I was recently sent this very interesting piece by Jason James who writes a series called ‘This is My Rifle’ for the fantastic site ‘Refined Hype’. In this week’s article, Jason looks in depth at the benefits of being an independent artist as opposed to the major label model by applying his ideas to 3 current artists.
Jason is an artist, freelance columnist and writer for RefinedHype.com. You can listen/download his most recent album, “Marvelous World Of Color”, HERE and you can contact him HERE, and HERE
As an artist I’m generally subject to being asked one particular set of questions over and over again. On an almost daily basis I find myself repeating the same generic responses to the typical “When am I gonna see you on MTV?” and “How come you’re not on the radio?” inquiries, but the most common (and irritating) question I get asked is, “What label are you signed to?”.
I can think of no genre other than Hip Hop that places so much value on what record label an artist is affiliated with. In a lot of cases an artist’s status within the culture’s food chain relies more on whether they’re on a major label than the quality of their actual music. It’s because of this way of thinking that many great artists within Hip Hop are often overlooked and end up either moving into other facets of the music industry or giving up completely. This general perception is extremely damaging to the culture as a whole and does nothing but destroy the credibility of many of Hip Hop’s true innovators, since most of the forward thinking artists are ignored by the major labels, only to set the trends that they follow in the future.
“When thinking about major labels the first thing you have to do is remove the notion that they have anything to do with music”
In every other comparable musical genre (Rock, Blues, Punk) artists are looked at as “selling out” upon signing with a major label and most lose a large chunk of their original fan base due to the overall idea that their music will now be weak and diluted. But Hip Hop works in reverse; most artists aren’t taken seriously until being picked up by a major, which normally results in the artist spending the duration of their contract in constant debt. Unfortunately in Hip Hop, artists often have to choose between creative freedom or becoming a puppet for profit; making terrible music and perpetuating whatever trend is popular at the time.
When thinking about major labels the first thing you have to do is remove the notion that they have anything to do with music. Sure, there are a few people who work for the majors that actually care about music but most of the people involved play more the role of an investor looking for the largest possible return on their investment. In essence major labels are banks with unreasonably high interest rates; their job is to loan money to the artist and do everything they can to recoup the loan while at the same time capitalizing on the interest.
In the past, major labels were the only way to reach big international markets and they were able to control a large portion of the music that flowed through them. Because of this, artists had no choice but to sign with the labels, often without the help of a lawyer, and thus handing over all of their rights in the process. The typical deals that were being put together were more or less scams built to incur as many costs on the artist’s behalf as possible, only paying out 10-15% of album royalties once expenses were covered.
It was during this period that the term “slave deal” became a common term among artists and most of us educated ourselves on the shady deals that the majors were using as the standard recording contract template. Then in the late 90’s the internet came around and changed the face of music forever. For all of the prior years the music industry had been in existence, the labels relied strictly on album and single sales to recoup on their investment, mostly leaving the tour and merchandise sales untouched. But as the internet became more prevalent and record sales dropped (especially in Hip Hop), the majors created what’s referred to as a “360 deal”.
A 360 deal is just what the name insinuates: instead of relying on album sales alone, the majors now take a percentage of all revenue the artist generates. While I understand the need for the 360 deal, since album sales are at an all-time low, these deals have the potential to be more damaging to an artist’s financial stability than the previous model since it takes a percentage of the income that an artist would need to survive. In the past, artists could rely on tour money and other promotional ventures in order to keep their bills paid, but now they have to take into consideration how much money their tour is netting and how many hands are in their pockets. Between the percentage the label takes, paying managers, publicists, etc., they stand to make very little in the end.
So here’s where the independent labels come in. While most independents have dramatically smaller budgets and staff, they are a lot more artist friendly since they have more to prove and have to make up for the lack of funds with dedication. A vast majority of the independents have very flexible contract structures with fewer options which is good for the artist should they choose to leave. A direct contrast to the majors, successful independents are heavily reliable on artist cooperation and will work to keep their artists happy. Of course, there are bad independent labels out there that function like small majors, so as always it’s important to do some research on the company before entering into an agreement with them. And due to their lack of major label funding and manpower, they can sometimes be dismal failures in properly marketing and promoting their artists. The independent route is really only for artists who either already have a solid fan base or will attract the fan base that the label has built into it.
So which is better? Major or independent labels? Below I’ve comprised a list of 3 very different artists with very different needs and applied my own personal opinion as to what I think would be beneficial for their careers:
Exhibit A – Big K.R.I.T. (Def Jam)
There aren’t too many artists out there that are as widely appreciated as K.R.I.T. at this point in time. “Return Of 4Eva” is without question one of the best albums of the past decade and his appeal spans across all of the sub-genres within Hip Hop. The problem though is that I don’t think Def Jam knows how to push an artist of K.R.I.T.’s caliber. Due to his sound and lyrical content, the only way to realistically push him into the mainstream is to change his image and re-package him along the lines of current Southern Hip Hop luminaries like Rick Ross and Jeezy, which won’t work because K.R.I.T. isn’t that type of artist.
Just like their massive failure to put any real money behind The Roots, I see Def Jam doing the same thing with K.R.I.T., scratching their heads trying to figure out how to mesh real life music with the popular mainstream themes (bitches, drugs, money). I’m sure that at some point in the near future Def Jam will try to pair him with Rihanna in hopes of him crossing over, and when the record proves to be nothing more than a contrived attempt to force him into pop music, K.R.I.T. will drop another classic album with little to no support from the label. From there I think he should do everything he can to get the label to let him go make the independent move. Because he has such a broad fan base and appeals to so many different people, K.R.I.T. will undoubtedly be more successful on the independent route. Even with just a solid manager, booking agent and publicist he’ll gain exponentially by being independent and putting his focus on touring rather than fitting in on top 40 radio.
Exhibit B- Odd Future aka OFWGKTA (Unsigned)
There’s an inherent danger in the sudden overnight flare up that Odd Future is experiencing, and it’s the danger of disappearing just as fast as their popularity grew. While I don’t believe that the group is a passing trend, they desperately need a major label to step in and make their movement even bigger. Since they’re all fairly young, they need the guidance of professionals who know how to pump large amounts of money into them and capitalize on the moment. Also, a major label would help to repair their damaged relationships with the blogs (Nah Right & 2 Dope Boyz to name a few) and push them further into the demographic that they appeal to. They need muscle to connect them to bigger opportunities and at the same time facilitate the group so they can continue to grow, and unfortunately an independent label just wouldn’t have the ability to do this like a major would.
And because they’re so young, they are a long-term investment, which means there has to be a continuous funnel pouring money into the group to keep them afloat. Over time their sound will undoubtedly change and so they need a company that has the power to constantly re-work the presentation of the group according to what stage they’re at in their careers. While most of today’s artists would find greater success being independent, Odd Future is an example of how the major label model is still very necessary in some cases.
Exhibit C – Shane Eli (Unsigned)
There is no other artist in Hip Hop at this moment that possesses as much talent and potential as Shane Eli. Having just dropped his second (and classic) album “I Can Do Better”, Shane is the perfect example of being stuck in the middle between underground and mainstream appeal. Much like Big K.R.I.T., Shane is a member of the new batch of MC/producers to emerge on the scene but there’s a noticeable difference between the two: while K.R.I.T. tends to dominate in one lane, Shane bounces around, successfully weaving between various styles and topics. The problem that comes into play with an artist as versatile as Shane is that he’s unpredictable and in the age of manufactured artists, he’s never going to make the same song twice which scares the robots that feed the mainstream.
In my opinion, artists like Shane need to be held up and appreciated as beacons of creativity in the stagnant world that is modern day Hip Hop. He is a sign of the return of true writers and producers to the landscape and I think he needs the exposure that only a major label can provide. But, with that said, I also believe that his major label career should be short lived since he has the ability to crossover but also maintain the typical Hip Hop sensibilities, which will indefinitely generate a massive fan base from across many different genres of music. From there my suggestion would be to start his own label (with major backing) or sign to a mid-size independent, which has the money to fund an artist of adequate stature but can also match Shane’s creativity with the innovative approach that most independents have. Artists like Shane Eli are few and far between and it’s because they’re so rare that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where they belong. But the up side to being one of those artists is that they translate perfectly on both ends; underground and mainstream.
“Those who choose to be independent may have to work harder but they’re in total control of their music and their brands”
In this day and age and with so many outlets, there are many different paths to success that an artist can take. And as artists like Tech N9ne, Radiohead and Trent Reznor have proven, a few good ideas and a great team goes a long way. While all 3 have had major label backing to propel them to into the mainstream spotlight, they’ve also been examples of how a different approach can create an incredible amount of momentum. I guess it just all depends on what your goals are. If you’re looking for fame and awards, go with the majors. If you’re looking for longevity and maximizing your earning potential, the independents might be for you.
In the end, hard work equals results. Those who choose to be independent may have to work harder but they’re in total control of their music and their brands. Personally, I prefer to be in control and guide my brand as I see fit. I mean, what do you think you’re reading right now?