Music News

New AIM CEO: ‘The music industry is at risk of becoming a monoculture’

New AIM (Association of Independent Music) CEO Silvia Montello has spoken to Headliner about her plans for the organisation in 2023, the economic issues that are threatening to turn the industry into a 'monoculture', and why it’s a great time to be an independent artist.

Montello, who is replacing outgoing AIM CEO Paul Pacifico, brings 30 years of experience to her new role. Most recently, she served as CEO of the global trade body the Association for Electronic Music (AFEM), and has held senior positions at Universal Music Group, BMG and AWAL, as well as fast-growing startup Blokur. She also founded music and marketing consultancy Voicebox Consulting in 2011, which works with charities, non-profits and SMEs.

An active campaigner for diversity, equity and inclusion, Montello co-founded #remarQabl, an electronic music-focused label services and publishing company supporting new talent from under-represented backgrounds. She is also committed to educating the music industry about neurodiverse conditions and how best to work with neurodiverse talent.

Furthermore, she is a Trustee of Help Musicians charity and Chair of Trustees for Music Minds Matter, Help Musicians' dedicated mental health service for the whole UK music community. She sits on the Advisory Board for Moving The Needle (UK), an educational platform supporting women in the record industry.

As as AIM member for several years, she is currently part of AIM’s Small Labels Committee, and has previously sat on its Distribution Group which advised on the Digital Distribution Switch Code initiative led by AIM COO Gee Davy.

Here, she sits down with Headliner to outline her vision for AIM and the indie community, as well as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the sector today.

Congratulations on the new role. How did it feel to find out you had landed the position of CEO at AIM?

It was a delight. From the point where I got the call saying I was being offered the role there was a bit of me that couldn’t believe it. It’s such an exceptional role, so I was absolutely delighted and excited for it. And when it was made public last week the response was overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been really heartened by people’s reaction to the news and I feel very humbled by that, and very excited that people seem to have trust in my ability to do a great job for AIM and to continue the great work it has been doing.

What prompted you to apply for the role, and what will you look to bring to it?

AIM is an organisation that I have been following since its inception. I’ve been in the industry for over 30 years, so I remember when it first started. As my career has progressed more into the independent sector I’ve got closer and closer to it from within the industry and from running a small label myself. So when this came up it felt like the time in my career where I have the experience, the network, and the knowledge to do something like that justice. And it feels like a really exciting time for the community. There are obvious challenges but there are also great opportunities, and there is just a wealth of fantastic new independent talent coming through all the time.

What are your top priorities when you start in January?

The main thing is going to be learning how the organisation has been working from the inside and understanding from the membership how they are feeling about the industry at large; how they are feeling about what 2023 and beyond is going to bring; and from there making any decisions that need making about where we put our focus.

We’ll be looking ahead at what the impact of a lot of technological changes are going to be, the impact of the expansion of the Metaverse, AI, and some of the challenges that people are starting to be concerned about. And of course, the real nuts and bolts stuff of how we support the independent rights holders and the artists they represent to make sure that people can make a living making music, and how they can get every penny that is due to them from all of the different revenue streams available to them.

It's a great, great time to be an independent artist. Silvia Montello, CEO, AIM

We also need to make sure that we are driving positive change. Making sure the sector keeps up with where it needs to be in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, and that is across diversity in all of its forms. There are some worrying statistics we’ve seen recently about how the arts in general has become much more dominated by people from middle class backgrounds, whether it’s artists, creators or industry people. Those from the working class backgrounds or disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are starting to drop away, and that is a real concern. 

It’s something I feel strongly about professionally and personally. I come from a poor socio-economic background myself, from an Italian immigrant family, and the opportunities even to get educated now are so much harder for people with the sort of background that I had. At the time that I wanted further education, it was free. Now I’m speaking to people who are saying they are not going to university because of how expensive it is. They aren’t saying they don’t want to, but they are worried they can’t afford to.

And we’ll be making sure that diversity across gender, ethnic backgrounds, diversity of thought and experience, and sexual identity are all brought into play and that everybody is supported, whatever their background, to let their talent shine. We have to make sure that people’s lived experience from all walks of life and backgrounds are reflected in the music industry, otherwise there is a danger that it is going to become monocultural, and I don’t think that works to the benefit of either the music industry or fans at large.

How will your previous experiences inform your approach to this role?

I’ve been lucky enough to work in a number of senior roles in organisations that have been global, and that has given me an understanding of some of the cultural nuances around communication styles when dealing with colleagues around the world. Music is a global art and music travels internationally in a way that it didn’t 20-30 years ago. My career has also led me through a number of different types of jobs - I have worked across marketing and operations, I’ve done front of house and back of house, if you like, and I’ve worked in the recording, publishing, neighbouring rights, and technologies sectors. I have a good understanding of the whole ecosystem. And having recently been diagnosed with ADHD, something that I am now even more aware of than before is that we are all individual and we are all wired differently. And to help get the best out of people, you need to support them and understand what makes them tick, then what you get as a result is so much richer and so much more creative.

It’s been a tumultuous few years for the industry. How does it feel to be joining at this particular time, and how do you think the indie sector has dealt with the challenges of the past three years?

One of the key things I’ve been impressed with, and continue to be impressed with, is how innovative people are when there is a sudden schism in the way we are used to working. When Covid hit and you had the sudden disappearance of live music and festivals, people were really innovative in looking at how to pivot during that time, how to find ways in which they could keep being creative, find other ways to generate some income, but crucially find ways in which they could keep connecting with their fanbase. There was some amazing shifts in mindset that came out from the independent community during Covid, as well as a pulling together, which is the sign of a strong community. We are all connected in this ecosystem, and if one part isn’t working properly then the other parts need to step in to pull things through until we come out the other side. And it definitely feels like the independent community does that.

The other thing with the independents is that when companies tend to be smaller they can be nimble. You can pivot more easily, you can turn on a sixpence and figure out another direction quite quickly without too much bureaucracy or jumping through hoops. You aren’t turning a juggernaut, you’re freewheeling a Fiat 500, and that makes it a bit easier to be nippy and get to where you want to be!

Are artists becoming more inclined to pursue an indie path now as opposed to a major label route?

I think so. There are a number of things that an independent route will offer artists, especially when they are starting out and wanting to get their music out and build a fanbase. One of which is the notion that you can start off and build yourself; you don’t have to be endlessly hoping you’ll be spotted by an A&R before you can put your music out there. The means of distribution now are much more democratised, so you can start releasing your music through a smaller party or even yourself at a much earlier stage. And that gives you an opportunity to learn and hone your craft while you are releasing music.

And a lot of artists are much more savvy about not giving away control of their creative output or their vision of who they are as an artist. It’s not all about bashing the major labels either, there is a place for independent artists who get to a certain point and decide that a major route is what they require next. It works for some but not for others. Some are fiercely independent and will want to remain as such. It comes with the challenge that you have so much more that you need to do yourself when you start off, so getting an indie team around you is always really important, unless you want to be the creator, the marketing person, the social media person, the manager, the lawyer, the accountant, there is an awful lot to juggle. But the ones that really succeed and are happy with that find it tremendously valuable that they have control over everything they do. But there are massive opportunities for indie artists now that just didn’t exist 10-20 years ago. It’s a great, great time, despite the obvious challenges, to be an independent artist.

What are the biggest challenges for the sector?

The biggest challenge is bigger than music - it’s the economic challenge we are all facing and that we are heading into in 2023-24. That is a multifaceted challenge where the cost of living is going to have a real impact on the rightsholders and musicians themselves, and also for the fans who want to see and engage with their favourite acts live. That is going to hit smaller businesses more, and I can see that lasting until mid-2024 and beyond.

What are the biggest opportunities?

There are opportunities for the independent sector to really explore other revenue streams and other channels to build audiences and get money for their music - being creative and curious around those opportunities outside of the major streaming services. And dipping toes into things like the Metaverse and Web3, but in a way that is sensible for where you are as an artist. It’s about expanding people’s horizons and building on the innovation that we saw during Covid.