Will airline licensing kerfuffle create opportunity for indie artists?

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As the major record labels, such as Sony, push for airlines to face liability for alleged music licensing abuses, and the album becomes obsolete for the majority of millennials, an opportunity may be presenting itself for more independent labels and artists to see their music played on board.

Last month RGN reported that airlines were being told they’d need to reach direct licensing agreements with music companies if they want to continue offering audio-on-demand and streaming audio to passengers. While we understand that certain airlines – with aid from their content service providers – have since been able to work out new arrangements with record labels, and other direct avenues are being pursued, some carriers are also interested in exploring ways to fill out their audio libraries with less traditional playlists if the price is right.

“When streaming and music downloads came along, the record labels realized that people don’t download a complete CD. So suddenly the question became – what’s the point in making an album? So the record labels are scrambling to make money off of this (streaming and downloads), thus the reason why they’ve pressed for change with the airlines,” says a source with knowledge of the situation. “However, there are a lot of labels out there, and a lot of good independent labels. And they’re probably hungry for getting their content on board and would probably welcome it with open arms, as it means they could attract business post-flight.”

But are indie artists willing to see their music take flight at cost in exchange for exposure and a captive audience on board aircraft? Kevin Henthorn, lead vocalist for the Brooklyn based, indie-rock band Stone Cold Fox, doesn’t think it’s in his band’s best interest. “Exposure is always the number one priority for any indie rock band,” says Henthorn. “However, personally, I’m not sure we need aircraft music. The reason there feels like there hasn’t been a big splash in the music scene lately is because there is no room for a big splash, everyone is splashing everywhere, and the consumer is just drowning.”

Though we are hearing new songs, new artists, and new bands daily, how many of these songs are you taking with you? Henthorn himself admits he hasn’t discovered a new band or album in quite a while. “I’m a musician and it’s hard for me to even care about bands anymore,” he says. “I can’t remember the last time I found a new band that changed my life.”

He adds, “We are dangerously close to over saturating the market, if we haven’t already, and music starts to lose it’s meaning. Music placement is in that same boat; people stop caring about what the music actually is when it is everywhere you turn. It becomes a fact of life, rather than an inspiration.”

Henthorn isn’t alone in his assessment of the current music scene. As one industry executive said, “When was the last time there was something massive on the music scene – a massive album?” But this is precisely the reason why the time may be ripe to bring good, original non-mainstream music on board.

When musician Chelsea Bryan isn’t writing about inflight connectivity for RGN and other media outlets, she’s working as the frontwoman for the indie blues band Osage. “While I can see where [Henthorn’s] other perspective is coming from – frustration with mindless listening and ‘department store indie’ as an ironic fate for music that’s artfully constructed with a careful listener in mind – I disagree for three reasons,” she says.

“I have always thought of the cabin environment as peaceful, poetic and good for reflection. I know business persons and artists alike who tell me they do some of their best work in-flight, and though the increasing accessibility of inflight connectivity will have an influence on that environment, I feel the passengers who do choose to take advantage of a gorgeous view and time to relax are a perfect – not mindless or over saturated – audience. If the music is a soundtrack for reading a magazine, working on a proposal or writing a novel, I feel it would be a privilege to help serve as motivator and companion, helping inspire someone’s time spent in the air.”

But it goes deeper than that, she insists. “Of course exposure is not the only aspect of music important for artists; another even more important concern for indie artists is ‘who chooses’, and too often it is not really the consumer. Even Rolling Stones critic Gina Arnold is writhing (see her latest work, ‘33 1/3 series on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville‘) about the fact that nearly all music that’s heard today, even in this Rdio and Spotify age, is limited to what a critic hears and decides is good. Individuals are limited to the radio and poor streaming algorithms that ‘recommend new music’ based on gender and age stereotypes. What music listeners are able to evaluate for themselves is actually very limited – what people largely hear is but a minuscule slice of all that’s out there and often it’s not the best or highest quality cross-section.

“The de facto music industry system of what gets heard and what doesn’t is problematic, and providing travelers with an unbiased music offering could help reverse this limited listening trend by putting the power to decide what’s good in passengers hands. Giving passengers a musical offering that lets them make their own decision makes every woman and man her and his own critic, the discerning one that chooses. That’s what indie music is all about, and the fact that the accompanying visuals are cumulus clouds, oceans and mountains does not hurt the listening experience.”

Stone Cold Fox is one of thousands of independent bands hoping to find a home at one of the prominent record labels, but as a group of musicians living and working in New York, they’ve rarely lacked exposure. Their song ‘SEVENTEEN’ made it onto MTV last year and you can find their latest album, “Memory Palace,” on Soundcloud for download and Spotify. While Henthorn is skeptical about the value of offering indie music at cost to airlines – suggesting airlines would be wise to simply cancel their audio since “everyone has iPods or some device anyway” – Bryan remains upbeat about the potential opportunity.

“I think there could be few things better as a step toward making music more democratic than simply giving passengers the deciding power; it would be a major boon for independent artists making quality music everywhere. Having reported on the music scene and spent time in indie music community groups in San Francisco and D.C., I know a lot of artists who would be just as thrilled to share their carefully crafted work in the air as they are to share it on air,” she says.

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