Apple last night announced it has at last agreed a deal with three major independent labels.
It's a groundbreaking deal for the European independent (indie) label sector, the Association of Independent Music (AIM) said this morning.
AIM chairman and CEO Alison Wenham told Macworld: "Apple's iTunes Music Store launch was a sad day, because it lacked indie repertoire. We thought this was shortsighted, and showed that the company did not understand the importance of the indies to the European market".
Europe's indies account for many of the region's leading acts, including five out of 12 nominees for this year's Mercury Music Prize (and an additional two nominees who were formerly on or identified by indie labels). Inability to offer such acts dented the credibility of Apple's iTunes Music Store on launch in June.
AIM explained: "The indie labels were unwilling to participate initially because the terms Apple originally offered appeared to discriminate against them".
Responding, leading members of the Association collected opinions from among its 800 member labels: "Following further discussions between various parties, these negotiations have led to the signing of the first contracts".
"Apple's iTunes service now offers terms that address these initial concerns fully."
In what Wenham described as a "major demonstration of democracy and social/corporate responsibility," some of the larger independents (Beggars Group, XL Recordings and the Sanctuary Records Group) sat with Apple to negotiate a deal which will be made available as a template for all Europe's indie labels, whether they are AIM members or not.
While many terms of the deal remain confidential, Wenham confirmed a moderation of Apple's attempt to lock indies into a three-year term with no negotiation, even if the retail price charged by Apple for music changed. Indie labels can now "consult and review" when such changes take place.
Several hundred labels across Europe are expected to sign the agreement soon, bringing many of the world's most exciting acts to Apple's iTunes Music Store.
Wenham said: "The industry's future is wedded to the success of iTunes and similar services and it's great news for fans and industry alike that music from some of Europe's leading acts will soon be available on this service".
Martin Mills, Beggars Group chairman and AIM board member, said: "I am delighted that we are now able to be part of this great service. iTunes represents up to 5 per cent of certain of our album sales in the US already, and key tracks are selling in quantities that simply were inconceivable before. We look forward to participating in the rapid growth of this market, both with iTunes and with other services with which we're already in business or will be launching shortly."
Both Wenham and Mills also sit as vice president and board member respectively of IMPALA (Independent Music Companies Association), a European-wide indie label representative body.
Despite the fraught nature of the negotiations to this point, Wenham is optimistic for the outcome.
"I hear Apple is a very good partner in terms of marketing and promotion with iTunes," she said, adding: "I feel we will begin to see imagination at work in terms of music marketing."
Success for indie music labels depends on two key factors: the ability to spot talent and the ability to market such talent. Wenham explained part of the need for good marketing for the sector. "We have to be good at marketing when we lack access through other channels."
The major labels are significantly better equipped in terms of access to retail outlets, radio play and other forms of marketing.
Referring to the now-approved BMG/Sony merger, Wenham said: "We are very concerned that more concentration of power within the music business is not healthy. It isn’t good for music, musicians or music fans."
Apple, AIM and IMPALA all protested against the Sony/BMG tie-up before the European Commission.
Despite such major label consolidation, when looking ahead, Wenham said: "I think we’re on the edge of a new golden age for the independents."
"The globalization of trade bought about by the Internet and the reawakening of interest in music means I think we'll see indie strength grow in the next few years."
"We punch so far above our market share in terms of critical market share," she said.