The Big Interview: AIM's Alison Wenham

The Big Interview: AIM's Alison Wenham

As an industry icon steps down from WIN, we look back at our Big Interview with Alison Wenham...

Towards the end of our interview with Alison Wenham, Music Week asks the departing chair/CEO of Association Of Independent Music (AIM) when her last day is. She takes a few unconvincing stabs at it, flicks through her diary, fiddles with her phone and then admits: she’s not exactly sure. Those who know Wenham will recognise that, whilst she is unswervingly thorough and meticulous in pretty much every area of professional life, now and again she can let slip the small stuff – keys, PIN numbers, the exact end date of one of the most impressive and important leadership roles in the modern UK music industry, that sort of thing.

The big stuff though, the big stuff she does rather well. The prominence, power, size, future and culture of the British independent music scene – that sort of stuff is never far from front of mind. Besides, maybe there won’t be a completely definitive last day. She won’t meddle or interfere once the reins are officially handed over to current CEO of the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) Paul Pacifico, but she will still care and she will be very much on hand in her new role, as CEO of WIN (Worldwide Independent Network) of which AIM, of course, is a member.

So, let’s not worry about her last day, let’s go back to Wenham’s first day. Further than that, in fact, to the circumstances and people that lead to her being the central figure in the formation of AIM, 17 years ago.

She recalls: “The ‘90s was a pivotal decade for the music business in many ways. The price of CDs was one of the real drivers to create an industry that was capable of producing huge revenues and huge profits. That put it in a different place and it went from a scattered collection of distinct companies to a much more consolidated industry, with the purchase of most of the big independents, Island, A&M, Chrysalis etc.

It was a time of globalisation and the creation of these superpowers. And that coincided with the emergence of the internet and of music as digital files. “Those two factors were enough of a shift in the tectonic plates for the independents to feel exposed, threatened and under-represented. “We also accepted that the way we [the independents] were structured, we weren’t maximising our opportunities and that we needed to group around our own agenda, which was not necessarily against or contrary to the majors and the BPI, it was just our own.”

The tectonic plates of Wenham’s working life had also been given quite a jolt. She had made her name running her own label, Conifer, specialising in classical music as well as blues, folk and jazz. In that capacity she had, in fact, been part of the independent caucus of the BPI. She left the trade body, however, when Conifer was acquired by BMG and she became part of the major world. It wasn’t a great fit. “I was doing very well professionally, but personally I wasn’t happy,” she says. “I didn’t enjoy the corporate life and I didn’t find BMG to be a particularly happy company. Whether that was the norm or it was just a particular time and place I don’t know, but a lack of ownership [for your successes] was manifest and a lot of people were frustrated.”

I was doing very well professionally, but personally I wasn’t happy

Alison Wenham

Were the upper echelons of major labels even more of a boys’ club then than now, wonders Music Week?

“About the same,” reflects Wenham, with a mixture of sadness and exasperation. It was while at BMG that she received a call from Beggars Group boss Martin Mills who said that the formation of a new, indie-dedicated trade body was being discussed and they wanted to bring Wenham into those discussions with a view to heading it up.

The BPI was keen to head off any split but Wenham says it was inevitable. “The indies simply didn’t have a big enough voice,” she says. “Where agendas aligned, that was convenient. But where they didn’t, we weren’t very good at fighting our corner. “I’d actually come to respect the BPI a great deal. I understood what it did and why it existed. But there was sufficient difference between what its agenda had become and the reality for the independent sector. We had seen decisions taken which were disadvantageous to the independents. So there was a valid reason to create a standalone body.”

The BPI, of course, would have recognised the subtext as: you’re not doing a very good job representing the indies, we’re off. “That wasn’t the subtext,” Wenham corrects, “That was the text.” She continues, however: “There was a sense of failure amongst the BPI secretariat, which was regrettable, because they hadn’t done anything wrong. They answer to the board; the board sets the agenda.

“We did not form AIM to embarrass or weaken the BPI. I have often said that the BPI and AIM needed to learn to coexist and have mutual respect, but that took a while because there was always an agenda at the BPI to bring AIM back into the fold. And if you couldn’t do that, then in some way damage or discredit it, so that it wouldn’t be a problem anymore. But the truth is, it wasn’t built in opposition, it was what it was, we are what we are and we just want to be left in peace to get on with it.”

On November 4, 1999, Wenham certainly had peace. And quiet. She was on her own in her daughter’s bedroom, using a small dressing table as an improvised desk and contemplating the task ahead.
Typically, she dived straight in. “I plugged a phone in and called everyone I knew in the independent sector and an awful lot more that I didn’t know,” she says. “I introduced myself, explained what AIM was and said that I hoped they’d be a part of it. I was also looking for upfront contributions from the bigger labels that would be recouped over time, and I raised £100,000 in those first three days which got us off and running.”

Equally encouraging was the response and attitude of the disparate group of labels and individuals who would go on to become AIM. “I was struck immediately by the intelligence, honesty, frankness and straightforwardness – but also by the willingness to listen and engage, the lack of defensiveness, the lack of political posturing and manoeuvring. There was nothing hidden, if they didn’t like AIM they said so. And I felt very empowered by that honesty.”

Most did seem to like AIM and membership grew quickly. By 2001 it had reached 500 and it now stands at around 850. Wenham knew, however, that what the independents needed more than anything was practical help, with tangible results.Wenham delivered. “One of the first things we did was go to MCPS and renegotiate the provisions of the AP1/AP2 agreement and persuade them that the independents weren’t walking debt liabilities,” she says.

I got the phone call from Steve Jobs. He didn’t stop talking

Alison Wenham

“They could contribute positively to the revenues of all rights owners if they were given a little bit more respect in regard to how their mechanicals were paid, because a lot of labels then had been on AP2 [paying mechanical royalties on manufacture rather than quarterly on net sales – huge difference; huge risk]. “It might seem a small step, but it was massive, it was a great relief for a lot of labels and it was about changing the attitude towards the independents.”

In 2004, two bigger battles arose to test AIM’s mettle and Wenham’s skills. The most high profile was with Apple as it launched iTunes in the UK, and has become the stuff of legend. “We were aware that the majors had been in discussions with Steve Jobs directly and we became increasingly concerned that we couldn’t find a single independent on UK soil that had a contract,” she says.

“We got in touch, we tried to reach out, we tried to point out that they would be best-served by engaging with the local independent sector before launch, so that they had a complete offering and so that their customers would have a better service. We offered a number of different ideas and heard nothing from them at all: not a returned email, not a returned call – and I thought that was quite impolite.

“So we gatecrashed the press conference that Steve Jobs held in London. We handed out leaflets – classic guerrilla tactics. And a day later, I got the phone call from Steve Jobs. He didn’t stop talking. He ranted at me for about 25 minutes and then put the phone down. In his eyes they had done no wrong, they were full of goodness, they had solved the industry’s piracy problems, I didn’t get it, I didn’t get anything, he said all the contracts were the same, which we knew wasn’t true. They then rethought their position and offered a contract that offered parity with the majors, and that was offered to all independents. The reason, I’m certain, was the negative publicity we generated around their launch. Companies like Apple are terrified by things like that. And in the end the difference to our members has run into many tens of millions of pounds.”

2004 was very much David and Goliath-themed, with AIM’s other main foe that year being MTV. Like Apple, they had decided that the majors would be treated one way and the independents would be treated in a different way. They attempted to reduce the rates paid to independents for music video very substantially. They had direct contracts with the majors but the independents were represented by the VPL, which they still are. VPL had taken the negotiations as far as they could but there was no movement.

We had an all-nighter with them and signed a contract at about 5am...

Alison Wenham

“At that point, we weren’t directly part of the negotiation,” Wenham insists, with an almost completely straight face. “But we were quite insulted by the derisory terms being offered. “The day before their deadline we held a press conference with artists and labels saying, Take our videos off your channel, you have 24 hours. We then had an all-nighter with them and signed a contract at about 5am. And, again, that made a huge difference to our members at the time.”

Both those deals undoubtedly helped many indie labels, but a few years later, on two occasions, AIM’s actions almost certainly saved a few. In 2008, Pinnacle went into administration and a large number of indie labels went into meltdown. “I heard about it at 10 o’clock in the morning and at 12 o’clock we put out a message to our members, and to non-members via the press, that we would have a meeting the next day with insolvency experts. 

“A large number of independents turned up, all completely shattered and shell-shocked. We slowly and methodically talked them through what was going to happen, we appointed collective representatives to deal with the administrators. And we got a lot of them through something that might otherwise have taken them down. As an owner-operator, those moments are so, so hard.”

Even more dramatically, in 2011, when Sony DADC went up in flames as part of that summer’s riots, four million pieces of indie label stock distributed by PIAS were destroyed. “By the end of the week, we’d raised a quarter of a million [pounds], by asking the big labels, the labels who could afford it, to contribute to a fighting fund,” she remembers. “I’m in awe of so many of those people, they’ve never said no: Mute, Beggars, Warp, Ninja, Domino, they believe in the strength and power of this sector and of collectivism.”

There are myriad other individual battles and moments that belong on a roll of honour (the campaign to save 6 Music, the formation of WIN, Merlin and IMPALA etc), but it is the gradual changing of underlying perceptions of which Wenham is most proud. “Challenging the perception that the independents are too weak to negotiate; challenging the perception that the independents are an after-thought; challenging the assumption that the independents are a bit of a soft touch… That’s been the common denominator of everything we’ve done.

“I would be amazed if there are any companies out there with the mindset that used to exist: we’ll do the deals with the majors and then we’ll get the independents to form an orderly queue, because they’ll be grateful of our attention when we finally get round to them.

“And you know what we also get, from every company that tries to short change us: We love your music. That is like throwing petrol on a fire! It is so unbelievably patronising to think that we would be flattered by that! Oh well, in that case, yes, please feel free to walk all over us and pay us less – just as long as you love the music.”

Wenham highlights Spotify as a “notable exception” to that approach but, over 17 years, she has built AIM from an idea formed out of frustration and fear, to a powerful and respected trade body, aligned with similar organisations around the world; confident and capable enough to negotiate with some of the biggest companies in the business on behalf of a membership that now gets (certainly more than it used to) the respect – and, even more importantly, the deals – that it deserves.

Wenham concludes happily: “We have set standards and shown a type of behaviour based around fair dealing, straight talking and a belief in people.”

As for that last day, sometime in early November (we’ll settle for that), Wenham has even less idea what it will look and feel like than she does about when it is. She won’t, surely, just shut down the laptop and slope off?
There’s a pause, “Probably,” she laughs, slightly sheepishly. “I honestly haven’t given it much thought.”


The indie sector salutes Alison Wenham...

“This has been an amazing journey for Alison Wenham and AIM. It’s always been a challenge to keep such independent, disparate voices under one umbrella. Alison has risen to that challenge and done an incredible job for the independent sector.”

Daniel Miller, Mute

“Alison has revolutionised AIM and therefore the fortunes of our precious indie sector by her intelligence, professionalism and fierce passion for what is right. She will be missed.”

Geoff Travis, Rough Trade

“It’s hard to conceive of AIM without Alison. The two have become synonymous. Without her dedication it most certainly would not exist, let alone have risen to the respected heights of today. She was there at its birth, and has made it essential.

It’s hard to even imagine where independents would be without it, how we could have even survived without the collective strength that AIM brought us.

But, in building such a tower, she has left it strong enough to flourish under her successors. And in her WIN role she will continue to be AIM’s umbrella.”

Martin Mills, Beggars Group

“Thank God for AIM and thank God for Alison. There has never been a more important woman in the independent community. I’m in awe of her, I really am.

Her knowledge base is quite incredible. She obviously has some great experience and opinions around her, but she could run the whole thing on her own and I would trust her. I would follow her into battle.”

Simon Raymonde, Bella Union

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