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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

For over 50 years, the top Grammy Awards have usually gone to the biggest stars in popular music and, not coincidentally, the biggest record labels. But that's changed. This year, more than half of all Grammy nominations went to smaller independent labels, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: There's a reason these awards got the nickname The Grannys. They tend to play it safe - especially in the big categories. If you look at this year's nominees for Album of the Year, you'll find some of the usual major label suspects, but you'll also find Arcade Fire.

(Soundbite of song, "The Suburbs")

ARCADE FIRE (Band): (Singing) Sometimes, I can't believe it. I'm moving past the feeling. Sometimes, I can't believe it. I'm moving past the feeling again.

ROSE: Arcade Fire's ambitious album, "The Suburbs," came out on Merge Records, an indie label based in North Carolina. Merge co-founder Laura Ballance says the Internet has helped level the playing field in the music business.

Ms. LAURA BALLANCE (Co-Founder, Merge Records): Now, whether something is on a major label or an independent label doesn't matter. If you live in Wichita, Kansas, you can still get to hear whatever band you want, because it doesn't have to be in your local record store or in the Wal-Mart.

ROSE: That improved access has been good for independent labels, says Rich Bengloff, president of the American Association of Independent Music, a trade group that represents the indie labels.

Mr. RICH BENGLOFF (President, American Association of Independent Music): We don't have to worry about shelf space in a retail store as much anymore, because digital is now over 40 percent of the business. We don't have to worry about radio access as much because people are accessing it over the Internet.

ROSE: A cynic might suggest that indie labels are collecting more Grammy nominations because the majors are on life support. Sales of physical CDs have declined steeply since their heyday in the 1990s. And the major labels just don't have the budgets they used to. So a growing list of veteran artists - including household names like Robert Plant, Herbie Hancock and Willie Nelson - have jumped to independents.

(Soundbite of song, "Gotta Walk Alone")

Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Singer): (Singing) All the friends I knew by two and two have left me one by one. It's a long and lonesome road. I've got to walk alone.

ROSE: After dozens of albums for major labels, Willie Nelson's latest Grammy-nominated release came out on Rounder Records.

In the age of social media, many artists are trying to market their music directly to consumers with no label at all. But Rich Bengloff at the American Association of Independent Music thinks there are some jobs - like marketing and distribution - that musicians will always pay someone else to do. And that's where independent labels come in.

Mr. BENGLOFF: So the answer is yes. There will be a music industry. It will survive, and we believe that we'll be a big part of that industry because of our flexibility.

ROSE: In some ways, this looks like a return to an earlier era in music history. Steve Knopper is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of the book "Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Recording Industry in the Digital Age." Knopper says today's independents are the heirs to great labels like Sun and Motown.

Mr. STEVE KNOPPER (Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone): They have hands-on people who are really, really good at what they do, and they have very little overhead. They're not spending all their money on booze and hookers and blow and the traditional things that the record industry used to do. But in order to make a huge superstar, still, you need to have the contacts of a major record label, and you need to be able to put an act, still, on the radio. I'm sorry to say that NPR can't break a Lady Gaga on its own. No offense.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROSE: Knopper points out that independent labels are still trailing the majors in the industry's ultimate yardstick - sales. According to Soundscan, no indie label release made the top 25 last year. It's not clear that a big night at the Grammys on Sunday would do much to change that.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

BLOCK: And you can follow our full coverage of the 53rd Grammy Awards through the weekend at nprmusic.org.

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