Held by the Australian Independent Record Labels Association, better known as AIR, the 2012 Jagermeister Independent Music Awards are just around the corner. Celebrating the strength and success of the Australian independent music scene, the ceremony is building and developing with each passing year. 

This year’s iteration is no different, with the September announcement of the 2012 awards presenting an expansion of the ceremony’s influence, bringing with it the introduction of Virgin Australia as a new presenting partner along with regular supporter, Jagermeister; as well as the introduction of a brand new awards category for ‘Best Label’, recognising Australia’s best indie-friendly label.

That’s along with the list of nominees for category’s that spotlight the country’s best and brightest across a wide range of genres, including performances from the likes of Tim Rogers, The Bamboos, Hermitude, Lanie Lane, Loon Lake, and House Vs Hurricane. With singer-songwriter and national treasure Paul Kelly topping the bill, and capping the release of his 26th album, with a performance alongside his nephew, fellow musician Dan Kelly.

Aside from AIR’s night of nights, they also made headlines recently for a far less celebratory affair, standing up for independent practices in slamming the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to not intervene on Universal Music’s acquisition of the EMI group; a move that – unopposed – results in the combined might of Universal and EMI controlling more than 50% of the market share; decreasing musical diversity and consumer choice. 

Following on from our industry interviews with ARIA CEO Dan Rosen, and Bluesfest promoter Peter Noble; it seems like a good a time as any to sit down and chew the fat with AIR’s General Manager, Nick O’Byrne to discuss the state of Australia’s independent music scene, his role at AIR, and his recent appointment as the program director for Australia’s largest music conference, BIGSOUND.

How did you come to be at AIR?

I started as an intern here about five or six years ago. I’d done a music business course along the way, did some assistant managing for John Butler and did some internships for festivals like Laneway.

All in all I did three internships none of which paid, including the one I did at AIR which got me the job. Then as more senior people left I was left to run it.

Do you still feel the controversy over AIR’s notion of independence – defining what is and isn’t ‘indie’  is sorted? Or has it led to changes with the awards?

That question is going to come up every single year. Last year there was some controversy about it, I felt the year before there was even more controversy about it. But we made a choice three years ago that we needed to find a way to define it; and for every different artist there’s a slightly different deal with their label with different people taking different percentages for distribution and stuff like that.

So we thought the easiest way of actually doing it was by asking who owns the actual recording. If the ownership of the actual recording is independent, then they’re eligible for the awards. It does make it difficult, you’ve got to acknowledge that someone like 360 who is 100% signed to an indie label through Soulmate, is then licensed through EMI.

So while he’s independent, being licensed to EMI has certainly had a hand in his success. So there’s no way we can look through everyone’s contracts to pick out what all the details are.

Then you look at someone like The Temper Trap, people look at them and say they don’t feel like an independent artist; but their label Liberation is 100% Australian owned, they do all their digital sales, all their A&R and Marketing.

It would be pretty hard to mount an argument against the fact that they are an independent act. It works in different ways, there are plenty of bands who promote themselves in an ‘indie’ way who are major label bands. The whole concept is very important to a lot of people, which is why there’s always controversy I suppose.

Can you talk about obtaining music video royalties from the XYZ Network and MTV? It seems unfathomable that they wouldn’t have had to pay royalties in the first place.

They’re not too bad. MTV used to be a lot worse. It goes for any of these services; it’s far more difficult to license independent music than it is to license major label music. All you have to do with three deals; now that EMI have been bought by Universal, three deals and you get something like 70% of the music that you’re ever going to want to play.

Then it’s up to you to do potentially 200 more deals just to get the last 30%. What we’ve done is try and make it easier for both people trying to get the license and the labels to enter into a relationship where people will get paid for their music. In the past it didn’t happen because the infrastructure didn’t exist. They entered those negotiations willingly, it’s not like they stood back and said piss off’, they understand that they have to do the deal.

[do action=”pullquote-2″]The music industry is trying to move forward and embrace as many different business models as possible, but when one particular entity has a commercial interest in potentially not letting people do business, that’s bad for the entire industry.[/do]

You’ve spoken out against Universal’s takeover of EMI, what potential impact do you see from Universal having over 50% market share?

The biggest one was actually illustrated last week, not through Universal and EMI… but through Sony/ATV buying EMI’s publishing; making them the biggest publisher in the world.

Recently Apple in the US were trying to negotiate the publishing royalties for a streaming service called Pandora that they wanted to launch the same time as the iPhone 5 and the new iOS. Basically, Sony/ATV set a price that Apple wasn’t prepared to pay, which meant they couldn’t use music published by Sony/ATV; and because it was such a large part of the overall music industry, they just had to give up on launching the service.

It wasn’t worth them even starting the service if they couldn’t get that content, and that’s what’s really worrying. It’s not that Sony/ATV don’t have a right to set their price, but basically they have so much power that they can control who can enter the market by working out who they want to do a deal with. That’s what’s really scary.

Because that service may have been great for independent artists, for example; but they’re never going to get to use that service, because it never launched, all because Sony/ATV didn’t want to do a deal.

Universal/ EMI basically have the potential to do the same. One of our major arguments was that the music industry is trying to move forward and embrace as many different business models as possible, but when one particular entity has a commercial interest in potentially not letting people do business, that’s bad for the entire industry.