The Revolution of the Music Industry
“Give me liberty or give me death,” a famous quote by American politician Patrick Henry less than one year before the United States gained its independence from the British Empire. This timeless quote invokes the same feeling of today’s music industry and those who take part in it. From music artists to musicians; to those involved with the production of it all behind the scenes, gaining independence and ownership of created work has become a shared demand by so many who have contributed to the complex universe we call “music entertainment.”
With this being the case, we ask the question, what does being an independent artist really mean?
To start with freedom, profit, generational wealth, and limitless creativity. For clarity, being an independent artist means that you own everything (or a large majority) of what you create or are a part of creating. This means you earn your keep without the need to sacrifice any revenue to entities that did not have any direct involvement in what you created.
For example, you write and record the next hit song of the year without having signed a contract with a record label or production company. You release this song (on your own dime), and it goes viral. Since you wrote and recorded the music yourself and released it yourself, every dollar made from that song goes directly to your bank account. This sounds simple enough. However, this was not always so easy nor common as the music industry has always been (for the most part) controlled by major record labels, commercial brands (sponsors), radio stations, and DJs who decided what songs would be released and when. This meant that you were at the mercy of executives and corporations (who may or may not personally like your music) to be the ones who decided if the public would hear your music.
Ultimately, they were the gatekeepers of your chance of reaching potential fans. As a result of this control, so many artists and songs alike have been either “shelved” or lost in time as they did not “fit the schedule” of the labels who owned the rights to those songs. This was due to the fact that artists signed away those rights when they signed to the record label.
But doesn’t signing with a major record label mean you have guaranteed success?
The simple answer is hell no. Imagine a record label as a parent who has complete legal control of your life. Not only do they own a piece of everything you do, but you have to abide by what they tell you to do since you signed a contract that says (in simple terms) that if you go against anything the label tells you to do, then you are potentially liable for costs, penalties, or even legal action. The old “selling your soul” expression comes to mind in this example; however, no one actually “sells their soul” as much as they sell their freedom to do whatever they want with what they have created. Due to this, signing to a major label meant you had the “chance” of making it big through the label’s resources, but only if your parent… I mean, the record label allows for it to be. So if your sibling (other artists signed to the label) takes priority over you because they fit the label’s plan/schedule for that year, then you will have to wait until they see you are worth the investment and time to “go big.” Unfortunately for many signed artists, this means never having their music or content ever see the light of day as labels tend to sign on more artists than they can support and eventually shelve artists that never seem to be a priority to them.
This is BS. What about all of the successful artists in the world that have had insane amounts of success and fame while being signed to a major label?
As true as it is that major labels have been the foundation of what we see as the music industry, so many of the most prominent artists in the world have fought for years to reclaim ownership, payment, and freedom from their contracts after putting in so much work just to have a piece of the ridiculously huge pie of revenue earned as a result of their music.
Here are a few actual cases of this exact scenario:
- Prince, one of the most iconic artists in the world, not only fought his label for rights to his music but eventually had to change his artist name to retain rights to his future music since the label owned his original name. I kid you not. He went from being named “Prince” to “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.” In my opinion, this was a hilariously brilliant way of circumventing his label’s ownership of his original name. This was simply to allow his fans to know when he released future songs since he wasn’t legally allowed to be called “Prince” anymore. Oh, and to be clear, “Prince” was the name he created for himself before signing his contract.
- Taylor Swift battled her label to gain rights to her songs as she both wrote and paid for most of her music through the money earned performing her songs at, as she put it, “from bars to eventually arenas.” This led to her re-recording ALL of her previous songs so that she would own the masters to the new recordings even though they were exact copies of the original songs. This shows major artists’ lengths to reclaim ownership of their music and independence from major record labels.
- Kanye West pleaded with his major label and publicly released information related to his own contract stating he was fighting for the rights to his masters and ownership of his music. After getting backlash because his own label, GOOD Music, had the same kind of ownership of their artists, he agreed to give back the 50% ownership his label had over all of their signed artists.
So what you’re saying is that record labels are the devil?
Of course not! It is a direct result of this tension between artists and their labels that gave rise to “Major” Independent Labels. These were usually much smaller (you could almost say “boutique”) labels that began signing artists who would sometimes go on to become mainstream sensations. The way it works is that these “indie” labels would operate on their own while having distribution deals with major labels.
These distribution deals gave access to mainstream channels such as radio stations and music outlets controlled by the major labels. This lets artists have control of their art and earn a majority of the revenue made from their music while still getting played through mainstream channels. Ultimately, major labels allowed the indie labels to “do their own thing” and produce all the artists. In contrast, the major labels focused on the “bigger picture” of getting hits out into the world and making what money they could.
This was undoubtedly a major win for artists (and fair game for major labels) as artists finally had a way to gain support to grow and create their music the way they wanted to.
Real examples of famous independent artists who signed to indie record labels:
- Rimas Entertainment signing Bad Bunny, Arcangel, and Jowell Y Randy
- Rostrum Records signing Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa, and Rich The Kid
- Lava Records signing Lorde, Greta Van Fleet, and Jessie J
- Rich Music signing Sech, Dalex, J Quiles, and Dimelo Flow
- XL Recordings signing Adele, Radiohead, M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, Tyler the Creator, Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa, and Azealia Banks
Unsurprisingly, even major record labels began to offer much better deals to artists than ever before due to the rising awareness of bad deals and the reluctance of great artists wanting to sign any deals with them. All in all, you could say that the problem began to correct itself for the better.
So then you do need a record label to make it big?
Not exactly, lol.
With the introduction of digital distribution platforms to streaming services such as TuneCore and UnitedMasters, the power to create freely and offer your music to the world without the consent or support of anyone to back that creativity has forever changed the music industry, in my opinion, for the best. Imagine you record your voice on a microphone you bought on amazon over a beat you made in your bedroom, uploading it to a streaming platform that costs 10’s of dollars, and that song going viral because of a social media trend using your song upon which you now make money off of anywhere that song is played from nearly any platform in the world. Sounds too good to be true? It’s not.
Thanks to social media, anyone, and we’re talking anyone, can have a song go viral and earn every penny that song makes. Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. This doesn’t mean that just because you release a song on your own, you’re going to be the next “big star.” What this means is that there is now a way for artists to release music on their terms so that if, and we’re talking a gigantic “if,” their song becomes a hit, then it’s payday.
Famous independent artists who have released music this way include:
- Chance The Rapper
- Nipsey Hussle
Very interesting, but what does any of this have to do with a revolution?
I’m glad you asked (I know you didn’t but roll with it). The revolution has already begun. As more and more creators come together and build resources, networks, collaborations, and exchange ideas with the freedom to pick and choose the best path for them, a new dimension of music entertainment begins to form. For years, our ideas of music and culture were inspired by the music and entertainment of each generation. However, the music that was heard by that generation was ultimately controlled by the few who had the power to pay, produce, and distribute that music to the world. The truth is, artists aren’t exactly the types to start rich and get richer. They usually feel deeply, are emotionally driven, and are passionate about their music before anything else, leading them to not be in the circumstances to earn much money while pursuing their music career. This is exactly why they have been taken advantage of for so many years, but not anymore.
With this new wave of limitless creation, we are now beginning to experience a whole new world of influence and culture, thousands of shades more colorful than any other time before. The generations of tomorrow will have to learn about the time when the amount of music available to the world could be described as a few islands in the ocean. In contrast, the amount of music available to the world will have become the ocean in the future.
For this, I say, “Give me ownership, or give me death!”
Welcome to the Revolution of the Music Industry.