Chiswick Woman With A Formidable AIM

Emma Brophy meets the custodian of independent music Alison Wenham

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Alison Wenham (second from right) with the AIM team

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Association of Independent Music

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Industry giant Steve Jobs infamously called her ‘mean and nasty' but the Alison Wenham I met was nothing of the sort.

Candid yes, resilient most certainly, a force to be reckoned with without a doubt. However, the most prevalent characteristic of the custodian of UK’s independent music business is the passion she displays for her work.

The Association of Independent Music (AIM) was formed in 1999 in ‘hastily created’ surroundings of Lamb House, Church Street.

“I had been searching for premises for ages and then on Christmas eve 1998 I walked in here and I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

Almost ten years on, Alison and I are drinking tea on the mezzanine area with her labrador, Danny, sitting at her feet discussing, amongst other things, the works in Chiswick House Grounds. She creates a homely image, mirrored in her soothing voice, but only a fool would underestimate this strong minded business woman or challenge her knowledge of the music industry and all its eccentricities.

AIM is a non-profit-making trade organisation for independent record companies and distributors in the UK which is the largest and collectively the most dynamic cutting edge sectors in the world. “If you look at the history of the record industry legendary artists all began their career with independent labels. Elvis Presley, U2 and now today you’ve got the likes of Radiohead. Big names are coming over to the independent sector so it’s very lively. Despite all the gloomy headlines you read about the music industry, this is a very lively company and the sector we work within is very lively also.”

AIM doesn’t look after artists directly, “We’re not here to marriage broker artists, we’re here to help companies advance their business interests both in this country and abroad. But that company can consist of artists if they want to form a collective group. These days the opportunities are so diverse and, I would say, stripped down in terms of how you can get into the market that lots more companies are forming that have a number of different strings to their bows.”

AIM was catapulted into the limelight in 2004 when a very angry Steve Jobs telephoned Alison accusing her of raining on the ITunes launch parade because of a dispute over independent music being made available. Alison told at the time “Apple have made many statements to the press that the small companies have been offered the same terms as those offered to the majors, which simply isn't true. Why should their music be worth less, simply because it isn't issued by a multinational company? Until the terms are acceptable, the independents will stay away, knowing that many other services are proud to work with them and treat them fairly.”

They won the battle but the incident marked the beginning of a series of what Alison calls ‘bruising’ fights with industry giants including MTV and most recently MySpace.

“We opened our papers to discover that My Space has formed a direct venture with the four major companies and apparently we [the independents] are all supposed to be on there for the promotional value. So equal opportunities, which is what My Space is supposed to be about, does not mean equal for independents.”

She remains undaunted. “We did establish to the world through those big bruising fights that we are a force to be reckoned with most definitely because we’ve formed ourselves into bodies with professional voices that can speak for, advocate lobby and represent the smaller companies.”

The MySpace issue brings us onto the internet and the issues faced with licensing music on user generated sites such as You Tube. “The internet, albeit a piratical heaven, is not something I can ever get too gloomy about. We are in a transitional period, it’s a long one and it’s a hard one for us but eventually I believe solutions will be found that balance the interests between the commercial interests of creator and the consumer.

“The music industry has had a torrid time because of file sharing and we have been battling with the government to change legislation but of course we’re not alone, the film industry, the book industry and the newspapers all have the same problems for the same reason. The shock of the new is that you have to get your head around the space and will we; eventually.”

But independents continue to be routinely left out of licensing negotiations, “We don’t get paid the same rate as the majors.” states Alison. “Independent music is not second class music and shouldn’t be paid a second class rate. We do acknowledge that contracting this diverse body of music from thousands of artists is a challenge which is why we have created Merlin borrowing the lessons of MTV and ITunes.

“We won those battles, but they were bruising victories. We don’t want to have bad relationships with customers and clients in the business, on the other hand we don’t want our music to be devalued or undervalued so we thought we’d better organise a means through which a licence can be got,” or license the unlicensable as it were.

“The majors have tried to control this for years and have failed. We’ve never wanted to control, we’ve only wanted to monetise. You’re never going to win and you’re never going to control, technology is the size of Jupiter and the music business is Pluto.” (I must confess we struggled with the planet analogy so I did look them up to double check!)

Moving swiftly along, I asked Alison what she thought of the X Factor generation our children were growing up in. “We live in a cult of celebrity where there is a fractured relationship between talent and success. You look at the Big Brother celebrities where the model is definitely skewed, where the talent is not to be able to sing or to play or paint or to kick a ball, it’s got to do with other qualities shall we say.

“And we're living in an age of trivia. I think when we go back in history two, three hundred years, you had the golden age, you had the reformation, the baroque, I think we’ll be trivia. We’ve made a great celebration from trivia. However, I am actually a great believer, I have great faith. Critique the X-Factor as you might but their standards are good, Leona Lewis, would she, could she without the X Factor? I don’t know. She wouldn’t have had the instant transatlantic success without the launch pad that the X Factor is. It certainly takes away all the years of gruelling work and provides a quick fix but we’re living in a quick society. Most of the music industry is eons away from that.”

This week Aim called an emergency meeting to help labels deal with distribution company Pinnacle’s administration.

With Pinnacle distributing around 300 labels, including Ace, Cooking Vinyl and Fierce Panda, Alison said, “This is where Aim can step in and help release the pressure. We can make sure labels do everything they can to protect their position both in terms of stock at Pinnacle and their financial exposure.”

AIM runs a series of workshops open to members and non members. To find out more about their work take a look at their website.


Emma Brophy


December 6, 2008