Are "independent" artists really independent?

The essence of independent artistry is that music produced by the artist is done so independently from any major commercial record labels or their subsidiaries. The current ‘majors’ are Sony, Warner and the Universal Music Group; according to the Association of Independent Music, if a major owns 50% or more of the total shares in the artist’s company, then usually, they are owned or controlled by that major.

Supposedly then, the primary difference between the major labels and independent artists is that whilst the former have multi-million dollar promotion and music budgets, the latter are restricted to smaller production, promotion and distribution budgets.

The most basic definition of an independent music artist once referred to an undiscovered artist or group that was not signed to one of the big major labels. Those that were signed under Sony, Warner, Universal Music Group and, back then, EMI were often perceived as artists that were ‘major signed’ whilst those that were not were referred to as independent artists. The defining rhetoric of independent artists has somewhat changed in recent years with the likes of Chance the Rapper, Stormzy, Macklemore and many more.

Picture Source: Noisy

Whilst major labels entice with huge advances, it seems the appeal of independent labels or artistry is that of better royalties and creative control over the artist’s music catalogue. By definition; that an independent music artist is an artist that produces music independently from any major commercial record label, artists such as Chance the Rapper and Stormzy would be classed independent artists with artistic freedom in lyrics and music style. Having said that; does having the backing of a company that is worth $800 billion, several times more than all the major labels combined still make an artist independent?

Apple has become the first company in history to top the $800bn mark in market capitalisation. It was estimated earlier this year that if Apple were to continue on its growth path then the company’s market cap, the total value of all of its shares added together, would top $1 trillion by the end of the year. Not only does Apple’s backing beat that of the major record labels; Apple is also an indispensable part of the music economy through Apple Music, iTunes, Beats 1 etc. The question then remains the same; can artists such as Chance, who benefit from the backing of the biggest tech firm on the planet also advocate as representatives of independent artistry? Are independent artists really independent?

Picture Source: Chicagotribune

When Acid Rap blew up in 2013, there was no surprise of the bidding war that ensued between the major labels for Chance the Rapper. Chance however commented that he was a very “tunnel vision guy” and that he was “not interested [because] it’s a dead industry [and that] there’s no reason” to sign to a label. Stormzy’s debut album Gang Signs & Prayer, that was released earlier this year, became the first grime album in history to reach number one with sales of 69000. All sixteen tracks from the album appeared in the top 100 in a single week, making the young Black Brit, only the fourth artist to achieve this after Justin Bieber, Beyonce and The Weeknd. Like Chance, Stormzy critiqued major labels by commenting that he “has never seen a major label know what to do with black artists.”

As well as appearing to have charismatic personalities, both artists have a dominating social media presence that is accompanied by incredible music which has set both to break records that their independent predecessors could not do. The question seems to turn here as it no longer inquires about whether the artist is independent and instead questions what it means to be independent in this day and age.

Ideas about independent music and artistry seem to be regressive in that before the internet age; the barriers to entry were much higher. The major labels spent years monopolising music distribution and production and such a monopoly allowed them to have the power to decide what would ‘break out’. There were very few artists or groups that had the chance, no pun intended, to sign a major deal and those that did not, often found themselves ‘trapped’ for a lack of a better word. That narrative has changed however, as artists are able, through social media, to connect with current or potential fans worldwide without instruction from a major label.

Record labels are becoming out-dated with Independent artists having 31.3% of the music market share, forcing Universal Music into second place with 28.9%. Today’s independent artists are reaching levels of success that would’ve never been imagined previously. Having said that; it is important to note that the independence of these artists is perhaps more to do with the industry and the change in technology and powers of companies such as Apple than it is a defiance of some sort. Many rappers who would’ve signed years ago, would probably not have done so today. And further, having the backing of a company like Apple that will endorse and potentially distribute more than all of the major labels could somewhat delegitimises the ‘independence’ of artists such as Chance.

Granted, it can be accepted that the defining rhetoric of what it means to be independent has somewhat evolved because of new technologies and social medial however, again, can an artist be deemed independent if he is not necessarily backed by a major record label but is instead in partnership with a tech company that is worth more than said labels? If the artist were to not have the backing of said company, would the artist continue to pursue independence? If your music is distributed through the mainstream of Apple, a company that is worth $800bn then who is truly the owner of one’s music?

It is these question that can truly determine whether independent artists are really independent.

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