Alison Wenham: 'the future’s bright, the future’s indie'

We find time in Alison's busy schedule to pick her brains about the state of the indie sector and learn how it can futureproof itself...

Paul Nichols headshot
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 23 Dec 2013
  • min read
It now represents more than 850 member companies from the largest and most respected independent labels in the world to small start-ups and individual artists releasing their own music for the first time. 

Alison has spent more than 35 years working in the music industry and is a founder member of European independent trade body IMPALA, the founding Chairman of Worldwide Independent Network (WIN) and a Board member of UK Music, Creative and Cultural Skills, Merlin and PPL.

In October she received a Gold Badge Award for her services to British music.

Last month we found some time in her busy schedule to pick her brains about the state of the indie sector and learn how it can futureproof itself...

AIM represents many types of business working in the independent sector. What are the common goals of these businesses?
It’s interesting to note that when we started the membership was mainly made up of independent record companies whereas today it’s much more diverse. Companies that used to be just record labels are now publishers, artist managers, sync agencies – there are many other types of income streams around which companies have diversified.

Are there any common challenges they face together?
I feel there is a great deal of commonality amongst the members, irrespective of their particular focus. Small companies are defined by a certain set of circumstances. They are often time-poor and everyone is plate spinning, especially during periods of success.

How has the sector evolved since AIM was founded?
When AIM was founded 13 years ago the look of the independent sector was very one-dimensional. White male bosses usually ran record companies. Today, AIM’s board is approximately 40 percent women. We’ve dramatically changed the profile of the industry at senior level, and we now properly reflect the socio-demographic profile of the UK – and the music industry.

We’ve heard a lot about the sector enjoying huge chart success lately; is that success spread across the board?
We will end the year with a 30 percent market share, which is a very significant improvement on a decade ago when we were around the low twenties. It’s very rewarding to see that the 30 percent share is made up of so many different companies. We have our great companies like Beggars, Ministry of Sound and Domino but if you look at the companies that have had a noteworthy hit this year, the success is spread across many labels.

‘Indies are agile, flexible, have a low cost base and operate in a truly global market - these are the attributes of the future independent success.’

What has helped this success?

There is a saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We believe success is too. As long as you can pay all your bills, your artists are happy and you’ve managed to reach the market you set out to then you are running a successful company. It’s a perfect business model. What we are seeing is micro-entities keeping it tidy and keeping it tight - and it’s working for them.

What’s your take on the Spotify debate?
Most independent companies that I know pay 50-50 on net receipts from streaming. Obviously the streaming business is a long game. The subscription model will at some point reach critical mass. Currently the two leaders have 15 million paying subscribers between them. If that was 50 million or 150 million, what would the revenue model look like for everybody? I think you have to be patient.

What about royalty splits across the board?
They may need to be adjusted in the future. But artists have a wide choice on how to go to market these days, exponentially greater than in the past. If you choose to go to a company that is not transparent with you on your potential royalty earnings, you cannot then absent yourself from the decision-making process that got you there in the first place!

Why did the independent community create Merlin?
The initiative was taken five years ago because we knew that, while the internet had brought a theoretical levelling of the playing field, there was no reason why big brands, big business and gate-keeping wouldn’t grow up quickly – and it has.

We created Merlin so that independent companies wouldn’t be locked out of the new revenue streams and opportunities. Merlin represents a global independent market share that is the equivalent of a major, and is not for profit. Furthermore, all Merlin members are treated equally, so the benefits of collective negotiation are available to all members, large and small.

Do you think Merlin has enough of a presence at the negotiating table?
Sadly there are still companies who try and ignore the indie sector, or offer poorer terms than for the majors. Our view is that a) independent artists should be treated equally, not as second class, and b) if services go to market without Merlin repertoire, they will fail so the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’!

What do you think the future holds for the UK independent sector?
We say, ‘The future’s bright, the future’s indie!’ They have everything going for them, and they have AIM, providing a fantastic service to enable indies to grow and to grasp new opportunities. Indies are agile, flexible, A&R-led, have a low cost base and operate in a truly global market - these are the attributes of the future independent success.