Is Remaining Independent The Way To Go?
15 Sep 2023
Words by Plamedi
With the music scene consistently evolving, the number of artists choosing to remain independent is on the rise. This raises the question: Are the days of major record labels a thing of the past?
For many musicians in the rudimentary phase of their career, one of the most praised achievements they can reach is obtaining that ever-elusive first major record deal with one of the industry’s top record labels. Up to this point, all their success can really be attributed to the sacrifices and hard work they’ve put in.
They are astonished when that first cheque comes through. Five hundred thousand British pounds hit their bank account, and it’s the largest lump sum of money they’ve ever owned in their lives. They are so proud of this accomplishment; however, the penny drops when they realize it was never even their money but instead an advance, a fancy way of saying a loan. This means the artist must pay back their initial advance through mainly album sales and streams. To add insult to injury, they are made aware that they are liable for studio costs, mixing and mastering costs, marketing, and even music video costs. Now that 500k is looking like 350k instead.
Then there are taxes, managers, living costs, and teams that also need to be paid for. So, the figure is now looking like 200k, which, don’t get it twisted, is a lot of money; however, the sad reality is that many artists don’t actually see a penny of their own until that advance has been paid, which is easier said than done.
Croydon-raised rapper, Hardy Caprio explained the reality of record deals on Twitter last year: “The people inside those buildings rinsed another broken kid from a working-class environment and they’re gonna do it again and again and the cycle continues.”
After hearing all of this you may wonder: Why is there such a hype around getting a record deal?
Well, not all artists have negative relationships with record labels, and they can be a very effective way of propelling your career into the next stratosphere. Established labels have the proven track record and contacts to help a rising star become an established figure in the scene. They have the budget and industry specialists on board to ensure an artist has the freedom to concentrate solely on the music. Being able to create art whilst leaving show bookings and marketing to a dedicated team can most definitely allow an artist to really get in their bag and put their all into a release.
Artists have also been able to retain all their masters in distribution deals with record labels. For example, the likes of Stormzy, J Hus and most recently Central Cee have all signed extremely advantageous deals. But to do this you need leverage and a lot of it.
One of the most significant shifts in attitudes currently observed within the music industry is the move away from developing relatively unknown artists. Instead, record labels are opting to sign musicians who have already built cult audiences and followings on TikTok or have had a viral song on TikTok, along with around 50k monthly listeners on Spotify.
Times have changed, and more artists are now sharing their experiences with major record labels. One of the more recent high-profile cases is undoubtedly London-based pop/R&B artist Raye. Last year, she opened up about her seven-year stint at Polydor Records, during which there were moments when she felt creatively stifled, especially after the label head who had signed her left the label.
In an interview with the Guardian, Raye explained how she grew very frustrated with her circumstances: “I have [was] been signed to a major label since 2014 and I have had albums and albums of music sat in folders collecting dust, songs I am now giving away to A-list artists because I am still awaiting confirmation that I am good enough to release an album.”
Talent was never the issue in Raye’s case. Since going independent, the artist has rekindled her love for music, and her track “Escapism” has amassed 573 million streams, all without the support of a major record label. This achievement stands as a major win for the independent music scene.
Now, what remains to be seen is how the establishment will react and adapt to the numerous changes the industry faces. Methods of artist discovery have shifted from in-person (IRL) to online, and as a result, bonafide superstars are emerging from their bedrooms rather than from the dazzling lights of live gigs. However, what we do know is that the record industry successfully navigated the advent of streaming platforms and seamlessly adapted to them. So, what makes this any different?