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TheStreet Open House

Stop Calling Music 'Indie' -- There's No Such Thing

Stocks in this article: P AXP GM TGT AAPL

Now everybody sells out, and the corporate patronage is more than welcome. While bands no longer have to exist under the thumb of Warner, Universal or Sony to make a living for themselves, they do occasionally have to sell a song to General Motors (GM - Get Report) or Ford (F) (as Fun., Phoenix and Band of Horses did by lending their songs to car commercials), Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) (as Santigold did with Bud Light Lime), Samsung (which introduced much of the world to Lorde's Royals) or Apple (AAPL - Get Report) (as Feist, CSS, The Fratellis and even big-label U2 did to great effect).

That ad and TV show licensing is called sync, and it went from a minimal revenue stream a decade ago to a $342 million pipeline in 2011 -- the first year that International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) began tracking it. While Lou Reed sold "Walk On The Wild Side" and his own image to Honda to help it sell scooters in the 1980s, Moby mastered the practice by licensing all 18 tracks of his album Play for commercial use in 1999.

Credit Moby for seeing where the industry was going and recognizing one of the few ways that an artist could still sell 18 million albums at a time when the entire music listening world was stealing its favorite tracks. Fifteen years ago, music was a $38 billion industry. By last year, it had shrunk to $16.5 billion. In the U.S., it's down to about $4.4 billion and, as Hopper noted, that's what companies like McDonald's (MCD), Coca-Cola (KO), General Motors (GM - Get Report) and AT&T (T) spend on marketing alone.

There's a stock ticker behind just about every move an artist can make in today's recording industry. There's also a sprawling infrastructure in place to make sure artists and companies find each other. Back in July, Aaron Scott of Portland Monthly profiled Sara Matarazzo, Chris Funk and other "music supervisors" who've made names for themselves pairing lesser-known bands with companies like Motorola, Target, Nike and J. Crew and filmmakers like Noah Baumbach, who just used her selection of French cinema songs in Frances Ha.

But what about live shows? Aren't those supposed to be the main cashflow artery for any "independent" musician? My colleague Rocco Pendola has gone into great depth about the pay-to-play system most artists face and the fact that just getting people out of the house to spend on a cover charge, drinks and potentially parking or at least a subway ride is getting increasingly trickier. Never mind that, in some cases, you're paying that cover charge to hear people shout down your favorite artist, talk through a performance or hold their glaring smartphone right in your line of sight just so they can post a minute-long, shaky video with the sound quality of a garbage disposal.

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