Why you should care

Because France may be showing a model for indie music to other nations too. 

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Artists from Charlotte Gainsbourg to rapper Orelsan scooped up prizes at the Victoires de la Musique awards in Paris this month — France’s equivalent of the Grammy Awards. But while the variety of genres was wide, 10 of the 12 winners had something in common: All were from independent record labels.

Music executives say the unprecedented haul shows that France’s independent labels are punching above their weight as three main forces align: government initiatives to boost the French music industry, a new generation of labels that have adapted their business models, and opportunities opened up by the shift to digital music and streaming.

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French singer and musician Catherine Ringer performs on stage during the 33rd Victoires de la Musique, the annual French music awards ceremony, on February 9, 2018

Source THOMAS SAMSON/Getty

“Indie is not a synonym of minority anymore,” says Emmanuel de Buretel, who founded independent record label Because Music in 2005. “It’s a synonym of health.”

The result is also a triumph for l’exception culturelle — the French notion that culture should be treated differently from other commercial products in order to protect and promote French cultural industries.

The music business was one of the first to bear the brunt of digital disruption. Independent players were among the worst hit when file-sharing-service Napster burst onto the scene around the turn of the millennium, tearing apart the music industry’s business model based on CD sales. But their prospects brightened when, in 2006, the French government responded to the crisis in the music industry by offering domestic companies tax credits for music production. The tax break — the crédit d’impôt en faveur de la production phonographique — was designed to support smaller companies most vulnerable to the transition to digital distribution. Still in place today, it allows music production companies to offset up to 30 percent of production costs up to 1.1 million euros each year.

The independents are managing to thrive in the streaming ecosystem that they were never able to do in a world dominated by physical records.

Jérôme Roger, UPFI

“The tax credits really helped the independent producers to be less dependent on the majors and to invest,” says de Buretel. Two of Because Music’s artists picked up awards this month: Charlotte Gainsbourg was named best female artist and singer-songwriter Camille won the prize for the best concert.

“Out of the crisis in CDs, a new generation of independent record labels emerged in France,” says Jérôme Roger, director general of the UPFI, the trade body for independent music producers in France. “Their business model wasn’t just based on CDs, but on live music, publishing, recording and international sales … it has become vital to enlarge their activities in a business that has dramatically changed.”

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French rapper Aurelien Cotentin aka Orelsan performs during the 33rd Victoires de la Musique, the annual French music awards ceremony, on February 9, 2018

Source THOMAS SAMSON/Getty

For those companies that have learned to survive, the digitalization of music and advent of streaming services has helped them thrive, opening up new channels of distribution. France was an early adopter of streaming — the country’s service Deezer was launched in 2007, a year before Spotify was founded in Sweden. Through the likes of Spotify, Deezer and Apple Music, consumers can get access to more than 30 million songs through one monthly subscription payment.

“The independents are managing to thrive in the streaming ecosystem that they were never able to do in a world dominated by physical records,” says Charles Caldas, chief executive officer of Merlin, a global rights agency representing independent music companies.

In the days when physical music sales prevailed, artists were dependent on being seen in the window of retailers like Fnac or HMV. This benefited the large record labels that had deep pockets and the marketing muscle to get artists into stores. Now the personalized recommendations of streaming services has widened the breadth of choice at listeners’ fingertips, which can give the artists of independent labels greater exposure.

“There has been a broadening of music consumption across a wider range than we’ve ever seen,” says Merlin’s Caldas. “This flatter marketplace is not as dominated by the bigger players, which creates a more level playing field for the indie players to compete.”

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By Harriet Agnew

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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