On Tuesday, the inaugural Artist and Manager Awards took place, in which Beggars Group founder and chairman Martin Mills was honored with the first-ever Industry Champion Award. So now we know: The man behind the record label powerhouse of 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade and XL Recordings is a champion of the industry. Sounds about right. British music news source CMU has since ran an interview with Mills, talking shop about all sorts of industry hot topics, from post-Napster struggles to diversifying label’s roles. It’s an interesting read based alone on the fact that this guy has played a role in putting out every one of your favorite albums but becomes particularly appealing when the conversation turns to major labels.
Do you think the post-Napster challenges of the last ten years have been easier or harder for indie labels to deal with than the majors?
MM: Easier for indies because we’re natural licensors, we don’t have hang-ups about control, we’re less defensive and are more open to taking risks. Harder for indies because the four majors, or the two big ones in particular, are effectively monopolies that digital music services can’t do without. That gives the majors leverage, which can be unhealthy for the market and prejudicial to indies.
Translation: Major labels have hang-ups about control, are defensive, and scared to take risks. Also, monopolies.
Obviously Beggars itself has scale and a global reach, and that is strengthened further in the digital domain by Merlin, but are there ever times when you regret not having the budgets or size of a major record company?
MM: No. I can’t think of the last time we didn’t do something because we couldn’t afford it. We often spend more than the majors, because we’re not limited by budgeting processes. And, of course, Merlin and the independent trade associations are a vital access to scale for us when we need it.
Translation: Big-time recording budgets — the one thing majors could hold over independent labels’ heads — don’t mean what they once did to artists (especially in the days where laptop bedroom recording is a viable alternative).
The Beggars Group seems to be admired by pretty much everyone in the music business, including your major label rivals. Are there any specific things that have been behind your success?
MM: I think we’ve benefited from being totally independent, and having no commitments or obligations to any external shareholders or funders. It’s fairly obvious, normally, what the right thing to do is, but avoiding doing the wrong thing is harder. Doing the wrong thing is normally caused by financial need, or external demands.
Translation: Having obligations to outside financiers puts enough pressure on the major labels that sometimes they do the wrong thing.
I am, of course, reading somewhat between the lines here, but, at the end of the day, Mills is only expressing what others have been since the dawn of peer-to-peer file sharing. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to hear a man so clearly respected and knowing of the music business paint the only four major labels still standing as grumpy old men yelling at us to get off their lawns. In order to survive, they’re going to have to change. What a strange, satisfying role reversal that, over the course of a decade, the independent underdogs have become the ones in a position of envy. The official Champions of the Industry.