When you gamble, your prerogative is to win. When you bet on a horse, you base your decision on history. If ‘The Schlong Machine’ has won every race for the last three years (without injury) that’s where you put your money. The music industry works the same way.
At its core the music industry is just that, an industry. Music industry businesses exist, just like every other business, to make money. Like betting on a horse, a label’s prerogatives are profit and longevity; commercial worth over musical worth. Labels put their money on the front-runner to minimise risk and maximise profit. As ruthless as that may sound, the sheer vastness of available talent makes this possible. If you were tasked with discovering and developing a potentially Justin Bieber-esque artist, wouldn’t you choose the most commercially viable option?
In many cases, artists hoping to be signed to a label must prove they have an established fan base, live presence, or existing base of commercially viable music. The businesses are less concerned with talent, as they are with one’s ability to successfully market talent. Resources are also given in accordance with a musician’s ability to sell content. It’s for this reason that Kanye is given lenient due dates for his finished solo efforts, access to vast ranges of resources, and support from scores of talented personnel. After all, he can hit number one and earn it all back. It’s unlikely less popular acts would receive such favourable treatment.
This business strategy is present in other industries too. Its why Fast & Furious keeps getting shitty sequels and Deadpool took over a decade to make—film studios are also more concerned with generating profit with market tested releases. Still Mission Impossible 45 may provide the resources needed to fund an innovative new film project with an unproven target market. These ‘bread and butter’ films have their uses, they allow budgeting of riskier films. Films like the original Star Wars: a low budget gamble which evolved into the rampant success it is today. The same goes for the music industry. It’s a ruthless ecosystem, but it’s one that has worked for decades.
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The Record Deal
It then begs the question, why pursue a deal at all? If you’ve already established a fanbase, a live presence, and recorded a selection of quality music, what can a major label possibly offer you? We have a culture in Western music of associating signage with success—look no further than hip-hop culture to see this. Bobby Shmurda, the mastermind behind “Hot N***a,” had racked up over two million hits on YouTube, started the Schmoney dance trend, and began work with hit-smith DJ Mustard all before signing with Epic Records in July 2014. In other words, Shmurda had essentially cracked the mainstream before he was signed. He celebrated on Instragram all the same: “deal is done @bobby_shmurda #EPIC no one does the underdogs better than me. Brooklyn this 1 is for you!”
It makes sense in some respects. Signage entails a sense of entitlement; someone with experience in funding successes is telling you they think you’ll succeed. One can only imagine that feels pretty great. Plus the label will take care of the administration and provide you with the resources to make your music! You can outsource the tricky jobs to experienced parties. Parties that merely require you split most of your earnings between themselves and distributors. Shockingly the Recording Industry Association of America puts the average label artist’s earning at $23.40 out of every $1000 of music sold. You may also hand over the ability to veto your album structure and content to the label; they want to ensure its commercially viable—artistry is secondary. Not so fun now, is it?
The Indie Artist
It’s unsurprising that many an artist chooses the independent path. The term indie describes a party which has achieved moderate success without a label, or a party which has left a label to pursue music alone. This option is becoming more popular, look no further than the general population of Bandcamp to find thousands of indie rock artists. Chance the Rapper is a prime example of a mainstream, celebrated artist who has remained independent throughout his career.
Chance has never sold an album. That didn’t stop 2015’s Surf from being downloaded 618,000 times in its first week. He’s never been signed. That didn’t stop him providing a feature for “All My Friends”—one of the songs of summer 2016. He’s never been artistically restricted and he’s never had to share his profits with a business. He’s able to make a comfortable living on merchandise and ticket sales alone.
Perhaps most important of all, he appears infinitely more genuine for it. Chance’s marketing is grassroots (though now on a worldwide scale). To the average fan, he releases music because he wants others to share in his experience of the world. He releases it because he loves it, and he does nothing more than market it and hope we love it too. This implies, in turn, that label content is somehow less genuine, more commercial. While this isn’t a blanket rule, this prejudice is certainly present when any hipster discusses pop music.
It’s this fanbase cultivation and management that marks successful acts in the 21st century. The introduction of the internet and more advanced production technology allows anyone with a computer, an internet connection, and a roof over their head to absorb, create, and share music. Piracy and bedroom producers are common—sales are beginning to matter less and less, and live shows and merchandise more and more. Is it very surprising, therefore, that Chance chooses to release music for free? He bypasses piracy and sales, while spending his resources on acquiring a fan-base willing to purchase his tickets and merchandise.
Fan-base management is thus the future. Again this begs a further question: why remain signed at all? Take Drake’s most recent album, VIEWS. Selling 600,000 in a single night, it’s not unimaginable that the Canadian rapper could have achieved just as much without the support of a label. He certainly has the resources, influence, and talent to do so. By releasing through a label, he diminishes his profit. While the label provides many benefits, it’s just as easy to outsource these functions to less restrictive parties, with greater gain and freedom on Drake’s part.
It seems the independent artist is the Uber to the major label’s taxi. While it may take some time for the behemoth industry to be fully disrupted, there is certainly a future in which labels are no longer the preferred option for artists. Convincing arguments can be made for artists, both established or up and coming, to stay or become independent. Despite the possible benefits, if you can earn greater profit, retain artistic freedom, and maintain genuine relationships with fans, why would you not?
The future of commercial success lies in managing and taking advantage of diverse fan-bases and creating personal relationships with fans. Simply, a wall of business is not personal.