Let Me Hear You Stream: Indies Rock Overseas Music Markets

Let Me Hear You Stream: Indies Rock Overseas Music Markets

Streaming platforms are extending the reach of independent record labels in ways physical and digital formats haven’t

By Anne Steele March 15, 2018 9:00 a.m. ET

Independent record labels are experiencing a surge in international revenue as streaming services like Spotify Technology SA open up foreign markets previously accessible only to local music companies and major labels with global marketing and distribution capabilities.

The proliferation of streaming is changing the shape of independent labels’ business. Some now draw almost half of their streams from listeners outside their home country—and much of that growth is happening in unexpected markets.

In Latin America—not long ago thought to be a lost cause thanks to physical and digital piracy—independent record labels’ revenue grew at three times the overall world-wide rate, according to Merlin, a trade group. The organization negotiates digital-distribution deals on behalf of more than 20,000 independent labels based in 53 countries.

Brazil recently surpassed France, Canada and Australia as a source of music revenue for Merlin members. Merlin Chief Executive Charles Caldas predicts it will become the group’s fifth-biggest territory in 2018. Mexico, Chile and Argentina are already in the top 20.

In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this month, Spotify said its service is growing faster in Latin America than in North America or Europe, although the latter markets still have many more Spotify users than Latin America.

While the record industry overall is seeing certain markets emerge as meaningful sources of revenue, the international growth driven by streaming is more pronounced for independent labels, which didn’t have the infrastructure to distribute and market physical formats across the globe. Before Merlin was formed, most independents were distributed by major labels, which often would not distribute them abroad.

‘Indies operating in the ‘90s and early 2000s would not have been getting anywhere near the percentage of revenue from those markets that they get now.’
—Charles Caldas, Merlin

The download market, with its free 30-second song samples, was more successful than the physical market for indies, but the streaming world has made exploration much easier, especially thanks to the playlists that are among Spotify’s most popular features.

Independent labels’ market share on streaming platforms is much better than it ever was with physical or download formats; Merlin’s member labels account for 14% of listening time across services.

Merlin earned more than $40 million in audiostreaming revenue in Latin America last year. That is 18 times what the organization earned in 2014, the year Spotify and Google Play were fully launched across the continent.

The organization expects to generate more than $60 million in audio streaming in Latin America this year, with U.S.-based member labels accounting for about half of that revenue. In all, Merlin projects $470 million in global revenue over the same period. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reported that global recorded music revenue totaled $15.7 billion in 2016.

“Indies operating in the ‘90s and early 2000s would not have been getting anywhere near the percentage of revenue from those markets that they get now,” says Mr. Caldas.

It is transforming independent labels’ business.

“When you drill down on any platform into your top countries it’s very much more diverse than even six months ago,” says Jasper Goggins, manager for independent label Mad Decent.

He said even when digital downloads began to overtake physical formats, and iTunes was available outside of major western markets, it didn’t always translate into sales.

“Up until fairly recently if there was a song we thought would be popular in a foreign country there wasn’t a lot to show for it,” he says. “There was the U.S. and Europe, and then everywhere else.”


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