Revealed: Billboard’s 2021 Indie Power Players

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Amid all of the challenges of the past year — office shutdowns, tour cancellations, a surge in social music platforms and even a vinyl supply backlog — the independent music sector has been thriving. Independents as a whole grew market share in 2020 from 29.7% to 31.1%, according to an analysis in March by MIDiA, which previously estimated that indie labels and artists account for nearly one-third of the global music market.

Billboard’s Indie Power Players recognizes industry leaders — nominated by their companies and peers and selected by our editors — at independent labels and distributors. Labels are defined as independent, regardless of size, by their ownership through entities other than the three major music groups. This year’s list particularly reflects the strength of independent labels in the R&B and hip-hop genres (often achieving hits through joint ventures with majors). Distributors, regardless of their corporate ownership, qualify as independent through the repertoire they market.

Executives from over 80 companies are recognized here. Many will gather June 14-17 as the American Association of Independent Music hosts its second virtual Indie Week, presented by SoundExchange, as well as the Libera Awards, presented by Merlin. A2IM’s four days of panels, keynotes and networking sessions, followed by the awards celebration, will affirm — along with these profiles — that the state of independence in the music industry has never been stronger.

Richard James Burgess
President/CEO, American Association of Independent Music

Burgess salutes his team’s “short-notice pivot to all-virtual events” in 2020 for both the Indie Week conference and the Libera Awards. Both will be presented online again this year. As A2IM has moved toward a more diverse and gender-balanced board, it also has launched initiatives like the Black Independent Music Accelerator program, which brought “many more Black-owned businesses into our fold,” says Burgess. “We continue to build back to a viable economic environment for creators.”

The Next Legislation We Need: “The lack of [a performance right for sound recordings on terrestrial radio] deprives creators of hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the U.S., and similarly from around the world. That giant conglomerates are exempted by law from having to pay for the product of someone else’s labor and for the use of someone else’s property is unique and shameful.”

Jeremy Sirota
CEO, Merlin

Merlin is the digital rights music licensing partner for independent labels, distributors and other music rights holders around the world. After Sirota became CEO in January 2020, he welcomed 81 new members, with first-time members from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Peru, Singapore, Slovakia and the United Arab Emirates. “In 2021, we’ve already welcomed 15 new members from all corners of the world, including India, the Middle East, Kenya, Europe, Japan and North America,” he says.

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “The rise of social music platforms. In the last year alone, new services launched, existing services grew and a few large platforms expanded. Merlin was the first partner to sign a sound recording agreement with Snap, we closed a deal with Triller, we expanded our relationship with YouTube — via Super Chat, Super Stickers and Shorts — and we’ve deepened our partnership with Facebook.”

Patrick Amory
Co-owner/president, Matador Records
Gerard Cosloy
Co-owner, Matador Records
Chris Lombardi
Co-owner, Matador Records

Matador’s recent achievements include launching international campaigns for Perfume Genius, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus; bringing in new signees Mdou Moctar and The Goon Sax; and acquiring new catalogs from Interpol, Pavement, Spoon and Gang of Four. The company also has reissued some of its earlier works through the Matador Revisionist History series. The label was also able to save “an incredible amount of money on our annual travel and entertainment budget,” says Cosloy, 56. “Sometimes sacrifices are necessary.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “The two-year turnaround time for new vinyl is taking some getting used to.” — Cosloy

Noah Assad
CEO, Rimas Entertainment

In 2020, Bad Bunny’s El Último Tour del Mundo became the first all-Spanish album to ever reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200. His single “Dákiti,” with Jhay Cortez, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Global Excl. U.S. chart, and Bad Bunny was Spotify’s most streamed artist of the year. Behind Bunny is manager Assad, 31, who signed him to his own Rimas Entertainment. The Puerto Rican indie now has a staff of 60 and over 100 artists, producers and songwriters on its roster. “When it comes to disruption, anyone can do it. The problem is the vision,” says Assad. And his vision? “I wanted to be one more major [label]. We can do the same things they can.”

Tunde Balogun
Co-founder/president, LVRN
Junia Abaidoo
Co-founder/head of operations and touring, LVRN
Justice Baiden
Co-founder/head of A&R, LVRN
Sean “Famoso” McNichol
Co-founder/head of marketing and brand partnerships, LVRN
Carlon Ramong
Co-founder/creative director, LVRN

The Atlanta-based label and creative agency LVRN (which stands for Love Renaissance) boasts R&B superstar signees 6LACK and Summer Walker and has spent the past year expanding different aspects of the company, including boosting its songwriting division through a publishing deal with Warner Chappell and growing the management roster by signing dvsn. The company is also marking the first year of the LVRN Mental Health Department, which Balogun says helps artists and staff cope with challenges from creativity roadblocks due to COVID-19.

Best Timesaving Tip: “Prioritizing what’s really important first, then getting to everything else. In essence, we want to answer and try to do everything in the moment at once, which can lead to being drained or tired, especially when you’re rushing to get things done. It can lead to missing important information.” — Balogun

Bang Si-hyuk
Chairman/CEO, HYBE
Lenzo Yoon
Global CEO, HYBE and HYBE America

HYBE, formerly known as Big Hit Entertainment, acquired Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings in a $1.05 billion deal in April that includes management, label services and publishing for clients including BTS, Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. The company also acquired Naver’s V Live video streaming service and partnered with Universal Music Group’s Geffen Records to create a K-pop label in the United States and a music competition series that will debut in 2022. Yoon will serve as the conduit between the label’s Seoul and Los Angeles outposts. The moves align with Bang’s vision of creating “the world’s best entertainment lifestyle platform based on music,” he says.

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “The format of concerts. A mixture of online and offline performances will become commonplace, and the value of offline performances will increase further.” — Yoon

Steve Bartels
12Tone Music

With the Joji catalog on its way to 2 million album consumption units and Dolly Parton’s A Holly Dolly Christmas piling up nearly 250,000 album consumption units since its October release, the label has now turned its attention to its new signing, Illenium, to build momentum for the artist’s next album expected this summer. “We continued to keep our core staff motivated during the pandemic, releasing and promoting five different songs with multiple remixes — close to 30 versions in total — while delivering two No. 1 Dance Mix/Show Airplay Songs in the process,” says Bartels.

Best Timesaving Tip: “Know what is important in each artist campaign and further it without wasting time on things your experience tells you won’t pan out. From having worked within the major-label system and now in indie entrepreneur land, I have learned what part of the marketing and signing footprint can give you immediate results for analysis in order to read whether you move forward, move differently or just stop.”

Scott Borchetta
Founder/president/CEO, Big Machine Label Group
Andrew Kautz
COO, Big Machine Label Group

Under Borchetta and Kautz, Tim McGraw’s return to Big Machine last year led to the singer’s No. 1 on Top Country Albums in September with Here on Earth, while the rechristened Lady A joined Big Machine’s BMLG Records, scoring two chart-toppers on Country Airplay and earning a Grammy nomination for its album Ocean. Carly Pearce hit No. 1 on Country Airplay with “I Hope You’re Happy Now” (with Lee Brice), while the country-pop trio Avenue Beat captured the zeitgeist with “F2020,” which went viral on TikTok.

Shari Bryant
Omar Grant
Co-presidents, Roc Nation Label

While its clients include Rihanna, JAY-Z and J. Cole, Roc Nation’s label division takes pride in developing younger talent, including recent signings Snoh Aalegra, Kalan.FrFr and Maeta, as well as the continuing advancement of Rapsody, Belly, and Jaden and Willow Smith. “We aren’t in the volume business, because we are a smaller company,” says Bryant. “It takes a little longer, but we will have a good amount of new artists that will be in the mainstream conversation.”

Best Timesaving Tip: “Systems. If you don’t have a strong foundation with systems to handle your check list of mandatory things that an artist must have — social media, photos, updated bio, one sheet, clearances — you don’t have room to enhance.” — Grant

Ken Bunt
President, Disney Music Group
David Abdo
Senior vp global operations and distribution, Disney Music Group
Robbie Snow
Senior vp global marketing, Disney Music Group
Karen Lieberman
VP sales and digital, Disney Music Group

Disney Music Group, which includes Hollywood Records and Walt Disney Records, counts the launch of its parent company’s new streaming service, Disney+, as a coup for its artist roster that also helped spread cheer during the pandemic. “Our music resonated with people around the world, especially during quarantine,” says Bunt. “Between fans singing Queen songs on their balconies to three television specials of Disney Music Family Singalongs, music is a universal language that brought joy and comfort to millions.” Timed to Juneteenth, the company will release the third volume of Music for the Movement, a collaboration with ESPN’s The Undefeated.

The Next Legislation We Need: “Reform of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in order to update safe harbor provisions and promote more effective control of music piracy.” — Bunt

Missi Callazzo
Co-owner, Megaforce Records

Callazzo started as an intern at Megaforce in 1989 and ended up taking over the company that released early Metallica albums, as well as records by Ace Frehley, Testament, Ministry and Anthrax. The lattermost band celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and Megaforce itself is one year shy of that milestone. “We have not slowed down, the pandemic notwithstanding,” says Callazzo, who notes forthcoming releases from Third Eye Blind, Umphrey’s McGee and Rebelution.

Best Way to Observe Juneteenth: “There is always more to learn, and this is a day to reflect, step back, fill in the blanks and educate oneself.” —Callazzo

Don Cannon
Leighton “Lake” Morrison
Tyree “DJ Drama” Simmons
Co-founders, Generation Now

Before 2020, Generation Now earned success on the Billboard Hot 100 through its lone superstar, Lil Uzi Vert. The burgeoning label now has the luxury of pairing the “XO Tour Llif3” rapper with Kentucky-born co-star Jack Harlow. During the pandemic, the Louisville native scored a top five Billboard 200 debut with That’s What They All Say, anchored by his No. 2 Hot 100 hit, “Whats Poppin.” “[The pandemic] made us more meticulous than ever,” says Morrison, “from the music to production to project rollouts.”

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “We’ll continue to address the importance of mental and physical health. Most businesses continue to push the narrative of working hard every minute but fail to address staying mentally and physically healthy in the process of reaching your dream.” — Morrison

Marie Clausen
Head of North America/head of global streaming, Ninja Tune

In a difficult year for independent labels, Clausen, 39, and her team managed to pull off a successful deal with the label of electronic duo ODESZA, Foreign Family Collective. Together, the two labels launched the eponymous debut album by Bronson, the duo’s collaborative project with Golden Features, which notched a No. 5 debut on the Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart. “This new venture allows us to work even more closely to create the best environment for artists and their music,” says Clausen, who serves on the boards of both A2IM and Merlin.

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “Removing market barriers and gatekeepers through streaming, allowing in return commercial success for independents of all shapes and sizes on a gradually more level playing field.”

Tomas Cookman
CEO, Industria Works/Nacional Records

For the second year in a row, ­Cookman’s team pivoted its weeklong Latin ­Alternative Music Conference in May to a free, virtual event that had 25,000 registrants (compared with 10,000 last year) and a peak viewership of 5,000. “It’s further proof that the music ­industry is thriving,” says Cookman, who this past year hired five new staffers for his ­company, which includes a record label and management division.

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “As more and more funding enters the music industry, especially in areas like publishing, the further clarification of creator rights and subsequent payments will be key.”

Mike Curb
Founder/chairman, Curb Records

As a philanthropist, Curb has made major contributions to, among others, the National Museum of African American Music, Bethune-Cookman University, Fisk University and Nashville organizations to aid underserved communities during the pandemic. As an activist, he penned a Billboard op-ed last year titled, “Why a Slate of Tennessee Bills Are Discriminatory and Could Hurt the State’s Music Community.” And at 76, he remains a hitmaker: Curb Records’ Dylan Scott reached No. 4 on Country Airplay in May with “Nobody” from his EP Nothing To Do Town, which hit No. 3 on Top Country Albums. Lee Brice’s latest album, Hey World, peaked at No. 7 on Top Country Albums in January, and “Amen,” the latest single from the Christian pop duo for King & Country reached No. 6 on Christian Airplay in May.

Angel Del Villar
Founder/CEO, Del Records

Del Villar, 40, reports that despite the pandemic his label has had one of its most successful years on digital platforms, highlighted by the flourishing career of regional Mexican group Eslabon Armado, which claimed its third No. 1 on the Regional Mexican Albums chart in January with Corta Venas. For now, Del Villar is focused on getting Del Records’ roster back on tour. “It’s the time to join forces, especially in the genre, and create tours that people are dying to see,” he says.

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “The fast and constant way we consume music. We have to constantly release content.”

Brandon “Lil Bibby” Dickinson
George “G-Money” Dickinson
Peter “Pete” Jideonwo
Partners, Grade A Productions

The Grade A team took pride in “properly honoring Juice WRLD’s legacy,” says Jideonwo, by delivering (in partnership with Interscope) the rapper’s posthumous album Legends Never Die, which debuted last July at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. “This, combined with the success of The Kid LAROI, has been great to witness,” says Jideonwo of the label’s Australian rapper, whose duet with Miley Cyrus on “Without You” has reached the top 10 on the Hot 100. “The progression of Grade A into a musical and business force has paved the way for a bright future.”

Best Way to Observe Juneteenth: “Take the day off to reflect on how far we have come and how far we still have to go. We should volunteer for a cause or organization dedicated to equality and be sure to do our part in giving back. Juneteenth should be a nationally celebrated holiday.” — Jideonwo

Seth England
Partner/CEO, Big Loud

While Morgan Wallen has had one of the best-selling country albums of the year for Big Loud with Dangerous: The Double Album, the company in February suspended his recording contract after video emerged of Wallen using a racial slur. (Wallen in May sang of “making some bad decisions” in a new song, “Thought You Should Know.”) England’s team kept the label on the charts, however, with roster mates Chris Lane, HARDY, Dallas Smith and Sean Stemaly, among others.

Matt Galle
Mike Marquis
Partners/CEOs, Photo Finish Records

Home to 3OH!3, Handsome Ghost and Marian Hill, Photo Finish Records is still counting the returns from SHAED’s breakthrough single, “Trampoline,” which has racked up 2 billion streams worldwide, according to the company. The surprise hit set up the label for its “best years yet” leading up to its 15th anniversary in 2021, says Galle. Meanwhile, Marquis is proud of a new partnership with alternative rock band The Maine to help grow the 600 million streams of its catalog and get the Arizona act “to the next level of success,” he says.

The Next Legislation We Need: “To address the monopolization of ticketing. The ticketing companies have too strong a hold on the buyers and charge outrageous fees to the consumer, which are typically not shared with the artist.” — Marquis

Daniel Glass
Founder/CEO, Glassnote Music
Chris Scully
GM/CFO, Glassnote Music

Artist development is the “true DNA” of Glassnote, says Glass, who cites the label’s commitment to developing career artists like Chvrches and Aurora as “the reason people sign with us.” When Chvrches’ 2018 song “Forever” gained in streams and sales after a 2020 synch on the Netflix series Elite, Glassnote promoted the song to radio. The label did the same for Aurora’s 2015 song “Runaway” after a viral TikTok video propelled it to Nos. 19 and 22 on Billboard’s Global Excl. U.S. and Global 200 charts, respectively, in May. “And with the return of touring,” says Glass, “they’re both on the cusp of joining the pantheon of arena artists.”

Best Timesaving Tip: “Counting to 10. Inhaling and exhaling. Ironically, taking a moment to think before responding or taking action can end up saving the most time in the end. Taking the subway will save you a lot of time, too.” — Glass

Michael Goldstone
Founder/co-owner, Mom + Pop Music
Thaddeus Rudd
Co-president/co-owner, Mom + Pop Music

“During a challenging time, we were able to break through with Ashe,” says Goldstone of the “Moral of the Story” singer-songwriter whose debut album, Ashlyn, arrived May 7 featuring collaborations with FINNEAS and Niall Horan. Goldstone also points to Beach Bunny’s “Cloud 9,” which he says hit over 2 million streams per day; electronic artist Porter Robinson’s “brilliant” sophomore album, Nurture, which debuted at No. 1 on the Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart in May; and upcoming priority releases from FKJ, Courtney Barnett and Lucius.

Best Timesaving Tip: “Being flexible and inclusive empowers voices to break through. Most of our company touches every release. Having 25 people working on a release with management, agents and publicists makes for an optimum team.” — Goldstone

Elliot Grainge
Founder/CEO, 10K Projects

“This year, two of our label partners had incredible success,” says Grainge, 27. “Taz Taylor and Nick Mira at Internet Money had one of the biggest records of the year with ‘Lemonade’ and established their company as an artist brand. And our partners Zack Friedman and Tony Talamo at Homemade Projects launched the careers of Surfaces, Peach Tree Rascals and Salem Ilese. The success of these two partnerships really shows what we can do as independents when we work together.”

The Next Legislation We Need: “Artists need healthcare now and too many of them are falling through the cracks. As a Brit who grew up where we had universal healthcare, the fact that this country does not provide a comprehensive healthcare plan to all of its citizens is so surprising to me. How many years away are we from solving this problem in the U.S.?”

Benjy Grinberg
Founder/president, Rostrum Records

Rostrum Records, once the label home of Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, signed rapper Rich the Kid earlier this year in a move that affirms the view of Grinberg, 43, that “independent doesn’t mean small.” Under the multimillion-dollar deal, Rostrum will release Rich the Kid’s music in partnership with BMG. Grinberg calls him “a key voice of this generation, and we’re very excited that he chose Rostrum as his new home.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “Blockchain has so much potential to help create a database of music rights. It’s crazy that the music industry hasn’t gotten its act together in this respect.”

Brett Gurewitz
Founder/CEO, Epitaph/Anti- Records
Matt McGreevey
GM, Epitaph/Anti- Records

The roster of Epitaph/Anti-, the label founded in 1980 by Bad Religion guitarist Gurewitz, succeeded this year despite the pandemic. Fleet Foxes’ Shore topped the Americana/Folk Albums chart, while Architects’ For Those That Wish To Exist reached the top 10 on the Top Album Sales chart. The label’s past year also included releases by Ben Harper, M. Ward, The Menzingers and The Ghost Inside. “It has become very clear that we don’t need to be in the same building to be successful,” says McGreevey, adding that continuing virtual operations “allow for our teams around the world to collaborate in a more meaningful and immediate way.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “The rise in demand for vinyl records has been great, but this is putting a major strain on the plants, causing production timelines to expand and resulting in delays.” — McGreevey

Tyson Haller
Senior vp/head of promotion, Concord
Karen Kloack
Senior vp sync marketing, Concord
Carrie Smith
VP creative services, Concord

Concord’s promotion team helped The Pretty Reckless become “the first female-fronted band to score six No. 1s on the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart,” says Haller, when the band’s single “And So It Went” (featuring Tom Morello) reached the top spot in April. Kloack helped Nathaniel Rateliff “fulfill his dream of performing on Saturday Night Live,” she says, and brokered his partnership with Apple TV+ to pen “Redemption” for the 2020 film Palmer starring Justin Timberlake. Smith celebrated her creative team’s three wins in physical album packaging at the virtual Making Vinyl Packaging Awards in February.

The Next Legislation We Need: “An amendment to the Copyright Act granting owners of sound recordings the same public performance right [on terrestrial radio] that is enjoyed by copyright owners in virtually all other developed countries.” — Kloack

Simon Halliday
Worldwide managing director, 4AD
Nabil Ayers

Despite the loss of live performances as a promotional avenue, 4AD broke two new acts during the pandemic: the London quartet Dry Cleaning and Tkay Maidza, a singer-songwriter-rapper and a native of Zimbabwe who lives in Australia. “During a time when both campaigns would rely heavily on touring,” says Ayers, “they’ve both managed to feel omnipresent due to press, radio, video content we’ve created with partners and great word-of-mouth.”

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “Without the pressure of pegging an album release to a tour or major festival, we’ve had more space to release music, video and to build a story. When touring comes back we’ll surely revert, but hopefully we can implement some of what we’ve learned.” — Ayers

Jimmy Humilde
Founder/CEO, Rancho Humilde

Humilde’s label has helped launch a wave of urban regional Mexican artists who’ve connected with a new generation of listeners. They include 20-year-old Natanael Cano, who had the most-consumed regional Mexican album of 2020 and helped Rancho Humilde end the year as the No. 1 Regional Mexican Albums label on the Billboard charts, outranking Universal and Sony. Says Humilde: “I think the playing field is more level than before.”

Best Timesaving Tip: “Trust your gut feeling. If you feel that a certain project will be successful, don’t doubt yourself, and go all in.”

Eric Hurt
VP A&R, Empire Nashville
Heather Vassar
VP marketing, Empire Nashville

In its first 12 months of existence, Empire Nashville made an impact with Willie Jones, whose album Right Now includes the Black empowerment anthem “American Dream.” Hurt signed Jones to a publishing deal that led to the Empire Nashville release. (Jones has since moved to Sony Music Nashville.) Empire Nashville’s Bear and a Banjo, meanwhile, is a collaboration between hitmakers Jared Gutstadt and Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, and Americana artist Waylon Payne made his national TV debut on CBS This Morning: Saturday with a three-song performance.

Matthew Johnson
President, Fat Possum Records
Melinda Caffin
COO, Fat Possum Records

A bevy of new releases and blasts from its past are paving the road for Fat Possum’s 30th anniversary in 2022. On tap: a forthcoming seventh album by Wavves — the band’s first for the label in 10 years — and a partnership with Seymour Stein’s Blue Horizon Records that brings back Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green-era catalog. In May, Possum alums The Black Keys released Delta Kream on Nonesuch Records, featuring covers of early signings R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. The album served as a tribute to their first label home and to the band’s roots in the Mississippi hill country blues tradition.

Gordon Kerr
President/CEO, Black River Entertainment

Launching an album during the pandemic was a bold move for any artist or label. With the support of Kerr and his Black River team, Kelsea Ballerini released two — Kelsea, which arrived in March 2020, and Ballerini, in September. Earlier in 2021, Ballerini earned an Academy of Country Music Award nomination for female artist of the year. Under Kerr, Black River also has been nurturing rising acts like MaRynn Taylor, Josh Wilson and Carolina Story.

Allen Kovac
Founder/CEO, Better Noise Music/10th Street Entertainment

With Better Noise named Billboard’s No. 1 mainstream rock label of 2020, Kovac’s companies keep making a bang in the guitar-crunching game. While working “to amplify the iconic success of Mötley Crüe and elevating Five Finger Death Punch into one of the biggest hard rock bands in the world, we have consistently developed younger artists,” says Kovac, 66, noting the chart-topping success of Bad Wolves and the global breakthrough of Mongolian band The Hu.

The Next Legislation We Need: “Much stronger regulation of the streaming services and the three major record companies.”

David LaPointe
Founder/owner, LP

Tropical music continues to successfully compete against regional Mexican and reggaetón thanks, in part, to LaPointe’s independent label, marketing and management firm, LP. His clients include Puerto Rican salsa legends such as N’Klabe, whose latest album “spawned the worldwide smash ‘Me Enamoré Como Nunca,’ ” says LaPointe, and La India, who reemerged with her first new music in five years. And despite streaming models putting “independent artists in a more difficult situation,” says LaPointe, the label finished at No. 4 on Billboard’s Tropical Airplay year-end labels chart in 2020.

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “The pandemic has certainly brought to light many issues for indie artists with streaming … and the ways data can be manipulated for leverage.”

Kevin “Coach K” Lee
COO, Quality Control
Pierre “Pee” Thomas
CEO, Quality Control

In 2020, Quality Control maintained its dominance in rap (in partnership with Motown) with Lil Baby’s second album, My Turn. By earning 2.63 million equivalent album units in the United States, according to MRC Data, Lil Baby bested pop titans Taylor Swift and The Weeknd for the year’s most popular album. Thomas gushes that My Turn “was the [most-consumed] album of all genres in 2020, and we rode into 2021 with a monumental Grammy performance.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: Non-fungible tokens “open up a world of ownership and secondary transactions like we all have never seen. It’ll be interesting to see how it impacts music and the content artists make.” — Thomas

Kevin Liles
Co-founder/CEO, 300 Entertainment
Rayna Bass
Senior vp marketing, 300 Entertainment
Selim Bouab
Senior vp/head of A&R, 300 Entertainment
Geoff Ogunlesi
VP A&R, 300 Entertainment; vp, YSL Records
Leesa Brunson Boland
Senior vp/head of A&R operations and A&R administration, 300 Entertainment

The roster for 300 Entertainment has a deep bench of success stories: Young Thug and Gunna topped the Billboard 200 with their latest albums, and Megan Thee Stallion landed two Hot 100 No. 1s and three Grammy Awards in 2021, including best new artist. Liles says his team is most proud about becoming the first label to land on Inc. magazine’s Best Workplaces list. “The humanization of our industry is a priority for me,” he says. “We’re not just talking about employees, artists, writers, producers and managers. We are first talking about human beings.”

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “Now more than ever, mental health should be valued. This year we launched a program to reimburse employees for the cost of mental health services up to twice a week. [We have] also started another companywide initiative, 300 Takes a Break, which is a fund for employees to take a vacation.” — Liles

Justin Lubliner
CEO, The Darkroom

Lubliner’s independently owned imprint, The Darkroom, in partnership with Interscope, launched Billie Eilish to stardom in 2019 and watched her sweep the Grammys’ top honors in 2020 with her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? The highlight of the past year for Lubliner, 30, was helping put together Eilish’s documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, which he executive-produced.

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “Long walks for business meetings instead of sitting in an office.”

David Macias
President, Thirty Tigers

Two decades after Thirty Tigers was founded in Nashville, the label, under Macias, has become home to an acclaimed 120-act roster of Americana, country and folk artists, including the late John Prine, whose albums it distributes. Macias (who also is a partner in Triple Tigers Records; see below) in the past year has seen Alanis Morissette debut at No. 1 on Top Rock Albums with Such Pretty Forks in the Road and Jason Isbell and the 400 unit peak at No. 1 on Top Country Albums with Reunions, while Lucinda Williams reached No. 3 on Americana/Folk Albums and No. 21 on Top Rock Albums with her 13th studio set, Good Souls Better Angels.

Joshua Mendez
Co-founder/COO, Rich Music

Rich Music is a nimble company where label executives benefit from “dealing directly with the artist and not having to go through 20 channels to make a decision,” says Mendez, 32. In 2020, Rich Music artists such as Sech, Dalex and Dimelo Flow amassed 2.5 billion streams, according to the company, while the Miami-based label ranked on multiple Billboard year-end charts, including No. 6 on Top Latin Labels, No. 5 on Hot Latin Songs Labels and No. 6 on Top Latin Albums Labels.

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “Major labels changing terms for artist collaborations.”

Martin Mills
Chairman, Beggars Group
Matt Harmon
President, Beggars Group U.S.
Risa Matsuki
VP promotions, Beggars Group
Miwa Okumura
Senior vp West Coast operations and licensing, Beggars Group

Beggars Group focused on the well-being of furloughed touring workers amid the pandemic. The label group, which includes 4AD, Matador Records, Rough Trade and XL Recordings, created a band-crew fund that distributed money to nearly 180 people among their artists’ crew members during the holiday season — a time when they had “no way to generate income,” says Harmon. The record company — alongside Ninja Tune — also committed to become completely carbon-negative by the end of 2022 by reducing emissions through product and supply changes.

Best Timesaving Tip: “Picking up the phone. The best and most economical way to avoid Microsoft Teams or massive email threads is to plug in your headphones, make the call and get the issue sorted.”

Todd Moscowitz
Founder/CEO, Alamo Records
Tiara Hargrave
Executive vp/GM, Alamo Records

In the five years since rock-to-rap mogul Moscowitz founded Alamo Records, the label has established itself as a dominant force in hip-hop, with a roster that includes Lil Durk, Rod Wave, blackbear and Smokepurpp. Most recently, the label has released two of the biggest rap albums of 2021 to date: Lil Durk’s The Voice (co-released with Geffen) peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and Wave’s SoulFly topped the chart in April — the company’s first No. 1.

The Next Legislation That We Need: “Making mental health, financial literacy and addiction-reform resources available to all artists, which can change the life span of artists and help their quality of life.” — Hargrave

Norbert Nix
President, Triple Tigers Records

Under Nix, Triple Tigers has scored two Country Airplay chart-toppers in the past 12 months: Scotty McCreery’s “In Between” and Russell Dickerson’s “Love You Like I Used To.” The latter was Dickerson’s fourth consecutive single to reach the peak when it topped the list in November. That streak set up the arrival of his second album, Southern Symphony. Nix guided the strategy for the set, which included the video “Southern Symphony Album Experience,” a collection of clips telling the story of the release, track by track. Southern Symphony reached No. 14 on Top Country Albums.

Patrick North
Label head, XL Recordings/Young
Laura Lyons
U.S. campaign manager, XL Recordings/Young

The Young label recently partnered with TV network FX to premiere FKA Twigs’ visuals for “Sad Day,” directed by Hiro Murai. It also launched the solo career of the xx’s Romy with the release of the single “Lifetime” and the breakthrough debut of Mustafa on his Regent Park Songs imprint. In 2020, XL Recordings celebrated having the first openly nonbinary artist to receive a Grammy Award nomination with Venezuelan artist Arca’s fourth studio album, KiCk i, landing a nod in the best dance/electronic album category.

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “Increased demand for exclusive content from all partners. Labels and artists have to be resourceful and creative and find new angles to tell a story while keeping the music front and center.” —Lyons

Maykel Piron
Co-owner/CEO, Armada Music

Piron, 46, was proud of the “tremendous team effort” of his staff for remaining focused, productive and calm amid the pandemic. “Dance music is our bread and butter, so we took a hit when clubs closed,” he says. “But we managed to keep each other motivated and kept [sales] at almost the same level.”

Best Timesaving Tip: “Find out where your main audience is and focus on reaching them first. You’ll be able to grow from there. It is interesting to see that some of our releases have taken longer to grow into a huge success. So it is not always about saving time; it can also be about giving things time.”

Louis Posen
Founder/president, Hopeless Records

Posen, 50, used TikTok to boost his punk rock acts, which helped All Time Low’s 2007 sleeper hit “Dear Maria, Count Me In” reach double-platinum status in March, racking up 4 million on-demand streams per week. “Hopeless has been playing a leading role in redefining alternative music,” says Posen, “by diversifying our artist roster to be more representative of the genre-blending music that alternative fans love.”

Best Timesaving Tip: “Setting specific time each day and week to quietly assess all the opportunities and all the issues helps to focus on the things that matter most and remove the things that don’t.”

Antonio “L.A.” Reid
Charles Goldstuck
Founders/co-chairmen, Hitco Entertainment
Joel Klaiman
President, Hitco Entertainment

After “Roses” bloomed into a top five Hot 100 hit, SAINt JHN underscored his breakthrough with two Grammy wins, including best remixed recording. “That felt like a culminating moment in what was exceptional work by team Hitco,” says Goldstuck, who also notes that the launch in March of D-Nice’s new single “No Plans for Love” (featuring Ne-Yo) marked the one-year anniversary of the producer’s first Club Quarantine livestream.

Best Way to Observe Juneteenth: “Regard it as a proper company holiday and offer access to resources so employees are able to further educate themselves on the significance of the day and all that surrounds it.” — Goldstuck

Jon Salter
President, ATO Records

After receiving seven Grammy nods in 2020, ATO’s artists earned 11 nominations in 2021, with Brittany Howard winning for best rock song. For Salter, 49, the Grammy performances of Howard and Black Pumas were among the company’s highlights of the last year. He also takes special pride in the ATO compilation album Silence Is Not an Option (turn this up). “It’s full of powerful anthems from the ATO catalog that explore issues of identity, community, social injustice and resistance,” he says. The album raised over $10,000, with proceeds going to three Black Lives Matter charities.

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “The pretaped ‘at home’ content for TV/online programming. When done well, they can really sizzle, be dynamic, clever, more creative and exciting.”

Thomas Scherer
President of repertoire and marketing, New York and Los Angeles, BMG
Jon Loba
President, BMG Nashville

BMG, under Loba in Nashville, has scored with publishing client Carly Pearce, who won two Academy of Country Music Awards — including single of the year for her Lee Brice duet, “I Hope You’re Happy Now” — and Gabby Barrett, whose hit “I Hope” (featuring Charlie Puth) became the third-longest-reigning No. 1 on Hot Country Songs at 27 weeks. Scherer’s deal-making on the recorded-music front has led to success with AJR, Leslie Odom, Cheap Trick, KSI and Evanescence, and the acquisition of catalogs including George Harrison’s Dark Horse Records, which released the Concert for Bangladesh triple album in 1971.

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “The continued power shift to the artist, and more awareness of the real value of owning your assets and creative treasures. BMG is committed as a partner and an indie with global muscle. We’re the best of both worlds.” — Loba

Moe Shalizi
Founder, Pick Six Records

In the fall of 2020, Shalizi launched Pick Six Records, which he runs alongside his management company, The Shalizi Group. The indie label’s 10-person team has signed hip-hop artist Wacotron, alt-pop act Prop, R&B artist Kameron and rapper Morray, who recently signed a deal with Interscope in partnership with Pick Six. “Sign less,” says Shalizi of the label’s tight roster, and “give more time to those artists until they have a solid team around them.”

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “Building opportunities outside of touring and music.”

Jonny Shipes
Founder/CEO, Cinematic Music Group

Cinematic had a prolific 2020: For the second year in a row, the label with a roster that includes Flipp Deniro, Smoke DZA, Joey Bada$$ and Cam’ron doubled its streams. “To be coming up on two decades in the game and still seeing growth at that level feels good,” says Shipes, 41. “Seeing budding superstar Druski take off the way he has over the past year is very exciting.” For 2021, Shipes also plans to focus on the management division of the company, which includes hip-hop veteran Styles P.

Best Way to Observe Juneteenth: “At Cinematic, it’s a closed-office holiday. We’re proud of the platform we’ve created to amplify the voices of our Black artists and employees, which we showcase not just this month but year-round.”

Paul Sizelove
President, Gaither Music Group

Since Gaither Music Group partnered with Primary Wave Music in early 2019, Sizelove, 51, has seen the company continue to expand through strategic alliances, including a new deal with Universal’s newly rebranded Virgin Music Artist and Label Services. “This is a very good, strategic partnership for Gaither Music Group, allowing us to further develop the Gaither, Green Hill and Rural Rhythm labels, both digitally and internationally,” says Sizelove.

The Next Legislation We Need: “One that addresses performance royalties from terrestrial radio for sound recordings and artists. I am a proponent for making sure the master owners and artists get paid for their content in all areas of media.”

Wassim “Sal” Slaiby
Amir “Cash” Esmailian
La Mar C. Taylor
Co-founders, XO Records

XO continued to make history with The Weeknd’s After Hours. The record charted three Hot 100 No. 1s including “Blinding Lights,” which became the longest-running top 10 song in the chart’s history. These achievements helped bolster the label’s philanthropic endeavors, including co-founding The Weeknd’s million-dollar donation to hunger relief in Ethiopia and XO’s aid for the survivors of the deadly blast that rocked Slaiby’s home country of Lebanon in 2020.

Best Timesaving Tip: “Pick up the phone to resolve issues immediately and efficiently; never wait. Choosing your team wisely is the key to moving mountains.”— Slaiby

Ben Swanson
Founding partner/COO, Secretly Group
Chris Swanson
Founding partner/president of A&R, Secretly Group
Phil Waldorf
Founding partner/chief marketing officer, Secretly Group
Hannah Carlen
U.S./Canadian marketing director, Secretly Group

As one of the world’s largest independent label groups, Secretly includes subsidiary imprints like Jagjaguwar, Secretly Canadian and Ghostly International, with artists like Phoebe Bridgers, who launched her own label, Saddest Factory, under Secretly in October. “We’re in the process of re-signing a few artists,” says Carlen, which “speaks to the ways we’re able to grow with artists.” The company’s pandemic-motivated investment in direct-to-consumer initiatives like the Secretly Store and record club, she adds, will “most definitely endure.”

Best Timesaving Tip “Be on when you’re on and off when you’re off. If you’re in a position to keep that balance between work and the rest of life, keep it and prioritize it. It’s a timesaver in itself.” — Carlen

Arnold Taylor
CEO, South Coast Music Group
Daud Carter
Senior vp, South Coast Music Group
Garrett Williams
VP of marketing/head of operations, South Coast Music Group

The independently owned South Coast Music Group, through its partnership with Interscope Records, saw DaBaby’s third album, Blame It on Baby, released a month into the pandemic in April 2020, debut atop the Billboard 200. Meanwhile, his single “Rockstar” (featuring Roddy Ricch) spend seven nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 and was Billboard’s Song of the Summer for 2020.

Best Timesaving Tip: “Build a solid team so you can delegate tasks evenly. A team is only as strong as its weakest link, so it’s important to have reliable and trustworthy people in position.”

Fiona Prine
President, Oh Boy Records/Sour Grapes Music/TommyJack Music
Jody Whelan
Managing partner, Oh Boy Records

More than a year after John Prine’s death, his legacy shines on at Oh Boy Records, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Oh Boy, which was founded by Prine in 1981 with Al Bunetta and Dan Einstein, is the second-oldest artist-owned independent label in the United States (and the oldest in Nashville) and has released past titles from Prine and Kris Kristofferson, among others. Prine’s widow Fiona, 59, is proud of how the company, which she runs with her son, Jody, 40, has “continued to support artists on our label and keep fans engaged by offering exciting and relevant entertainment content and opportunities to support a variety of local and national nonprofits.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “Corporate consolidation and these giant platforms that deprioritize and squeeze out smaller, more niche artistic communities.” — Whelan

Bryan “Birdman” Williams
Ronald “Slim” Williams
Co-founder/co-CEOs, Cash Money Records

Cash Money has launched some of the biggest artists in hip-hop during its two-decade history, and younger artists like Jacquees are now leading its next wave of new talent. But the Williams brothers have also focused on giving back during the pandemic. In June 2020, they donated over $225,000 to Forward Together New Orleans, offering rent relief for residents of their childhood housing project. “We are most concerned,” says Slim, “with the financial wellness, literacy and attaining generational wealth within the Black community.”

The Next Legislation We Need: “We’d like to see laws in place that support access to capital for small Black businesses and equal access to mortgages and loans.” — Slim Williams

Mason Williams
Senior vp catalog A&R, Concord/Craft Recordings
Bruce McIntosh
VP Latin catalog, Concord/Craft Latino

Craft spent the last year investing heavily in the development of audiovisual content, producing thoughtfully curated clips and relevant series for its label and artist channels. The catalog strategy has led to significant gains for its various YouTube channels — most notably for Fania Records, which boasts nearly 700,000 subscribers; and Discos Musart, which counts roughly 800,000. “From A&R to e-commerce,” says McIntosh, “it’s all about audience cultivation and engagement and offerings of all sorts for everyone from explorers to superfans.”

Best Way to Observe Juneteenth: “Our Stax and Fania Records labels both have repertoire associated with the social justice movements that took place in each of their respective communities. — McIntosh

Paris Cabezas
Managing director, InnerCat Music Group
Ana Gonzalez
Managing partner, InnerCat Music Group
Garrett Schaefer
GM, InnerCat Music Group

InnerCat, which describes itself as a full-service music technology company, saw its catalog reach 22.75 billion total streams to date, with breakouts like Jamby El Favo, whose platform rose to 1.87 million subscribers on YouTube, according to the company. During the pandemic, InnerCat also developed a proprietary video player that broadcasts virtual on-demand concerts such as Gilberto Santa Rosa’s Christmas special that had over 500,000 viewers. And while InnerCat was eligible for federal loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, the company didn’t want to “take anything at the expense of other small businesses who really needed the help,” says Cabezas, 48. “That’s a testament to the team here — we’re a family.”

Best Timesaving Tip: “Programming or coding. Seriously, we’re a tech company as much as we are a music company.” — Cabezas

Founder/CEO, Empire
Nima Etminan
COO, Empire
Tina Davis
Senior vp A&R, Empire

In the past year, Empire’s expansion into West Africa led to “extensive growth and success with artists such as Fireboy DML and Olamide from our partnership with YBNL, as well as Wande Coal, Yaw Tog, Patoranking, L.A.X. and more,” says Davis, the result of a “super talented and dedicated team” on the continent.

The Next Legislation We Need: “Updated laws regarding policing to abolish qualified immunity to officers that engage in unconstitutional or illegal acts that result in death or incarceration. The law should also include a standard on how to investigate the use of lethal force, which should be a last resort, not the first tactic.” — Davis

Jason Peterson
Chairman/CEO, GoDigital Media Group

GoDigital grew from just over 100 employees to a staff of 450 following acquisitions of two multiplatform networks for $9.6 million: mitu, an entertainment and lifestyle network for Latinx audiences that will work in tandem with GoDigital’s own Latido Networks, and YogaWorks, a health and wellness platform that includes on-demand and live yoga classes. In addition, its Cinq Music Group — a distributor, label and publisher — acquired the rights to catalogs by pop star Jason Derulo and regional Mexican label Rancho Humilde.

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “We will probably never have a fully staffed office. Rather a rotation of people through a smaller facility.”

David Porter
Co-founder/CEO, Made in Memphis Entertainment
Tony D. Alexander
Co-founder/president/managing director, Made in Memphis Entertainment

Made in Memphis Entertainment is working to revitalize the city’s music scene, and the multifaceted company includes — in addition to its indie label MIME Records and distribution divisions Beatroot Music and Beatroot Africa — a studio, 4U Recording; a film/TV synch company, Heavy Hitters Music Group; and MIME Publishing. Recent success stories include Memphis rapper Moneybagg Yo, who recorded much of his No. 1 Billboard 200 album, A Gangsta’s Pain, at 4U, and BIG30, who is distributed through Beatroot. The goal was to “create a global network of interconnected, hyperlocal music communities,” says Alexander, 49. Plans for a new 4U studio in Atlanta “is a big step toward that goal.”

Best way to observe Juneteenth “Volunteering with an organization focused on dismantling the vestiges of systemic racism. Many of today’s injustices remain tied to slavery, which is why it’s important to support organizations fighting for social justice like When We All Vote.” — Alexander

Jacqueline Saturn
President, Virgin Music Label and Artist Services
Matt Sawin
GM, Virgin Music Label and Artist Services
Marni Halpern
Senior vp promotion, Virgin Music Label and Artist Services
Cindy James
Head of commercial marketing, Virgin Music Label and Artist Services
Adam Starr
Senior vp/head of marketing, Virgin Music Label and Artist Services

In February, Universal Music Group rebranded Caroline, the independent label services division of Capitol Music Group, as Virgin Music Label and Artist Services. The new entity revitalized the Virgin brand created by Richard Branson nearly 50 years ago to serve as a global network for indie artists including Lil Baby and SHAED. The rebrand enabled UMG to further its commitment in “building our worldwide network,” says Saturn, who helmed the change, by “providing our partners with more resources and an intricate global plan for releases.”

Best Timesaving Tip: “A 30-minute Zoom can be just as productive as an in-person meeting. Commuting time really adds up, and it’s amazing to consider just how much more business and personal interaction can be done on a daily basis.” — Saturn

Camille Marie Soto Malavé
CEO, Glad Empire

Over the past year, Glad Empire launched production division Conteni2 Media Group and opened a new media studio in Orlando, Fla., to produce livestreams and podcasts. “It’s a one-of-a-kind place for musicians and content creators,” says Soto Malavé, 39. Her team distributed titles including Myke Towers and Juhn’s “Bandido,” which peaked at No. 4 on Hot Latin Songs and No. 6 on the Global Excl. U.S. chart in February. Soto Malavé and her team also inked a distribution deal with Flow La Movie, the label behind Nio Garcia and Casper Magico.

The Next Legislation We Need: “Stricter anti-piracy and copyright laws that protect creators from getting their works leaked online and/or stolen. It is a huge problem.”

Chris Taylor
Global president, music and live, eOne

“We do records in a real traditional way,” Taylor told Billboard last year. “We’d rather sign 50 artists and have 40 of them making money.” So, in a moment of transition, with financial firm Blackstone agreeing to buy eOne Music from Hasbro for $385 million, Taylor singles out some traditional product — a 12-album Black Label Society box set that includes 20 colored-vinyl records and other collectibles — as a notable accomplishment. “It’s tangible evidence of the TLC our teams put into our artists’ art and a tribute to the extent eOners are willing to go to excite fans.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “Rights management and administration. Independent companies, not to mention unsigned artists, that lack scale and resources might have some commercial success, but many are not collecting all the money owed to them, due to inadequate resources in this regard.”

Joel Andrew
President, CD Baby

Excelling at service to independent artists is in CD Baby’s DNA, says Andrew, who takes pride in how the company has helped sustain acts during the pandemic. “Artists turned to us in droves, and we got to pay them a whole lot of money, [helping sell] 2.2 million new tracks [that yielded] $140 million paid out to indie artists in 2020,” he says.

Best Timesaving Tip: “Have a plan months before releasing content. We added a free new tool, our CD Baby Release Plan Generator, where artists can improve or customize releases. It’s saving them so much time.”

Matt Barrington
Co-head/COO, TuneCore
Andreea Gleeson
Co-head/chief revenue officer, TuneCore

The digital distributor TuneCore pays its artists “a true 100%” of all earnings, says Barrington. “This is because we partner with our parent, Believe, and deal directly with [digital service providers], while most of our key competitors use a middleman who takes a percentage off the top before passing along earnings.” (Believe revenue topped $448 million in 2020.) In March, the company introduced TuneCore Rewards, which provides entrepreneurial guidance on music promotion, release planning and social media for artists, giving them a “road map to success, eliminating the guesswork,” says Gleeson. “It’s a key educational component in our support of artists.”

Jorge Brea
Founder/CEO, Symphonic Distribution
Janette Berrios
Head of corporate marketing, Symphonic Distribution

Brea, who founded Tampa, Fla.-based Symphonic Distribution in 2006, is increasingly finding success in U.S. Latin and hip-hop: opening an office in Brazil, landing Dominican legend Juan Luis Guerra as a client and inking a licensing deal with African streaming startup MePlaylist.

Best Timesaving Tip: “Block out time on your calendar to avoid doing calls. Sometimes you have to just do the work and stop talking.” — Brea

Drew Hill
Managing director, Proper Music Group

The United Kingdom’s Proper Music saw its sales of vinyl music jump 41% in 2020 from 2019, compared with 13.3% industrywide in the market. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Hill, 43, says his working-from-home team understood that “artists and labels were relying on us to keep them afloat.” Without live gigs, physical music sold online became a lifeline, confirming that nimble indies are “better placed” to respond to a shifting market, he adds.

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “The indie community has successfully innovated to embrace e-commerce as a viable way to continue connecting fans with the music they love, despite the adversity of various lockdowns.”

Laura Campbell Pittard
Director of marketing, Redeye Worldwide
Jason Taylor
Director of sales and label relations, Redeye Worldwide
Michael Howard
Director of operations, Redeye Worldwide

A year into the global pandemic, Redeye, a worldwide distribution and music services company, has learned how to turn a negative into a positive. Taylor says that despite the difficulties of the past year, the company is most proud of “our ability to navigate the challenges and obstacles of the pandemic and come out stronger than we were pre-pandemic.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “The staggering increase in demand for vinyl and the barriers indies face in supplying products to fulfill that demand. While there have been significant changes in manufacturing turn[around] times, freight costs and international transit times because of the pandemic, consumer demand continues to be at an all-time high.” — Howard

Philip Kaplan
Founder/CEO, DistroKid

DistroKid now distributes at least 30% of all new music: 20 million tracks from 2 million artists, with over 35,000 new tracks a day. The company says it also collects over $200 million annually from digital service providers for its distributed artists. “Blows my mind,” says Kaplan, who notes that recent integrations with Twitch, Snap and Audiomack have added value for clients including 21 Savage, Arizona Zervas and Dan the Automator.

Best Time Saving Tip: “During meetings, I try to get as much done as possible, even coding, so that the meeting doesn’t create a lot of new to-dos.”

Cat Kreidich
President, Alternative Distribution Alliance
John Franck
Executive vp commercial and marketing, Alternative Distribution Alliance

To expand its global network, Warner Music Group’s independent label and artist services division, Alternative Distribution Alliance, launched ADA Latin, encompassing Latin America, Spain and Portugal; and ADA Asia, covering greater China, Korea and Southeast Asia, says Kreidich. The distributor has also signed deals with Toy Selectah’s Worldwide Records and Cosmica Records and a new joint venture with Billy Mann and Benton James’ icons+giants label. In the United States, ADA worked with S-Curve/BMG to break AJR’s “Bang!,” which “grew over a full calendar year,” says Franck, and “is now two-times platinum in the United States after crossing four radio formats.”

Best Way to Observe Juneteenth: “On my children’s school calendar, Juneteenth is a holiday for our school district. I was happy to see that and think the best way to observe the day is to spend time with my two daughters, educating them on the importance of the day and making sure they understand the history around it.” — Franck

Brad Navin
CEO, The Orchard
Colleen Theis
COO, The Orchard
Mary Ashley Johnson
Senior vp North America, label management and sales, The Orchard
Alan Becker
Senior vp product development, The Orchard
Tim Pithouse
Senior vp/head of artist services, The Orchard

This past year was the distributor’s biggest ever, one that included 40 Grammy nominations that yielded 10 awards for artists it represents, plus over 399 albums reaching the Billboard 200. One of those made history: K-pop sensation BTS became the first group ever to simultaneously debut at No. 1 on both the albums chart and the Hot 100. “We are able to scale our business and nimbly respond in real time to engagement, because we lead with aggressive data and technology, coupled with great relationships,” says Johnson, 47.

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “Leaning too hard on playlist adds and viral moments without off-platform marketing, strategic planning and driving fans back to partners. We need all of the elements to give artists the best shot at true development.” — Johnson

Ben Patterson
COO, Downtown Music Services

With the sale of Downtown Music’s publishing copyrights to Concord, announced in April, Downtown will further focus on offering services to unsigned and established indie artists. Patterson transitioned from head of Downtown subsidiary DashGo to COO of Downtown Music Services. “One of our first releases as Downtown Music Services is Cheat Codes’ debut album, Hellraisers, Pt 1.,” he says. The release, through 300 Entertainment, “shows the capabilities we can offer artists who wish to maintain independence and ownership of their music.”

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “I have a sinking sensation that these video calls are going to hang around — if only because a three-meeting day with L.A. traffic can now be a five- or six-meeting day in front of a camera.”

Milana Rabkin Lewis
Co-founder/CEO, Stem
Kristin Graziani
VP artist relations, Stem

In 2020, artist services company Stem launched the funding tool Scale with $100 million in advances for independent artists and labels. Unlike the typical terms for advances, artists keep their masters and decide what percentage of their earnings to contribute to recoupment each month. So far, over 50 artists, including Brent Faiyaz, have used Scale to finance projects. “Our artists can access capital on their terms,” says Graziani, “empowering them to take control of their music and their business.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “Artists and labels are able to access capital easier than ever before. The growth of streaming has made music as an asset class more and more recognizable to financial markets.” — Graziani

Bob Roback
CEO, Ingrooves Music Group
Lloyd Hummel
Executive vp global commercial strategy, Ingrooves Music Group

Ingrooves has been experiencing expansion and growth both geographically and in its data-driven distribution products. “We’ve carefully built out a strong, connected team across the world over the past 18 months,” says Hummel. “That’s hard in normal times, but this group has more than met the challenge during a global pandemic.” On the product front, adds Hummel, “our new Smart Audience advertising program finds fans who are most likely to actually stream our artists’ music, not just social media surfers who might click on an ad.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “The challenge of building an audience [with] 400,000-plus new tracks being released every week, plus the competition for mindshare among so many emerging platforms. It’s more important than ever that indie artists educate themselves, build a trusted, knowledgeable team around them and use tools and insights to help guide their careers.”

Ed Seaman
COO, MVD Entertainment Group

As a distributor, MVD represents audiovisual products across DVD, Blu-ray, CD, vinyl and digital rights in shipping releases and merchandise to brick-and-mortar retailers. The company posted its “best year ever in 2020, by a lot,” says Seaman, 55, who notes its chief accomplishment is a bunch of recent “label renewals” with clients Bear Family (Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis), JSP Records and others. “Very few labels move on from MVD,” he says. “We don’t take that for granted.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “Turnaround time for vinyl [manufacturing]. It is causing release dates to push way out on the horizon.”

Jonathan Strauss
Co-founder/CEO, Create Music Group
Wayne Hampton
Co-founder/chief development officer, Create Music Group
Alexandre Williams
Co-founder/COO, Create Music Group

Create Music Group, which focuses on unsigned artists that self-release their music, introduced the Create Carbon credit card last year, “which gives creators the ability to access their royalties as soon as they’re earned rather than wait to receive them in regular monthly payouts,” says Strauss. “For way too long legacy music companies have held on to artists’ money unnecessarily, and this innovation has been hugely popular with our artist clients.”

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “Transparency, and the lack of it. One reason that artists are flocking to Create is that we show artists what they are earning on a daily basis. We aren’t hamstrung by the same legacy accounting and reporting systems that the major-label system uses. Independents are truly leading the way in this regard.” — Williams

Dean Tabaac
Head, AMPED Distribution
Jocelynn Pryor
VP marketing, AMPED Distribution

The measure of AMPED’s success for Pryor is simple math. “Week over week we’re consistently bringing the heat on our acts’ chart positions,” she says about Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud landing at No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart, as well as other chart successes from Adam Lambert, AWOLnation and Testament. Tabaac, meanwhile, highlights his company’s “record-breaking” year by noting that receipts were up over 45% from the previous fiscal year and that AMPED’s many distribution partners — which include Glassnote, Bloodshot, Epitaph and AWAL — had impressive showings on the Independent Albums chart on a week-to-week basis, as well as 20% of CD sales at indie music stores.

The Next Legislation We Need: “I’d like to see H.R. 1 [the For the People Act] passed because without free and fair elections the whole ship goes down.” — Pryor

Michael Ugwu
Founder/CEO, Freeme Digital

Named the first Black member to the board of Merlin in 2020, Ugwu leads Freeme Digital, which describes itself as Nigeria’s foremost online digital music distributor. The company works with over 2,000 artists including stars Rudeboy, Flavour, emerging local act The Cavemen and Nigerian comedy legend Basketmouth. Ugwu has developed Freeme Space as a creative hub that over the past year has seen nearly 100 videos recorded by artists including Burna Boy and multinational brands like Budweiser and Hennessy Cognac.

Darius Van Arman
Co-CEO, Secretly Distribution; founding partner, Secretly Group
Christopher Welz
Managing director, Secretly Distribution
Jacqui Resur
Head of label relations, Secretly Distribution
Shelly Westerhausen Worcel
Head of North American physical sales and marketing, Secretly Distribution

Secretly Group’s distribution division welcomed new label partners Awful Records and Father/Daughter; grew its artist services division with clients including Crumb, Portugal. The Man and Yaeji; and led a release campaign for Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, which earned the singer-songwriter four Grammy nominations including best new artist. “We’re constantly evolving our services to meet partners’ needs,” says Welz, who also notes the company’s creation of over 50 virtual workshops for label partners on topics like diversity and metadata optimization.

Trend Most Affecting the Indie Community: “It takes a village to manage volatile vinyl manufacturing timelines. Strategic planning between label, distributor and manufacturer is at an all-time premium.” — Welz

Emmanuel Zunz
Founder/CEO, ONErpm

The Nashville-based distributor expanded internationally in 2020, with new operations in London and Nigeria and 130 new hires. In January, the company launched a streamlined user interface on its website combining “daily performance stats and demographic consumption data with direct-to-fan marketing,” says Zunz, 48. The platform offers three tiers of service for talent — DIY, Taking Off and Next Level — with artists earning more personalized support as their fan bases grow. “We are one of the few companies where an artist can start DIY and graduate to bespoke marketing and label services,” he says.

Pandemic Business Practice That Will Last: “We will remain more virtual, and our direct-to-fan initiative is more important than ever.”

Contributors: Trevor Anderson, Rania Aniftos, Chuck Arnold, Katie Bain, Alexei Barrionuevo, Tatiana Cirisano, Anna Chan, Ed Christman, Leila Cobo, Mariel Concepcion, Stephen Daw, Frank DiGiacomo, Thom Duffy, Deborah Evans Price, Griselda Flores, Gary Graff, Lyndsey Havens, J’na Jefferson, Gil Kaufman, Steve Knopper, Juliana Koranteng, Carl Lamarre, Joe Levy, Heran Mamo, Geoff Mayfield, Taylor Mims, Gail Mitchell, Melinda Newman, Glenn Peoples, Neena Rouhani, Jessica Roiz, Dan Rys, Christine Werthman, Jewel Wicker, Nick Williams, Stereo Williams

Methodology: The record companies featured on Billboard’s Indie Power Players list are defined as independent because they are not owned by one of the three major music groups: Sony, Warner and Universal. (They may release repertoire through the major groups in joint ventures). Distributors are defined as independent, regardless of ownership, based on the repertoire they market, largely from labels not under the majors’ umbrellas. Billboard editors and reporters weighed a variety of factors in determining the 2021 Indie Power Players list including, but not limited to, nominations by peers, colleagues and superiors at selected music companies, as well as recommendations by indie trade group A2IM. In addition to nominations, editors weigh the success of each executive’s label or distributor as measured by chart, sales and streaming performance. Career trajectory and industry impact were also considered. Unless otherwise noted, Billboard Boxscore and MRC Data are the sources for tour grosses and sales/streaming data, respectively. MRC Data is also the source for radio audience metrics. Unless otherwise noted, album streaming figures cited represent collective U.S. on-demand audio totals for an album’s tracks, and song/artist streaming figures represent U.S. on-demand audio and video totals.

This article originally appeared in the June 5, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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