Supporting Independents and Championing Diversity in Music
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In part one, Lara talks about making her way into the music ecosystem from a showbiz family and Music Business school. Marc wants to know if people need to go to school to work in music. Lara spent a lot of time working for AIM, so she explains who they are and why they had to exist & big wins (a little David VS Goliath)
Marc Brown: Hi Lara, Welcome to #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation.
Thanks for joining us.
Lara Baker: Thanks so much for having me on! It’s excellent to be here.
Marc Brown: Let’s start by you telling me what you do now, and then we’ll talk about how you got to where you are now.
Lara Baker: OK, I am the GM for the UK for a company called FUGA. For those of you who don’t know, FUGA is a B2B music distribution company. Our clients are labels, distributors, management companies and more.
Marc Brown: Cool! You’ve been there for 6 months, right?
Lara Baker: Yeah! I still consider myself very new as I haven’t been in the distribution side of the music business before. I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, but doing something new at this advanced stage in my career is very exciting, and also nerve-wracking.
Marc Brown: Definitely. So how did you get started then?
Lara Baker: I did a Music Business degree in school and then I did a brief bit of work for EMI when I graduated. The vast majority of my career to date was AIM which is the organization that represents independent labels in the UK. It was a really exciting place and time to start. It was during the time that iTunes launched in the UK so it was a different legal digital age. Being part of that moment was really cool.
Marc Brown: You said you went to music business school – when I started in the mid-90s that type of program didn’t exist, but now it’s way more common to go to school for music business. How was it when you went?
Lara Baker: I’d say in 2002, when I went to do a Music Business degree, as far as I know, there were only 2 programs in the UK. There are lots in the UK now and tons internationally as well. I think that type of course can be really helpful because this is a complicated business that involves technology, contracts, rights and all of that.
Marc Brown: Did you do that program because you thought you needed to do it to learn the ins and outs of the industry or did you feel like it was a base requirement for a particular job?
Lara Baker: I don’t remember honestly! I always wanted to work in the music business so it seemed logical to study in that area.
Marc Brown: In your role now, do you think people need to have a degree to work in the music industry? Or are there still ways in which you can work your way up?
Lara Baker: I hope everyone doesn’t have to go to school. I hope that businesses aren’t penalizing people for their education when they’re hiring. It can be very expensive and not everyone has that privilege and you can still learn a lot of it on the ground.
Marc Brown: You’re right, I didn’t think about it as an access thing. Limiting people based on their education would also mean that you’re limiting people from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Lara Baker: Definitely. I think socioeconomic status and background is one of the key areas where the music industry isn’t diverse enough. Historically you needed to have certain qualifications to be considered for some higher jobs in the business, so you now have this middle-class, white and mostly male industry. This is one of the areas where I think the music industry can do more to diversify.
Marc Brown: Agreed. Let’s move over to AIM – can you give everyone an overview of how that organization started?
Lara Baker: Absolutely. So AIM started in the late ‘90s and I joined in 2004 so it was still a pretty young organization at that point. It was one of the first associations representing independent labels in the world, but that has changed now. Early on, it was very much about bringing together a very diverse group of labels who were all operating in their own worlds within their own genres. Collectively they all had some weight and power in terms of lobbying, it was about bringing them together and empowering them to get better commercial deals.
Marc Brown: I remember you were saying earlier that there was a thing called BPI that represented the major labels. AIM was born from the need to group the smaller independent labels together to share information and strengthen their collective voice. Were smaller labels getting worse deals at that time?
Lara Baker: Yeah, definitely at the time that I joined in 2004, iTunes was launching in the UK and the Indies were shockingly offered a lower rate per download than the majors. There was also a similar battle with MTV back in the day. The indies were a bit of an afterthought, they were given whatever money was left. AIM and similar organizations have created a more level playing field.
Marc Brown: With your FUGA hat on, it must sound ridiculous, that a large label would have a better deal than a smaller one. Is it generally relatively flat now due to the work of these organizations?
Lara Baker: I think so. There is plenty of lobbying and commercial negotiations going on to make sure that the Indies are still getting paid fairly. I think that will always be a battle though. It’s not only about the indies – it’s also about getting new players in the tech space to respect those same rights and to pay for music. That will continue to be an issue.
Marc Brown: So when you joined AIM, what were you doing?
Lara Baker: My focus was community-building. There were hundreds of different labels out there when I joined, but there was no real way to quantify the independent sector. It could be anywhere from bigger companies (Ninja Tunes, 4AD, XL, Domino etc) through to anyone working out of their bedroom, all putting out music. My focus was on bringing companies and people into AIM and facilitating the sharing of information. I created events and conferences like IndieCon and AIM Awards to gather the divergent communities.
Marc Brown: Why do you think small labels weren’t coming together before that and forming their own community? The UK definitely has a long history of independent labels. Why didn’t people organize themselves and push forward to get fairly treated before the 2000s?
Lara Baker: I think they were actually pretty organized. The reason AIM was started was because a bunch of labels decided that something more official was needed and it built from there. Independents are unique because everyone is in different genres and subgenres. Music is very community-driven but they all kind of exist in separate worlds. The beauty of AIM and similar organizations is that someone running a metal label can talk to someone who runs a sub-electronic label and they can have an insightful conversation where they both come away with new ideas. They have similar struggles even if the music is completely different.
Marc Brown: What do you think are some of the main achievements you saw come to fruition regarding getting better treatments for individuals in the music business landscape?
Lara Baker: The big wins were things like the Apple/iTunes negotiation and the MTV negotiation. Also setting up Merlin. It started about 10 years after AIM and the commercial implications of that were insane. It helped with putting deals in place for indies that have generated exceptional revenue. Another great achievement was the AIM Awards because they’re a remarkable moment to reflect on the successes of the sector and highlight them externally. It showcases how there are some artists like Adele, Bjork, Arctic Monkeys and more that have gone through independent labels and seen tons of success. It’s also nice to see other independent artists who are in a particular niche see their type of success as well. The big win overall is the independent market share, as it’s up over 25% now which definitely wasn’t the case at the beginning of AIM because of all the barriers to entry.
Lara Baker: Merlin is an organization that negotiates deals with DSPs (Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, etc) on behalf of its independent label memberships. It’s taken that collective bargaining power to get the best possible deals for its members. WIN is the Worldwide Independent Network. So AIM and other international organizations would be part of that.
Marc Brown: I see. So it kind of just means that I don’t have to be shopping around for the best deal because the deals are there already? So you’d choose your partners based on who you vibe best with, whose support is most in line with what you need etc?
Lara Baker: Exactly. Every distributor has a whole suite of services they provide so you won’t be picking them based on deals. You’ll be picking them based on the people, the team, the services and all of that.
To read on, head to Part II here!