians. A recent report by the Musicians’ Union revealed that more than half of professional UK musicians earn less than £20,000 a year, and 60 per cent worked for free at some point in 2012. A survey of 5,000 US recording artists by the Northwestern University Law School showed that just 6 per cent of musicians’ earnings came from recorded music.
But the freedom of the independent route is a big attraction. Pure is serious about getting Ms Rusby’s music to the widest possible audience, both on record and on her hugely popular tours. But there is also time for fun. On Monday, with the office inaccessible in heavy snow, the staff went sledging. “It’s a massive luxury to be able to please yourself,” says Mr Rusby. “And we please ourselves within our own little world.”
He admits that they took the independent path out of necessity. When he started Pure, he was not beating off major record companies vying for Kate’s signature. “Don’t forget we’re talking about folk music,” he says. “The majors aren’t interested . . . The odd excursion that ‘folkies’ have had into the major label pool, I’ve worked with these people and heard the tales over the years, and it’s never worked for them. We’re not the first to do it ourselves out of the folk scene.”
Pure has nevertheless teamed up with a major for the first time, licensing Ms Rusby’s latest album, 20, to Universal’s Island label. But her father says it is “too early” to judge the results. “The Universals and Warners have got a place,” he says, “and, for people who sell big, they make them a fortune”.
For independents, the money comes in slowly but steadily. Mr Carrack says he has no regrets about the move. “It was small, we didn’t over-reach or go for mad promotional budgets,” he explains.
“It’s gradually built into a substantial business. When I say substantial, it keeps us busy and keeps us on the road, and that’s all a musician wants really.”
He cautions that this model is not for everyone. “There’s not many that want to do it that way, because it’s a lot of work.”
Pure’s Emma Holling, meanwhile, muses: “What do you aspire to? Half a dozen BMWs? We don’t aspire to that. All our bills are paid, and we’ve got cars that run about.”
Not to mention sledges.