"Today, big music can seem like the only game in town and many newcomers think the only way into the industry is "getting signed", getting a "recording contract" or "record deal". Musicians working locally cheerfully call themselves unsigned, unpublished, semi-pro, amateur, etc. rather than what they are. But these DIY and indie acts are the music industry every bit as much as the majors. Maybe more so.
Although mainstream TV and radio is dominated by major label acts, a 2004 survey found over 4,500 live music events in the UK every day (1.7 million a year, MORI poll). Compare that with TV. The mass and diversity of local acts puts the handful of bland national icons in perspective. There's a lot more happening outside the media bubble. But the influence of big business gets attention, and it's easy to forget that what's happening in music isn't what's happening on MTV, Radio One or in the charts.
Other nominally "independent" labels are started (and sometimes run) by major label artists but are still owned at least in part by the major label parent. These spin-off labels are also frequently referred to as vanity labels and are intended to appease established, powerful artists and/or to give them latitude in discovering and promoting new talent.
According to Association of Independent Music (AIM) "(...) A "major" is defined in AIM's constitution as a multinational company which (together with the companies in its group) has more than 5% of the world market(s) for the sale of records and/or music videos. The majors are (currently) Sony BMG, Warner, EMI, and the Universal Music Group (which incorporates Polygram).(...) If a major owns 50% or less of the total shares in your company, you would not (usually) be owned or controlled by that major. In that case, you can join AIM.", see AIM Membership Form
In the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 1960s, the major record companies EMI, Philips, and Decca had so much power that independent labels struggled to become established. Several British producers launched independent labels as outlets for their work including Joe Meek (Triumph), Andrew Oldham (Immediate), and Larry Page (Page One). Chrysalis Records, launched by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis, was perhaps the most successful from that era, and continued to expand. Several major rock stars set up their own independent labels - The Beatles with Apple Records, The Rolling Stones with Rolling Stones Records, and Elton John with Rocket, but they generally failed as commercial ventures or were swallowed up by the majors.
The punk rock era brought about a turning point for independent labels, the do-it-yourself ethos of the time seeing the emergence of a plethora of independent labels. In the US, independent labels such as Beserkley also found success with artists such as The Modern Lovers. Many of the UK labels ended up signing distribution deals with major labels to remain viable, but others retained their independence, and the factor that came to define independent labels was distribution, which had to be independent of the majors for records to be included in the UK Indie Chart, which was first compiled in 1980. The term 'indie' and the chart itself was unrelated to a specific genre of music, and the chart featured a diverse range of music, from punk to reggae, to MOR and mainstream pop, including several hits from the likes of Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan on the PWL label. The late 1970s had seen the establishment of independent distribution companies such as Pinnacle and Spartan, giving independent labels an effective means of distribution without involving the majors. The situation improved further with the establishment of 'The Cartel', as association of companies such as Rough Trade Records, Backs Records, and Red Rhino, who helped to take releases from small labels and get them into the shops nationwide. The 'Indie Chart' became a major source of exposure for artists on indie labels, with the top ten singles regularly aired on the national television show The Chart Show. By the late 1980s, the major labels had identified an opportunity to break new acts via the indie chart, and began setting up subsidiary labels that were financed by the majors but distributed via the independent network, thereby being eligible for the chart. With the major labels effectively pushing the genuine indie labels out of the market, the independent chart became less significant in the early 1990s, with 'alternative' increasingly being used to describe artists, and 'indie' often used to describe a broad range of guitar-based rock and pop.
Many independent labels have been wrongly listed as members of the RIAA on the RIAA's own website, and have fought for many years to have them removed from the site, most notably Fat Wreck Chords, Matador Records, and, to a lesser extent, Lookout! Records.