Being an independent or signed artist isn't black and white. The industry is nuanced, and you have to trust your gut.
This topic is being brought up so often that I just can’t ignore it. There are many artists wearing the “independent” badge of honour, without realizing that the title of being an independent artist is fairly inconclusive. It’s like being an entrepreneur - people want to throw the title around because it’s cool but they fail to understand what it takes to actually run a business. There are definitely artists out there who know the music business and understand the difference between a truly independent career, and one built on the back of a label, but there is a vast majority who don’t, and if that’s you, listen up!
There are two sides of the fence to be on in this debate, and then there are those who don’t know enough to even begin to have a conversation about it. To be honest, that’s a problem. But it’s worth the time invested to figure it out. Especially if you’re planning on investing even more time and resources into a [hopefully] lucrative music career.
There are many reasons this is a hot topic right now, especially with artists like Chance The Rapper and Russ building massive careers without being married to a major label. Then there are independent [indy] labels/distributors like EMPIRE who are bolstering the careers of artists like Tyga. The more traditional route, however, of the major label deal is still widely accepted as being the holy grail. Plus, the allure of a massive advance is like the golden ticket. Only the chocolate factory is full of, well, use your imagination.
So, your options are pretty clear right? Grind it out as an independent or take the bag (advance) from a major and skyrocket into stardom.
But wait… It’s not that easy. And despite what people on either side of the fence say, you have to know your options, what each has to offer, and the massive nuanced grey area in between.
You have to educate yourself, define what you want and take control of your career without worrying what other artists are doing. You have to understand that there is no ‘one way’ to have a successful career.
The idea that you don’t need a major label to succeed is true. It’s the era of laptop producers, subscription-based distribution, and social media marketing. But these kinds of ideas always sound great in theory, however, there’s always a harsh reality waiting to smack you upside the head at any moment.
So, if a major label isn’t necessary (necessary as in you don’t absolutely need to sign to one if you choose not to), what does that route look like to be truly independent? How much do you know about major label deals and running your own show? How much work goes into doing everything yourself? How much money do you have to invest into your own career or who do you have to beg for cash to keep things flowing?
See, it’s already sounding pretty daunting. And I’m only scratching the surface. We haven’t even touched on how you collect royalties or structure song-writing and production contracts.
The key to making the right decision is to first educate yourself. When I say right decision, I mean right for you, not right for Justin Bieber. The nuances when it comes to the music business are almost infinite and your knowledge will most definitely help you make the right decision.
In the spirit of keeping these blog posts relatively short, I will touch on a few things to consider overall, and things to look for in each scenario.
Full disclosure: The information I’m providing is not based on decades of music business experience. It’s based off the massive amount of content I consume and the advice/knowledge I have been given over the past few years in the business. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but the number of artists and music professionals who lack this fundamental information is mind blowing. So, I’m here to help!
Independent or signed?
When we try to understand concepts like this it’s normal to try and make them as black and white as possible. Keep things easy to understand and we’re good. But this area of music, like many others in fact, don’t work that way.
The independent artist typically owns all of their own music and has a small team behind them that they hire. Manager, agent, lawyer, business manager, etc. All taking a piece of the earnings from the independent artist. The artist keeps their creative freedom and has his or her team deal with the finances, marketing, bookings, and so on.
The signed artist will have a similar structure; however, their record deals are done through a major label who usually provides an advance (not free money, an advance on your projected sales that’s recoupable). This area of deals gets complicated depending on the label and the artist. The label then provides support in the form of marketing, distribution, tour support, publicity/PR, etc. They will also likely own the music that’s being released either indefinitely or license it for a specific period of time.
Now this is where the simplicity ends (I know, that wasn’t really simple). There’s a middle ground that even Neil deGrasse Tyson would struggle to understand.
The murky middle ground
The middle ground is subjective and technical. If you’re an independent artist are you doing it without the help of a label, or does being signed to an independent label mean you’re no longer independent? What if you have someone backing you financially? What if you’re an independent artist but you’ve had one or two projects on a major label? What if you’re on an indy label that’s distributed by a major?
Why is there smoke coming out of your ears?
The key here is to understand that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to having a successful music career. If you follow artists like Russ, you’ll quickly find out that he’s a machine (probably an alien) who does a ton of it on his own. That may or may not be appealing to you, but you have to decide that for yourself.
Like everything in life, there’s a trade-off/sacrifice (I’m fighting the temptation to use a relationship analogy here).
You might want to be independent for the beginning of your career to have complete creative control, own all your masters and play where you want to play, with the artists you want to play with. This might give you more leverage when approaching a major label in the future - if that’s your ultimate goal.
Note: starting your career this way ultimately gives you leverage. You might want an independent career then sign to a hybrid label that offers you more freedom than a traditional record deal. Keep your options open.
At the end of the day, what matters is that you understand your options and what is the best route for you personally and creatively. The smartest thing to do from day one is to surround yourself with a team that shares your vision and be vocal about your ideas. Plan where you want to take your career. Find a mentor who knows the business inside and out and have them provide you with information. You don’t want someone to hold your hand down a path theythink is right for you.
There’s no right way to have a successful music career, only your way. But there are plenty of ways you can fuck it up by not knowing what you’re doing at all.
Note: I realized that this article is pointing out some issues without giving you tangible advice. My intention is to get you thinking, not give you answers. You have to be able to research the massive number of technicalities within this industry on your own and create your own plan.
With that being said, here are two of the best resources to learn all about these nuances. I hope you make it through these books with at least a bit of your sanity intact.
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