How iTunes Quietly Screwed Independent Artists

In 2015, being an independent artist is the easiest it has ever been; musicians have a direct line to their fans via social media; there are no barriers to entry for digital distribution; studio and video equipment is super affordable; and there are free online tutorials for pretty much anything you can ever want to learn. That said, the majors still have a vice grip on the industry and indie artists need every little advantage they can get their hands on.

A couple months back, we posted a blog about how we managed to hit the iTunes Hip Hop Charts in two countries on release day for one of our artists. There was a long list of key elements, however the most important segment of the plan was the iTunes pre-order. This method of promoting and releasing a record via iTunes has benefits for both majors and indies alike, and in our humble opinion, it truly puts independent artists and labels on a relatively even playing field – something that is a very rare occurrence in such a highly competitive and historically imbalanced industry as music.

While this is great news, it appears that iTunes feels otherwise. It recently came to our attention via an article in Billboard that this equalizer is no longer the case. The piece was written to reassure independent labels that the various iTunes changes are not in fact weighted to be in favour of the majors, and they go on to prove that fact by listing statistics on how many independent labels have releases on the revamped iTunes sliders (album cover cuts), add carousels (big ads at the top of the page) and bricks (rectangular ads).

As one would expect, the stats are mostly less than 50% for each example, meaning the majors of course retain the lion's share of the visibility on iTunes’ coveted home page. However, the major blow for the indies is that fact that the pre-orders no longer count towards first day sales – the entire reason they’re used in the first place. Here’s how it works: an album has a release date of say December 1st, and it’s put up for pre-order beginning November 1st. During that one-month lead up, all sales will count towards immediate chart positions, and the clincher is that the cumulative sales for that entire month will count towards the first day’s sales.

That leg up on release day is an immense benefit for an independent label that generally doesn’t have the funds or resources to guarantee a high charting position for their artists. It finally gave the little guys a fighting chance to compete with the majors, as it did for our artist. The fact that iTunes opted to remove the only avenue the independents have of making a somewhat impressive dent in the charts is a huge blow. The old pre-order system also heavily benefited the majors, as they typically have a longer pre-order period to ensure a #1 chart position on release day, if not before. Even with that level of competition, if an indie label picked a date that didn’t have any other major competitors releasing on or close to it, they’d really have an opportunity to make some noise on the only truly influential digital chart. So this sucks for everybody involved.

Of course, landing a position on the iTunes charts isn’t everything. As an up and coming artist, in order to gain the attention of the industry you need to essentially be collecting as many accolades as possible, and this was a relatively achievable one where if you have a solid marketing plan, you can really make it happen. It’s also great content for social media, it reinforces the ability of an artist to mobilize their fanbase to the industry, and it acts as social proof to the market that highly encourages future purchases or streams.

Now that the one equalizer (in this realm) has been taken away from independent artists, we need to focus on alternative achievements and methods of visibility.  The worst part about it all is the lack of communication from Apple. We stumbled on the Billboard article more than half a year after it went to press, and upon a Google search at the time of writing, there was no additional information or confirmation (or denial for that matter) available online.

Let’s hope that iTunes and other digital retailers think of the little guys before making such audacious moves in the future.