Scotland’s Independent Record Labels & The Pushback Against Streaming
With the general public largely stuck inside, with nothing but our boring, beige homes to look at and no one but our bloody loved ones to talk to over the past 18 months, we have been in dire need of entertainment. Yes, our pesky little brain boxes require near constant stimulation. Last year in the UK, adults spent 6 and a half hours a day watching TV and online videos, and the streaming of music went up by around 20%, with streaming accounting for 80% of all music consumption.
It would seem that the music industry is hitting something of a high note (forgive me) with global music sales going up for the 5th year consecutively, and over 450 million paying subscribers to the various digital music streaming platforms – but who exactly is benefitting from this boom? Well, at an average of 0.009 pence per stream (and a measly 3rd of that already incredibly measly sum for songwriters) it’s certainly not jobbing musicians. Data collected by Trichordist shows that an artist would require a song to be streamed on Spotify 357 times in order to earn just £1, and 3,114 times to earn one hour’s minimum wage.
With the live sector all but wiped out due to lockdown restrictions, the title of ‘full-time musician’ is becoming akin to ‘jester’ or ‘Blockbuster employee’. Have we, as consumers, lost touch with the true value of music? No one expects Miss Pretty Little Nasty Thing to give clothes away for free just because they have an online presence – yet, we have become so accustomed to receiving art, journalism (hello dear reader) and music for free online, or through micro-payments, that buying an artist’s album on Bandcamp, say, putting one’s money where one’s ears and eyes are, has become something of a radical act.
So what is there to do? I talked to three small, independent record labels from around Scotland about community and music, the affects of lockdown on musicians, and alternatives to streaming.
First up is New Teeth – a shiny new collective / record label, run out of Leith by members of densely populated festival favourite, The Micro Band. Working with artists such as Maranta, Astroturf Inspector and Yoko Pwno, the label got its name from Big Mouth Mondays, a relatively short-lived but remarkably well-loved open mic night, run by Chris Willat (of Oracle Sisters) from the dingy Edinburgh dive, Henry’s Cellar Bar. For a while, there was a real community of performers orbiting that underground venue (including a binge-drinking teenage me) and New Teeth are hoping to recreate that sense of togetherness.
“We should be trying to help each other,” says Alex Auld-Smith, founding member of New Teeth and frontman of The Micro Band, when we discuss the lonely, every-man-for-himself energy that social media promotion can engender. “But we’re living in a capitalist hell-scape where everything is seen as competition, and everybody has to fight against each other to ‘win'”. It is certainly true that in this age of self-branding, if you want to be a musician you better also be a really good PR agent. “More than that”, says Alex, “a filmmaker, a visual artist…” “Its a full-time thing,” says fellow New Teeth founding member Sam Dick, “and its difficult, because there is so much noise out there. The idea is to share resources. We’re lucky to have so many talented friends. It just makes sense to share.”
This sentiment, too, is shared by Johnny Lynch of Lost Map Records, who performs under the name Pictish Trail. “Being part of a community of friends has been a fundamental aspect of my life in music, for almost 20 years now. There’s nothing easier and more rewarding than supporting and promoting the music made by people you love. I have a vested interest in our releases doing well, because I want my friends to do well, and I love their music.” Established in 2013 on the isle of Eigg, Lost Map Records was formed with pioneering spirit, to reassess how we discover music amid the disorientating digital geography of the 21st century, and to date has worked with acts such as Randolph’s Leap, Callum Easter and Molly Linen to name a very small few. “I wouldn’t have the motivation to create my own stuff as Pictish Trail without my Lost Map family. There’s never really been a plan of action, and there are no aims to get any bigger – it’s just about supporting as much music by my friends as I can.”
“Because we don’t really have venues at the moment, and we don’t have a physical ‘scene’ necessarily – its a way of keeping people connected. It’s motivation, too,” says Sam of New Teeth, referring to the collaborative aspect of running a small record label. Plying one’s trade as a musician has been a pretty lonely endeavour of late, without the human-facing, social aspect of gigging. “I think it has caused sizeable anxiety, it has meant artists who feed off engagement have found themselves isolated and struggling,” says Ian Smith of Last Night From Glasgow, when I ask him about how the inability to perform over the last year has affected artists. Last Night From Glasgow was founded in 2016 as a non-profit patronage, and has released music by the likes of Mt. Doubt, Teen Canteen and Zoë Bestel.
“Its about locality. Focus on your local community of artists and musicians. It sounds cheesy but its true,” says Sam of New Teeth. And it is true. ‘Think globally, act locally’ is a phrase that applies to a good many things – vegetable growing, politics, culture. It seems important, then, that New Teeth is an Edinburgh-based label focused on forging musical community, Edinburgh being a city that has been enthusiastically and systematically closing down its music venues over the past decade, often to be turned into ‘luxury accommodation’ or ‘student flats’ – pour one out for Electric Circus, Studio 24, The Picture House and Citrus Club. Furthermore, a Leith-based label, considering the recent fight to Save Leith Walk and Leith Depot, one of the last remaining music venues in an area home to innumerable musicians and performers. Artists need locales in which to connect, collaborate and influence one another – that is how culture is created.
Conversely, the lack of live performance hasn’t been an entirely negative thing. “A lot of the artists on our label aren’t full-time musicians. They can’t afford to be,” says Johnny of Lost Map Records. “Pre-COVID, when they did play shows, it was normally at a loss, break-even at best. Playing live is still the best way to meaningfully connect with an audience, and without shows it’s obviously been trickier for us to promote releases.” Ian of Last Night From Glasgow agrees: “I think, perversely, the absence of your archetypal Glasgow midweek show has been no bad thing. Bands who would traditionally have played 10-15 loss making shows a year (because they felt that was necessary) have been unable to do so, and thus haven’t been throwing their money down the drain in pursuit of opportunities that weren’t there. Now of course they have lost out on having an audience there to buy their wares but thats where we come in. We are now 4 times the size we were when lockdown first happened. This is down to our expanding physical release schedule and our dismissal of streaming as a viable end product.”
“We don’t upload to Spotify as a kind of protest,” says Sam of New Teeth. “We are shooting ourself in the foot there a little bit, promotionally,” adds Alex. “Its expected that you just create and perform, for free, because that’s what everyone else is doing. But there’s no reward. I hope that the label will be rewarding people for the effort that they put into what they do.” Yes, it is a somewhat depressing state of affairs for independent musicians, many of whom are currently juggling hats and side-hustles, making music in their bedrooms without the human connection of live performance and held in a hostage situation by Spotify and social media, praying for some Lewis Capaldi-like turn of fate. (Capaldi being the most streamed artist the past two years running).
Says Johnny of Lost Map Records: “There’s no denying that Spotify, and other commercial streaming platforms, are really useful resources for discovering and sharing new music. But, it’ll come as no shock that, as it currently stands, musicians at our level cannot make a substantial amount from streaming royalties.” Ian of Last Night From Glasgow puts it eloquently when he says: “Ignoring the obvious disadvantage of streaming – being the ludicrously low level of remuneration, streaming generally devalues the entire industry of music. Creating the impression that music is free has a ripple effect into other areas.”
So, if artists can’t really make any money from performing, and they can’t really make any money from streaming, what can they do? More importantly, what can you do?
“If people are paying money for music and art, they need to know that that money is really helping artists,” says Sam of New Teeth. “We set up a membership club, PostMap Club, where we send our fans postcards every month, containing download codes for new and exclusive music from the label. It’s completely changed how we operate, and has allowed us to commission work from our artists, paying for recording costs, mastering, artwork, remixes and live sessions,” says Johnny of Lost Map Records. And Last Night From Glasgow offer an array of different subscription options to help you to help musicians. “We still operate on a non profit basis, we still focus our efforts on artistic values and generating profit and growth for our artists.”
So, I urge you to become a more conscientious music consumer and support your friendly local independent record label. It needn’t be all doom and gloom, change is possible – and as Johnny from Lost Map Records says, “What I have seen on a first-hand basis during lockdown is artists taking more time with their work, developing their sound, taking more risks. I’ve heard so much exciting new stuff over this past year, and there’s an absolute mountain of great music to be released. Once venues reopen, and the vinyl pressing plants get through their back-log of orders, we’re about to enter a golden age for music.”
Here’s a list of some more Scottish record labels you can check out :