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Why Indie Bands Go Major Label in the Streaming Era

On August 6, Arcade Fire celebrated their third straight No. 1 album, Everything Now. But the band’s Columbia Records debut had glaringly low streaming numbers, and by the following week, it had dropped out of the Top 10 altogether.

Everything Now was the first of several albums this summer from bands who’ve typified indie rock, a classification once denoting release by independent label but now used as a genre catch-all. Grizzly Bear, whose last three albums were on Warp, last week released Painted Ruins through RCA, which like Columbia is owned by Sony. The War on Drugs, who’ve released three albums on Secretly Canadian, moved to Warner Music subsidiary Atlantic for A Deeper Understanding, out August 25. Though LCD Soundsystem, perhaps unbeknownst to fans, have released all of their albums jointly on leader James Murphy’s DFA Records as well as various major labels, American Dream will be their proper Columbia debut, come September 1.

These releases may present something of an acid test for “indie” music in the streaming era. Bands like Arcade Fire once epitomized how the internet was supposed to allow great music to reach wider audiences regardless of labels and radio viability. But in today’s attention economy, so-called “internet bands” looking to level up don’t have a home-turf advantage. With this rash of recent major label signings, the question seems to be: Can the Big Three help these bands better navigate the shift to streaming?

If anyone can do it, the majors—Sony, Warner, and Universal—have positioned themselves to be the ones. At least in Spotify’s case, the labels reportedly own almost 20 percent of the company. In 2015, Spotify specifically banned payola, following a report suggesting major music groups were paying for placement on playlists. Regardless, the majors are faring better than indie labels at getting their songs on streaming services’ all-important playlists, says Berklee music-business professor George Howard, an industry veteran who ran the Rykodisc label when it was still independent.

“It’s ‘meet the new boss, the same as the old boss,’” he tells me, drawing a parallel to radio. “There’s certainly a defensible thesis that Spotify is the new kingmaker, and if they choose to make your career, they can.” (Spotify declined to comment for this story.)

Scott Rodger, who manages Arcade Fire, Paul McCartney, and Shania Twain, points me to various artists’ pages on Spotify. Arcade Fire have 5 million monthly listeners on the streaming service. Radiohead have 6 million, while Grizzly Bear, the War on Drugs, and LCD Soundsystem all have more like 2 million. But Imagine Dragons, while critically scorned, have 30 million-plus. And the most popular artists right now, like “Despacito” hitmakers Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi, along with Ed Sheeran and Calvin Harris, have upwards of 40 million. “With the world moving towards streaming, most indie or alternative acts simply don’t stream as well,” Rodger says.

The disconnect is clear from Arcade Fire’s first-week numbers. Everything Now totaled 7.9 million streams in its first week, compared with 46 million for the No. 2 album, Kendrick Lamar’s four-month-old DAMN., which returned to No. 1 the following week. Indeed, Everything Now’s first-week streaming total was the lowest for a chart-topping album since Bon Jovi’s This House Is Not for Salein November. But streaming is a different business than selling.

Based on figures Rodger shares with me, there were some 60,000 fewer iTunes downloads of Everything Now than of Arcade Fire’s last album, 2013’s Reflektor. Given Billboard’s streaming math, where 1,500 streams equals one album sale, it would have taken 90 million streams to make up that difference on the charts. “We’re probably still getting the same amount of people in real terms listening to the music,” Rodger says, “but it’s not volume enough to make a dent on streaming.”

The dismal streaming result was not for lack of effort to reach new listeners. “Our whole ambition on this campaign was just, how do we engage our audience and try to be a talking point for people who have never heard of our band?” Rodger says. “How do we become that talking point over dinner, over coffee, over breakfast? That really was our ambition. We’re not gonna be on daytime TV.”

Grizzly Bear’s Painted Ruins, the band’s first album in five years, could face a similar streaming challenge on this week’s charts, despite prominent placement on Apple Music and Spotify pop-ups heralding its arrival. Only one of its pre-release singles has chartedon Billboard’s Spotify Viral 50, versus two from Everything Now. “May sound strange but record sales do matter!” Grizzly Bear tweeted ahead of the release, adding, “If u got the 8 bucks (cheapest pre order) to spare to digitally pre order u have no idea how much that helps! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ ” As for the War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding, its singles haven’t cracked the Spotify Viral 50, but “Holding On” has peaked so far at No. 4 on Adult Alternative Songs, the same airplay chart that recently gave 4AD signees the National their first-ever No. 1 on a Billboard songs chart.

Meanwhile, both singles from LCD’s upcoming American Dream charted on the Spotify Viral 50. It seems likely all will debut strongly on the Billboard 200 chart, but whether the growth they’ve all experienced since their last albums will be apparent is another matter.

Streaming, of course, is only one reason indie acts join the majors. Bands like Arcade Fire sign to major labels because they want to have globally coordinated efforts behind their music, not the patchwork of labels that usually results from indie deals, Rodger explains. Reflektor was Arcade Fire’s first album with distribution by Universal, but Universal handled some of the band’s overseas releases going as far back as 2006’s Neon Bible. It’s not hard to see why Arcade Fire might prefer having a single label supporting their album worldwide instead. “They want to play with the Beyoncés, the Taylor Swifts,” Rodger says. “They will never be as big as some of those acts, but they want to play in the same field.”

To that end, radio, like streaming playlists, is another area where major labels are traditionally viewed as having an advantage. With Reflektor, Arcade Fire enlisted Universal’s Capitol Records for radio promotion, which helped lead to the title track sneaking onto the Hot 100 chart for the band’s first time ever (at No. 99). At the time, Chris Molanphy speculated in this space whether Arcade Fire might be having their pop coming-out party—and there’s likely no way to play at radio alongside the Beyoncés and the Taylor Swifts without major-label backing.

“The only guys that are going to get you on pop radio are the majors, or people with a bona fide promotion system,” says Matt Pincus, founder and CEO of SONGS Music Publishing, whose clients include Lorde, the Weeknd, and Diplo. “Alternative radio doesn’t move volume anymore.”

The old indie notion that signing with a major label means giving up artistic freedom seems less certain as well, at least for top-tier indie bands who’ve demonstrated that they can draw devoted audiences. “We delivered a record, we paid for it ourselves,” says Rodger, the Arcade Fire manager. “Zero label involvement at all, 100 percent creative controlled by the band.” Grizzly Bear and the War on Drugs expressed similar sentiments in my interviews with them earlier this summer.

But history is filled with cautionary counterexamples. From the mid-’00s indie boom alone, one of the first bands to sign to a major label, Death Cab for Cutie, later admitted they had downplayed how hard it really was. “The period when we were transitioning from Barsuk to Atlantic was the most difficult thing that will ever happen to us,” Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard said in the 2008 run-up to the band’s second album on Atlantic. “I guess we never realized in advance that this is going to feel uncomfortable, and this is going to feel weird.”

It’s not as if relentless pursuit of scale is the only way for ambitious artists to succeed commercially. “I don’t believe that’s the future we have to go for,” says Maggie Vail, executive director of CASH Music, a nonprofit offering free digital tools for musicians. She points to Run the Jewels, who gave away downloads of their self-released new album RTJ3 weeks early but sold physical records and toured nonstop behind it, including a four-night stand at New York’s Terminal 5. “Their email list is one of the largest in the music industry—it’s like 700,000 people at this point,” says Vail, a former longtime employee of respected indie label Kill Rock Stars. “They’re the opposite example of this.”

If the bands at the top of the indie heap can’t succeed in the streaming era with the help of the majors, what does that mean for even smaller acts? “Streaming is the biggest issue that all indie bands have, unfortunately,” Rodger says. “I think it’s even tougher on the brand-new and developing acts. It’s very, very tough for new indie bands to give up a day job and become a band full-time.” Whether these established acts flourish online now could foreshadow the mainstream path ahead for the next generation of indie-ish artists, at least until the industry—really, the technology that drives it—inevitably shifts again.

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