August 2, 2013 6:43 pm

The joys of going it alone

In almost every medium, it seems independence is finding a way

At first, when you scan the cultural landscape, it seems like everything is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Times are tough – we all know that: only the strong will survive. For strong, read big. And not just big: huge.

How will publishers counter the might of Amazon, which recently reported sales of $15.7bn in three months? By mustering their regiments into one giant army: the merger of Penguin and Random House will mean a single company controlling a quarter of the world’s book market. Last week it was announced that two of the biggest global advertising agencies, Publicis and Omnicom, are considering a merger – which, if it went ahead, would mean the same company trying to sell us both Pepsi and Coke, a conflict that makes the agonies over the Sunkist/Ocean Spray accounts in last season’s Mad Men look like pretty small potatoes.

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And yet, once you lay these huge tiles out on the table, a funny thing happens: there’s more room to move between them. In almost every medium, it seems, independence is finding a way. Last week I found myself chatting to musician Chris Wood, whose new album None the Wiser is just out. Wood is a star of English folk – and indeed the growing prominence of folk in the music industry, from Mumford & Sons down, speaks of an audience more interested in exploration than the big record companies give them credit for. Wood’s song “One in a Million”, written with Hugh Lupton, won Best Original Song at the BBC2 Folk Awards in 2006; his work on Cold Haily Rainy Night with The Imagined Village helped that win Best Traditional Song in 2008.

Wood started his own label, RUF Records, in 1992, then merged it into his wider project the English Acoustic Collective: he controls his own music. “I was courted by various labels when I started out,” he says. “I went to see them with my dad – he couldn’t believe his ears. They were asking for everything and offering a maybe.”

That initial refusal to sign, more than two decades ago, was a financial one; but of course it’s an artistic decision too. “Can I get to sleep at night knowing I’ve signed over a year’s work to someone I don’t trust? Obviously the answer’s no,” Wood says wryly.

He knows that the business model for the music industry is changing: as with the publishing industry, there is no model but a brave new world. Spotify is great for the consumer but not so great for artists, whose income from streaming can be measured in fractions of cents. We don’t know what the new business model will be, Wood says, “but it will be the artists who lead the way. Adele is off Spotify, Tom Waits is off Spotify: they’ve had a good hard look and seen that it’s not sustainable.”

The question is what “sustainable” really means. For huge companies such as Penguin Random House – which now controls nearly 250 separate imprints – sustainable means a very big number indeed: which is in part why David Fickling, founder of David Fickling Books, has chosen (amicably, he stresses) to part company with Random House, under whose auspices he’s worked for the past dozen years.

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Fickling, with his distinctive bow tie and determinedly energetic manner, is a transformational figure in publishing, the man who stuck with Philip Pullman for years before the success of his His Dark Materials trilogy brought global renown; the man who discovered Mark Haddon and believed that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time could be read by both children and adults.

A week ago I paid a visit to Fickling’s pleasingly ramshackle Oxford office, where he and his managing director, author and editor Simon Mason were contemplating their new-found independence. On a sunny day among the dreaming spires, it was hard to imagine a better working environment. Fickling’s daughter Rosie was manning the phones; the staff of his reborn comic The Phoenix were beavering away next door.

Fickling, with a laugh at his own pretension, is fond of quoting Einstein: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” That gift, for him, is not the success of authors he’s already championed, but the discovery of new authors, and the ability to stick with them through thick and thin. “If your default position is huge commercial success”, Fickling says, “that’s not necessarily the default position for making good things.”

He doesn’t scorn commercial success – far from it – but seeks the success that comes from supporting original talent. In the world of film, consider the trajectory of Fruitvale Station , the true-life drama of Oscar Grant, a young man wrongfully shot by police in Oakland, California. An independent debut from director Ryan Coogler, it was made for less than $1m, and the Trayvon Martin verdict makes it a timely release. It took Best First Film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and last weekend screenings were expanded to more than 1,000 screens in the US. It’s already heading past the $5m mark. Readers, listeners and viewers are hungry for independence and originality; increasingly, they know how to seek it out for themselves. A real revolution is well under way.

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Peter Aspden is away

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