Indie-Con 2023 Speakers Unpack The State Of Independent Music

26 July 2023 | 5:13 pm | Ellie Robinson

Ahead of this year’s stacked Indie-Con program, The Music catches up with Neeta Ragoowansi (Folk Alliance), Noemi Planas (WIN) and Natalie Davila (Polyvinyl) to explore what the future holds for independent artists.

Natalie Dávila, Noemí Planas and Neeta Ragoowansi

Natalie Dávila, Noemí Planas and Neeta Ragoowansi (Supplied)

More The Killers More The Killers

This year’s Indie-Con program is positively loaded with incredible speakers from all around the world. A swathe of leading figures from Europe, the States and right here at home will convene to share their wisdom on the current state of the independent music world, discussing how up-and-coming artists can make the most of it as they navigate the formative years of their careers. And, of course, they’ll ponder loudly on what the industry’s future might look like as consumer trends and artistic avenues continue to evolve in all manner of new directions.

Developed by the Australian Independent Record Labels Association (AIR) by the South Australian Government’s Music Development Office, Indie-Con will return to Kaurna/Adelaide over the midweek period of August 2-4, this year being held at the legendary Mercury Cinema. The program consists of 16 events, starting with an interview between APRA AMCOS’ Adam Townsend and two representatives of TikTok (which should be very interesting given TikTok Music launched in Australia mere days ago). Also scheduled for the Wednesday are panels on grant funding opportunities and the pros and cons of live music showcases.

Thursday’s itinerary is brimming with gold, with deep-dives into topics like marketing, the power of PR and catalogue management, and how artists can get themselves on the right path amid rapid changes in how listeners consume their music. How do you navigate the landscape of DSPs and knock out the perfect release strategy? How can you protect your copyrights in the age of the AI uprising? What the fuck are YouTube Shorts? All of these questions – and many, many more – will be answered on Thursday.

Last up, Indie-Con’s Friday attendees will learn all about the ways artists can harness the power of community radio, find the best ways to connect with their fans, and make sure they’re getting paid what they deserve for their banger efforts. There will also be a panel on how music can be a vessel for environmental change, an in-depth Spotify masterclass, and from 7pm onwards, a massive live music festival to wrap it all up.

With its program kicking off in a matter of days, The Music sat down with three of the speakers appearing at Indie-Con to learn a little more about what they’ll be exploring in their panels. For starters, Natalie Dávila, the marketing director at Polyvinyl Record Co, is making the trek over from Austin, Texas to appear on a panel called New Release Cycles: Navigating The Changing DSP Landscape And Traditional Release Timelines. (which is going down at 2:50pm on Thursday) So, we pressed her all about the pros and cons of streaming culture, the dissonance between indie labels and major players, and how artists can best prepare themselves for more shifts in the culture ahead.

Visiting from Spain is Noemí Planas, chief executive officer of the Worldwide Independent Network (WIN), to present on the panel Protecting Copyrights In The AI Era (another joint scheduled for Thursday, but a few hours earlier at 11:35am). As we hear more and more about artists having their styles mimicked by artificial intelligence – like, for example, how characters from The Simpsons have “covered” tracks by artists like Skrillex, Johnny Cash and System Of A Down – up-and-comers are rightfully worried about their art being used in unethical ways. So to prep ourselves for Planas’ panel, we flagged her down with a few of our concerns, and discussed how artists should approach the topic of AI.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

Lastly, we spoke with Neeta Ragoowansi, from the New York-based Folk Alliance, to chat about the benefits for artists (or lack thereof) involved in performing at live music showcases. Ragoowansi will speak at a panel about just that – To Showcase Or Not To Showcase, That Is The Question – at 4:05pm on the Wednesday.

Read on for all of our Q&A interviews below, then head here for the full Indie-Con 2023 program, tickets and event info.

Natalie Dávila (Polyvinyl Record Co, USA)

As one of the biggest (and coolest) indie labels in the US, what does it mean for you to be representing Polyvinyl in a country like Australia?

It's a sincere honor to attend Indie-Con on behalf of Polyvinyl and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to experience first-hand the birthplace of some of the most singular talents on our roster. This trip holds great significance for our team as we have long represented a handful of Australasia projects in the states while working closely with labels across the continent (Liberation, Milk! Records, Cooking Vinyl, and Mirror Music, to name a few) to license records from North American artists as well.

Having regional support from labels that know their territory is invaluable and helps bridge the cultural gaps that could otherwise limit the global impact of any given release. Fostering relationships internationally is key to nurturing a healthy and robust music exchange and we are always eager to grow our partnerships as it benefits all involved.

How have you found the growth/evolution of DSPs and shifts in typical release patterns to impact Polyvinyl’s operations, both on a day-to-day basis and a broader level?

With the rise of streaming culture our current iteration of the music industry seemingly operates at the mercy of the "algorithm" and in deference to the ever-changing priorities of DSPs. Our release timelines have deviated drastically from campaign to campaign – from surprise-releasing albums in full digitally to parsing out several pre-release singles to elongate the album cycle – we have dabbled in ostensibly every type of rollout.

Label operations across the board are impacted by these shifting models and everything from asset creation to radio and press campaign planning is affected. More often than not we think we've wrapped our arms around a concept and then a new feature, playlist, or pitching technique comes into focus and we are forced to reevaluate. In spite of all its vacillating new release cycles have given us the opportunity to pivot and get creative with our approach to story-telling and how we decide to share a record with the world.

How does this discussion change when major labels are brought into the fold, or how are labels like Polyvinyl affected by the monopoly they have over the music industry?

The majors aren't playing by the same rules as we are and therefore the game is inherently rigged in their favor. Their releases are given the utmost priority and the biggest and best opportunities go to them first and foremost. Major labels are operating from an undeniably privileged vantage point that allows for flexibility and endless resources – something indie labels have in short supply. It also appears that these companies are held to a different criteria and are subsequently not punished in the same way indies are when it comes to navigating the DSP landscape. This standard enables a "too big to fail" mentality where majors dominate the airwaves and dictate the marketplace.

As the overall landscape of the music industry continues to progress and evolve, how do you think DSPs – and the way artists and labels approach release strategies – will need to adapt and change alongside it?

We'll have to continue to be nimble with our approach, but intentional with our decision-making and time investments. Use the resources provided by DSPs, but don't always depend on them to function in the best interest of an artist. Make these tools work for you, but in a way that is indicative of the message you intend to portray.

What would be your advice for new artists trying to figure out how they should release their music today?

Focus on world-building and finding ways to creatively promote and market your music, but ultimately lead with what feels the most honest to you. There's a level of authenticity and human connection that cannot be adequately conveyed via a digital music service and at the end of the day the person behind the songs is what is going to resonate most with listeners and galvanise a fanbase. There’s a middle ground between catering exclusively to DSPs and sharing your art with the world on your terms – I encourage you to experiment and do so candidly.

Noemí Planas (WIN, Spain)

What can you tell us about the incredible work you’ve been doing for the Worldwide Independent Network in 2023 thus far?

This year, we launched several initiatives to further support and strengthen the global independent sector, including the WINHUB International Networking project, which connects the independent community through online and in-person events to promote business opportunities and export capacity.

WIN also works to develop and empower emerging markets and coordinates regional networks in Latin America and Asia Pacific. Cooperation between members of our LatAm Network was key to the creation of the first Southern Cone’s Independents Forum (FICS), a traveling summit of music companies and professionals that visited Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. This was key to facilitating the establishment of a new independent trade association in Paraguay, which recently joined WIN as a member.

Building capacity and providing resources to current members is an important aspect of WIN's activities. We coordinate working groups on a range of industry issues, including performance rights and public policy. We also provide resources and benefits such as newsletters, discounts, and updates on industry-related topics. Our publications, such as the Roadmap To Starting A Trade Association and the ISRC Factsheet provide valuable insights for music professionals.

AI is becoming incredibly popular in mainstream entertainment and media, and it poses some interesting questions for the music industry. Overall, do you see the rise in AI’s popularity – and more importantly, the evolution of the tech – as a net positive or a net negative?

AI presents both opportunities for the sector via the many tools which have been developed to help facilitate planning, music identification, metadata cleansing, artist promotion, etc, as well as some challenges. Independents are early adopters by nature and actively embrace and support the development of new technologies, as long as they are legitimate and safeguard the rights of creators and rights holders. Developments in artificial intelligence are exciting, but they must be done responsibly.

A lot of artists have expressed their concerns about AI being used to push them out of the industry, either by companies using it to generate music they don’t have to pay for the rights for, or by “artists” using the tech to generate content and bypass the creative process...

There are understandable concerns around AI-generated music. But artificial intelligence can also be used to address unlawful activity that removes value from creators, such as streaming manipulation, ad-blocking, stream-ripping and AI rip-offs.

How can artists ensure their works are not stolen and used as training tools for fledging AI programs? And if someone does happen to be affected, what options do they have to seek restitution?

Creators’ freedom to decide if and how their music may be used is a fundamental right that must be respected. The use of copyrighted works requires the consent of the rights owner and AI is no different. Transparency is essential, and AI developers must ensure that all works, performances, and likenesses, including how they were used to develop and train the algorithms, are disclosed and auditable.

How do you feel about artists, and the industry as a whole, using AI in an ethical way – ie. using programs trained algorithmically on works by consenting (and compensated) artists, being transparent about their use, etc? Do you think that could even be done?

It is a bit early to say, but we are willing to collaborate with other industry stakeholders to develop guidelines and best practices.

Neeta Ragoowansi (Folk Alliance, USA)

Folk is one of the oldest surviving genres of music, and the community surrounding it seems to be as strong as ever. What is it about the music, and that community, that has made folk an undying staple of the music world?

Firstly, it may be semantics, but I don’t necessarily see folk as a “genre” but rather a concept or a movement, or an overall network made up of many genres which include a multitude of styles, from music rooting from its particular community and culture to more contemporary folk approaches such as that of the American folk music revival. If folk music is music of the people, it’s important to expand our view of it not being limited to any one style, but to a variety of styles, of cultures, of storytelling, and of an ethos of its community.

That all being said then, folk music may have maintained its significance and endured as an “undying staple in the music world” (love that) due to several factors. Firstly, folk music is often rich in cultural heritage and storytelling. It often carries the history and stories of its culture and community and families, and serves as a means of preserving heritage from one generation to the other.

That depth resonates and creates a responsibility, a loyalty to preservation and a deep and emotional connection within that community. Also, often folk music carries a sense of authenticity and may address common issues within a community, so its impact to resonate is stronger within that community.

Contemporary, Anglo-Saxon oriented folk music (and some other genres of folk) have fostered a collective and participatory experience – the music industry and community have created a tradition of folk gatherings, folk festivals, songs which are simple and easy for a group to sing together – communal singing - which can be an extremely powerful force. 

With many styles of folk, there is a DIY ethos which allows it to maintain creative control and artistic integrity making it more resilient to the changing tides of corporate influence. And folk music has frequently been a vehicle for expressing dissent and advocating for social change. This connection between folk music and social activism has given the genre a powerful voice and lasting impact. Unfortunately, the problems of the world continue and therefore the need for such songs continues as well.

How do you feel about the significance of showcase events, or lack thereof?

Showcasing events are an amazing and efficient format. It allows talent buyers and booking agents to see a large number of artists in a short amount of time with the ability to focus based on their market needs. Artists have an opportunity to curate a set that exemplifies their best songs and performances for a live experience. It’s one of the best ways for an artist to find talent buyers and/or a booking agent and set up a whole entire tour through a country or region efficiently.

Do you personally see them as a worthwhile endeavour for emerging artists?

Absolutely! Especially for artists that can take advantage of a touring opportunity that may come out of performing at a showcasing event – meaning especially if an artist is “tour ready.” The artist needs to be prepared to be out on the road for an extended period of time, have a plan to support their live show such as logistical needs, including local equipment sourcing, and the like.

Do you have any notable memories from attending showcase events yourself?  

How much time do we have? I have so many notable memories. Almost too many to mention... But I’ll try. I’ve been to so many through the past decades, but my first Folk Alliance conference experience was special. I remember in 1996 when, at the behest of some close music friends, I came upon my first Folk Alliance (showcasing conference), which was in Washington, DC that particular year. I was a musician in a local “folkadelic” band and was plunged heart-first into the Folk Alliance experience for what I recall was an all-nighter jam with several showcasing artists.

The memories slightly blur, yet the sentiment so clear. A grand piano magically “lifted” and pushed into an empty basement ballroom where new friends musician Chris Chandler, Dan Bern and Bob Wiseman struck beaming chords so powerful it propelled all fifty plus of us into a muse-inspired human orchestra, where emerged a glorious rhapsody with alarming abandon that seemed to have lasted for hours.

In the years to follow, as I focused my work on the business side to help creators and copyright owners get maximum value for their work, I continued to attend (and serve often as an invited speaker), going from one showcase to the next, hundreds of them, all under one roof (in one hotel), each time rediscovering how beautiful music could be, and I would tell the world that Folk Alliance was my favourite. My resolve and love of FAI and its engaged community deepened even further.

Any particularly big bands you saw at one before they “made it”?

Yes. Several. Difficult to recall all the stories  But a few that come to mind off the top of my head... The Killers at CMJ. Ben Folds Five at SXSW. Melody Gardot at Dewey Beach Music Conference. Ed Sheeran and Amy Winehouse. Showcasing conferences are pivotal moments in certain artist careers, serving them exposure to industry leads and decision-makers that can lead to tipping points.

And inversely, any up-and-comers that you believe will – or deserve to – make it soon?

That’s a tough one as there are so many and by naming names, I won’t be doing justice to the longer list of deserving ones who will “make it”. But also by the words “making it” – I’m not sure how to define that. If an artist can sustain a career which provides for their needs and allows them to work at what they love full-time, then they have “made it” in my book.

That all being said, I’m excited about Joy Clark (from New Orleans). Leyla McCalla is amazing. I very much enjoy Bobby Alu’s music (from the Gold Coast) as well as Brooklyn based singer songwriter Uwade.  But as mentioned, the list is much longer. So much to be excited about. So much to discover.

How do you think the music industry could better serve the artists that perform at showcase events, and give them more of a “guaranteed” leg-up after they put the work in to appear at them?

The industry could better service the artists by being intentional to follow up, providing constructive feedback to the artist, providing assistance in securing additional performance opportunities, and finding ways to provide exposure and promotion post-showcase event and post-performance.

At Folk Alliance International, we are working on creating systems and offerings (or improving upon existing offerings) to facilitate providing these post-showcase event services, such as creating performance feedback programs or initiatives, having audience evaluations, as well as providing for strategic/targeted networking and educational offerings for showcasing artists.