From The New York Times‘ “The Net Is a Boon for Indie Labels“:
CD and digital album sales so far this year are down 8 percent compared with the same period a year ago, according to Nielsen SoundScan data. And while sales of digital tracks through services like iTunes have risen 150 percent, to well over 320 million songs this year, that rise is not enough to offset the plunge in album sales. Overall sales are down less than 5 percent if the digital singles are bundled into units of 10 and counted as albums, according to estimates by Billboard magazine.
Still, despite the slide, dozens of independent labels are faring well with steady-selling releases by, among others, the Miami rapper Pitbull and the indie bands Hawthorne Heights, Bright Eyes, Interpol and the Arcade Fire. Independent labels account for more than 18 percent of album sales this year – their biggest share of the market in at least five years, according to Nielsen SoundScan data. (If several big independent companies whose music is marketed by the major music labels distribution units are included, the figure exceeds 27 percent.) …
In a world of broadband connections, 60-gigabyte MP3 players and custom playlists, consumers have perhaps more power than ever to indulge their curiosities beyond the music that is presented through the industry’s established outlets, primarily radio stations and MTV.
“Fans are dictating,” said John Janick, co-founder of Fueled by Ramen, the independent label in Tampa, Fla., whose roster includes underground acts like Panic! At the Disco and Cute Is What We Aim For. “It’s not as easy to shove something down people’s throats anymore and make them buy it. It’s not even that they are smarter; they just have everything at their fingertips. They can go find something that’s cool and different. They go tell people about it and it just starts spreading.”
There are several signs that as more consumers develop the habit of exploring music online they are drawn to other musical choices besides hitmakers at the top of the Billboard chart – a trend that suggests more of the independent labels’ repertory will find an audience.
On the Rhapsody subscription music service, for example, the 100 most popular artists account for only about 24 percent of the music that consumers chose to play from its catalog last month, said Tim Quirk, Rhapsody’s executive editor. In the brick-and-mortar world, he estimates, the 100 most popular acts might account for more than 48 percent of a mass retailer’s sales.
“It’s no longer about a big behemoth beaming something at a mass audience,” Mr. Quirk said. “It’s about a mass of niche audiences picking and selecting what they want at any given time.”