Richard James Burgess
President & CEO
Years with Company: 3.5
Address: 132 Delancey St., 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10002
Clients: Approximately 600 labels and 200 associate member companies including Spotify, YouTube, Apple, Amazon and SoundExchange
Launching in 2005, the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) represents indie labels from all genres and advocates for their interests. Additionally, membership offers an array of ancillary benefits including educational opportunities and awards ceremonies. Heading the trade organization is Richard James Burgess, whose previous accomplishments include producing, managing and releasing a Top Ten hit as an artist.
A Response to Digital
Music entered the digital era in 1999 when Napster started. It wasn’t voluntary; it just sort of happened. A2IM was sort of a response to that. This was a new time in the industry and we needed an organization that represents independent labels to help us traverse the new environment. This was a completely new set of parameters we had to deal with. Previously, it was just physical goods and relatively uncomplicated. Suddenly with digital, there was a whole new set of problems and A2IM was incredibly useful in helping us figure out how we could get past those problems. It was a way of coming together and coming up with solutions. That’s effectively what we still do, just at a different level.
Indie Week started in 2009. This is our 10th anniversary. That was probably the thing that really fired me up about belonging to A2IM. It’s an opportunity to meet other labels and hear panels on topics that are relevant to every label. You get to meet with associate members like Spotify, Apple, Amazon, YouTube, Pandora, all these different entities that use our music in one capacity or another. It’s an amazing opportunity.
We do panels on all kinds of things: vinyl, wellness, streaming manipulation.
It’s also about networking, so we program tons of opportunities to meet other people. There are little gaps during the day and happy hours and things like that. And then we do the Libera Awards on the final night and there’s a red carpet and cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Then we have the performances and dinner and another three hours of schmooze at the end of that. Our members really like that.
Why Another Award Show?
At many awards shows, you see the same artists each year. Other awards shows are great, but you don’t see a lot of independent artists on those stages. It’s kind of like what Sundance did for independent films. Suddenly, independent films had their own space and identity. That’s what the Libera Awards is about.
Classifieds for Everybody
[Our classified ad page is] our most popular page on the website. We don’t limit it to independent jobs. If somebody’s out of work and has an opportunity to get a job at a major label, we’re fine with that. We want to make sure everybody can find the work they need.
Right now, [the requirement for joining] is that you’re an independent label, meaning you have a more-than-50% ownership share in your catalog, titles and copyrights. That’s if you want to be a label member. If you want to be an associate member, you just have to provide a service to labels, artists and so on.
The current minimum charge is $1,000/year. You can pay that on a monthly basis and for about $83 a month. And then it goes up. It’s a percentage of revenue, so we have some labels paying a lot more than that.
The independent sector is so spread out that it’s very hard to get all of the independents in one place. That’s what A2IM offers—an opportunity to reach all of the independents in one easy connection. We have a newsletter that goes out every Wednesday; if somebody wants to speak to our members, they can speak through the newsletter. They can speak to them at Indie Week. We can communicate with our members immediately if there’s something urgent. We’d like to do more programs around the country. Right now, we tend to do New York, LA and Nashville, but labels and artists are popping up everywhere. We’d like to supply the knowledge to give everybody the best shot at success.
Our events are exclusive to members, for the most part. We do a couple different things that are non-exclusive, but mostly our eye-level events like Indie Week and A2IM SynchUp are membership only. We do that for a couple reasons. One is that it allows us to produce higher-level programming. We don’t do a lot of basic-level programming. We do stuff for people who kind of know what they’re doing in the industry but need a more cutting-edge educational set of materials. They want to understand exactly what’s going on right now with a particular issue.
Education & Advocacy
The educational side is hugely important to many of our members. A lot of our members say that what we do in terms of advocacy is really important to them because nobody else is out there fighting for independents. There are always encroachments on our copyrights and our ability to make a living, so that’s something we’re very dedicated to watching out for.
The Streaming Factor
We’ve grown something like 10% in market share since A2IM started and I foresee a lot more growth. Clearly, streaming has changed the equation, because physical goods used to be challenging for independents. If you got it wrong, you wound up getting stuck with a lot of product you couldn’t sell. And if the record started selling really fast you couldn’t keep up. That’s not a problem with digital.
And we’re now able to reach other markets that we previously could not. Brazil, for example, is now becoming a very important market. That’s where the educational side comes in, because you really have to understand how to do that. It’s not as simple as just uploading yourself and watching the money roll in.
Fundamentals of Growing Your Base
The business has not changed much in the time I’ve been in it. And I’ve been in it since I was 14, which is a very long time. You still have to get engagement. You still have to build a fan base by any means. It could be through social media. It could be through playing live gigs. You could get on a hot playlist. The fundamentals haven’t changed but the specifics are completely different. You just have to understand the tools and how best to use them.
It goes back to the idea of an engaged fan base. If you have four fans, the idea that you’re suddenly going to jump onto the top playlist on Spotify is a bit of a fiction. You could also buy a lottery ticket and win $300 million, but buying a lottery ticket is not a business plan.
Getting the Support You Need
Joining organizations that can help you is a good thing. If you’re serious about releasing recorded music, A2IM is a good organization to join because we have the expertise and people who can help you. I really believe in A2IM. I’ve been a member pretty much from the beginning and I’m still here. But join organizations that can help you learn the best practices at the moment because they’re changing all the time.