The Direct-Selling Challenge to Retailers
Traditionally record label executives would run a mile rather
than meet a real living, breathing member of the public, but this
Saturday London's Berwick Street saw something really rather
Here were some of the most renowned and successful, even
legendary, independent label owners in the UK - among them Rough
Trade's Geoff Travis (The Smiths, The Strokes), Mute's Daniel
Miller (Depeche Mode, Moby) Heavenly's Jeff Barrett (Manic St
Preachers, Doves) and XLs Richard Russell (Prodigy, Dizzee Rascal
and of course the biggest breaking artist worldwide this year,
Adele) - manning market stalls, selling their product direct to
They sold exclusive releases, merch (Mute offered a working
synthesiser), even the worldwide rights to a new master recording
They enjoyed it. And so did the customers.
The first Indie Label Market (ILM) - unashamedly inspired by
Record Store Day - was a success. It will happen again.
ILM is the brainchild of Angular Records founder Joe Daniel.
Originally he approached the organisers of Record Store Day with
the idea of Indie Label Market being a part of the retailers'
event. That didn't go down well.
The word "hijacking" was bandied about - as was some riper
language. Labels selling direct to consumers on a day all about
labels coming to the aid of hard-pressed indie stores was never
likely to win friends among retailers.
Many indie record stores made it clear they would rather Indie
Label Market didn't happen at all, but Joe was adamant, and after a
lot of to-ing and fro-ing, Indie Label Market was postponed to May
21, the last possible weekend before the festival season begins in
Walking down a sunny Berwick Street on Saturday morning at
around 9.45am, the first thing to be seen is a queue outside
renowned indie record store Sister Ray. One-nil to the traditional
retailer. Further down the road, the market comes into view. A
large banner declares 'Rough Trade' - but not of course the store,
the label. One-all.
The next stall sells fish.
Clearly this retailing lark is posing some challenges for the
assembled labels. Despite the planned 10am start, some stalls are
still empty. On the Domino stall, the cash box - clearly bought
specially for the occasion - is still in its wrapping.
Joe Daniel struggles across the road dragging a large Calor Gas
canister to heat the tea urn.
It all looks a bit school fete. And there is virtually nobody
But then something happens. People start turning up. In droves.
The next minute Jarvis Cocker is DJing on the Rough Trade stall.
Oh, look, there's Steve Lamacq. And Bernard Butler. And lots and
lots of people.
Mute have lifted Record Store Day's "indie cupcake" idea, but
they've gone one better. Each cake has a little flag in it with a
"QR" code. Just snap it with the camera and you get a free
Being Mute, these are not just cupcakes, these are conceptual
cupcakes, a statement on the value of music in the digital age:
Cupcakes £1.50, Music free, reads the sign.
There's a palpable enthusiasm in the air.
The sun is shining. It is like a school fete. But the
coolest one you've ever been to.
* * *
Indie Label Market was undoubtedly a success on its own terms,
but whether the organizers like it or not, it finds itself slap,
bang in the middle of the most controversial debate in
entertainment retailing - the growing trend by content owners to
sell direct-to-consumer, by-passing retailers.
Since the dawn of the internet age, the threat of being
"disintermediated", has hung like a sword over retailers'
If, mused the labels, the internet allows me to reach music fans
directly, why do I need retailers at all?
Of course the labels have faced a disintermediation threat of
their own, as some managers have tried cutting record companies out
of the loop and selling direct themselves. In a declining market it
should be no surprise that everyone tries to eat everyone else's
In truth direct-to-consumer has so far not come to much. The
labels have had too many other battles to fight. Some of the
big plays to establish D2C service businesses, most notably Trinity
Street, have ended in tears.
But 2011 is shaping up to be the year when direct-to-consumer
comes to the fore once again. And the threat to retailers is
The first to hit the fan was Now 78. The CD booklet for the
compilation included six pages of promotion for the new nowmusic.com website
which allows consumers to download Now compilations and buy
physical Now CDs without ever troubling a retailer.
Retailers did not take at all kindly to effectively distributing
promotional material for a service which aims to take their
customers off them.
Strong words were exchanged.
At the other end of the scale there's a constant background drip
of exclusives, vinyl editions, box sets which are only available
from the record company or - a common cover - from the artist's
And then along comes Indie Label Market.
In scale and intent, it is as far as it is possible to get from
Now 78, but to many of those who have worked hard to nurture
independent record stores with Record Store Day, Indie Label Market
feels like the latest in a long line of kicks in the teeth.
So where to draw the line with direct-to-consumer? Are we past
the point when it is reasonable to try and draw lines in the
In a series of ERA meetings this week, retailers will grapple
with just these problems. It could be quite a long drawn out