On March 11th, as global measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 began to escalate, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel from mainland Europe to the United States. In a different era, this would have spelled troubling news for the entire Swedish music industry — which has long relied on its ability to export creativity (see: Max Martin, Shellback) and tech (see: Spotify) to the US entertainment business.
Yet, on this particular date, one of the most disruptive modern music companies in Sweden, Stockholm-based distribution and services firm Amuse, may have been celebrating a little too loudly to catch The Donald’s address in full. March 11th was the date that local rapper Dree Low, one of Amuse’s independent artist clients, claimed an astonishing 19 of the Top 50 tracks on Spotify’s daily chart in Sweden. Math-heads won’t need me to point out that 38% market share is monumental — the kind of number that would usually get whole record companies cheering, let alone a single DIY act.
The success of independent artists (defined, in this case, as those both owning their own rights and using a self-releasing platform) in Sweden has been bubbling away for some time. And yet, for the global record business, the overarching trend — that of DIY acts gobbling up increasing levels of market-share more typically claimed by major labels — may have massive ramifications for the future.
If Dree Low’s domination of Spotify in Sweden last month felt like a new horizon for indie artists, it wasn’t one without precedent. I have run the numbers on the IFPI’s official Top 50 singles in Sweden last year: Five of the Top 20 tracks were released by indie artists, and in terms of domestic repertoire (i.e. the biggest songs by Swedish artists) no fewer than seven of the Top 15 tracks, nearly 50%, were by acts with no record label.
Amuse has been compiling the average monthly percentage of tracks from self-releasing artists on Spotify’s Top 50 chart in Sweden: in January this year, this figure hit 29.4%, up on 9.9% in January 2019, and 0.8% in January 2018. If that trend continues at the same pace, by this time next year, indie artists will own more than half of Sweden’s biggest chart hits. The question now for the worldwide music business is two-fold: 1. Will Sweden’s indie artist trend go global? 2. Could Covid-19 actually act as an accelerant to indie artists’ success?
As has been well reported on Rolling Stone, coronavirus lockdown has already caused the postponement of blockbuster albums from the likes of Sam Smith, Lady Gaga, and Alicia Keys, while simultaneously driving a proliferation of releases from independent artists via platforms like Ditto, TuneCore, UnitedMasters, and CD Baby. These factors lead to the logical assumption that we’re about to see a significant global rise in indie artist market share. Lending credence to this idea, Denis Ladegaillerie, CEO of Paris-based Believe — owner of TuneCore — wrote earlier this month that leading streaming services, having noticed a slowdown in superstar releases, are telling indie artists who work with his company: “We have a very large audience of young people out there who are eager to listen to new material; please make [your] music available so we can engage them.”
Diego Farias, CEO of Amuse, concurs with this version of events, and predicts that the current situation could even be responsible for accelerating ‘the Sweden effect’ to other corners of the globe. He says: “We believe that [Covid-19] will perhaps speed up a transition that was already taking place; it will allow indie artists to grow [chart share] at a much faster pace in a market like the US, which was, remember, initially very resistant to a change like streaming.
“This could be a big catalyst. In a couple of years we will look back at this moment and probably say, ‘Wow, Covid-19, with all the bad things it brought, actually accelerated the growth of independents and their ability to impact charts around the world.'”
$15.8m-backed Amuse says its DIY user uploads rose 300% year-on-year in March. According to Farias, the Covid-19 lockdown has “levelled the playing field” for indie artists versus their major label-signed peers, both in terms of recording and collaboration and in terms of their ability to promote their music. He comments: “Artists are all trying to figure out how to collaborate and how to create art over crappy VOIP connections; it’s the same for Lady Gaga, as it is Dree Low, or smaller independent artists.”
Adds Farias: “Whatever role radio has played in the past, the real impact [in terms of music promotion] right now is coming on social media — something completely owned by the artist. And independent artists control their media channels in a way that not all major label artists have necessarily had to do in the past few years. It’s a truly digital landscape, and that’s where the opportunity becomes so self-evident for independent artists.”
“In a couple of years we will look back at this moment and probably say, ‘Wow, Covid-19, with all the bad things it brought, actually accelerated the growth of independents and their ability to impact charts around the world.” —Diego Farias, Amuse
Meanwhile, over in Sweden, the major labels are fighting back. Einár, who had the biggest track of all indie artists in Sweden last year with Katten I Trakten, recently signed to Sony for his latest hit, Rymden och tillbaka. This is a story that closely mirrors what happened in the United States last year with two standout independent artists: Arizona Zervas and Lil Nas X, both of whom ended up signing multi-million dollar deals with a Sony label, Columbia Records, just as their breakout hits — Roxanne for Zervas and Old Town Road for Lil Nas X — were climbing global streaming charts.
This is very much a subject in Farias’ purview: Lil Nas X was previously distributed by Amuse, which offered the artist its own seven-figure deal to stay before he jumped ship to Sony. According to Farias, big-money major label deals with indie artists today are the natural result of large companies trying to hold back an inevitable tide (using a dam built from an almighty stack of dollar bills). “It would be weird if the major labels weren’t doing everything in their power to try and put things back in the order they prefer,” says Farias. “They are definitely over-spending in some cases. It’s a cut-throat business out there, and [the majors] are trying to get to deals done before [indie artists] explode.”
Steve Stoute is CEO of US-based music distribution company UnitedMasters, which was backed by a $70 million funding round led by Google/Alphabet in 2017. UnitedMasters saw its own chapter in the Lil Nas X / Arizona Zervas / Einár narrative play out last year when teenage US rapper NLE Choppa, who had racked up half a billion streams with Stoute’s company, signed an estimated $8 million deal with Warner Records.
Like Farias, Stoute says he is unperturbed by such occurrences, because the rise of independent artist market share, in his view — especially in the US market — is just in “the first innings.” Speaking on Music Business Worldwide’s podcast this week, Stoute told me: “When a new artist is getting $8 million, [or] $11 million for one fucking song, that’s not the record business, man! That’s the lottery business!”
He predicted: “In the next two years, you will see, on a yearly basis, the cumulative independent business — everything not released on the majors — will surpass the major business, [with] bigger market share.”
That’s a fairly optimistic forecast: Midia Research suggests that 67.5% of global recorded music revenues last year were generated by the major record companies, with all independently-distributed music (including indie labels) claiming 32.5%. That said, Raine Group recently estimated (pre-Covid) that independent artists alone would see their revenues grow by 32% in 2020, claiming an annual global recorded music market share of between 9 and 10%.
Amuse boss Diego Farias knows where he’s placing his chips. “I completely agree with Steve [Stoute]’s assumption of where the world is going,” he says. “It’s been proven time and time again that Sweden is very early on new trends, and has the ability to predict where things are going. If you rewind the tape a little, when Spotify launched, the opinion at [record company] executive tables in New York, London and elsewhere was: ‘This is just a Swedish phenomenon.’ We’re already seeing signs of independent music taking a larger percentage share in all sorts of different markets — in France and the Netherlands, for example, independent music is growing at a very fast pace.”
Farias admits that, for now, it’s perhaps easier for indie artists to challenge the major labels in markets dominated by local-language repertoire than it is in the US, where “the whole world is competing.” However, he adds: “I don’t know how many years it will take, but I believe this trend will happen in the US fairly soon — it’s a matter of time.”
Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis, and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for Rolling Stone.