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State of independence: Why the ‘indie’ artists you love are not as DIY as you think

Artists like AJ Tracey, Dave and The 1975 are routinely championed for their indie status, but the meaning of this music industry buzzword has become increasingly blurred. Will Pritchard demystifies the smoke and mirrors and explores what it says about the future of music

Friday 30 April 2021 11:22
Top left clockwise: Matty Healy of The 1975, AJ Tracey, the Sony Music label, and Stormzy
Top left clockwise: Matty Healy of The 1975, AJ Tracey, the Sony Music label, and Stormzy

When the UK rapper AJ Tracey made an impromptu appearance at a park in Manchester earlier this month, in a bid to drum up support for new album Flu Game, he didn’t expect that many people to show up. But thousands did. Including the police, who handed over a £10,000 fine for the breach of Covid-19 regulations.

Typically, it’s a record label that foots the bill for artists’ misdemeanours; Tracey, however, operates as an independent artist, so the money for his stage shows, album campaigns, and indeed any errant fines, comes out of his own pocket.

Tracey’s latest album was distributed via Supernature, the independent artist services company run by his manager. In maintaining his independent status, the rapper is one of a growing number of successful artists seeking to disentangle themselves from the traditional systems and structures of the music industry. But as the number of musicians claiming their state of independence has grown, its definition has blurred. Tracey is currently one of the few who can truly claim to be a chart-topping indie artist in 2021 (Flu Game landed at number two in the album charts). For others, it’s far less clear cut.

“Independence has become a sort of buzzword in the music industry,” says Andy Musgrave, Tracey’s manager, “but it seems like there’s no real consensus on what it truly means at this point. So it’s down to the actual experience that an artist has within that situation. And it’s just not black and white, and it can’t be black and white.” Tracey has long been forthright about his label-free status, though his eponymous debut album in 2019 was put out by the ADA distribution arm of a major label, Warner Music.

The exact definition of independence will change depending on who you’re talking to. But broadly it boils down to some combination of the following three things: retaining control over creative direction; owning your copyright; and whether or not you’re in bed with one of the three majors, Sony, Universal or Warner.

In the past, doing any kind of business with a major label would preclude you from indie status. But now, the specific balance of each of these elements varies. Plenty would sooner see hell freeze over than ink a deal with clean-cut record execs in a fluorescent-lit boardroom. Some will be OK with giving up a chunk of their royalties if it means more upfront investment into a long-term vision. Others see giving up their master rights as signing away their soul.

Most music aficionados, including Musgrave, however, agree that retaining control over both your creative output and career trajectory is the most important element of all, whether you’re doing it DIY, signed to an indie label, or in the lap of a major – even if, as is the case for most major label record deals, that means giving up as much as 80 per cent of your royalties and being on the hook for a substantial advance repayment.

Hip-hop journalist Nathan Slavik coined the term “mindie” in the early 2010s to refer to major label-signed acts masquerading as independents. Since then, the nature of independence has only become more nebulous. Plenty of artists have benefitted, whether intentionally or not, from the cultural clout that’s propagated in this grey area.

Stormzy (his #Merky imprint was partnered with Atlantic), Skepta (distributed by one of Sony’s ‘independent’ distribution companies), and The 1975 (their label Dirty Hit is distributed by the Universal-owned INgrooves) have all been hailed as independent success stories while holding agreements with major label entities. Dave won the award for Best Independent Album Award at the 2019 AIM Independent Music Awards for his album, Psychodrama, which was distributed exclusively by Universal Music. 

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The fact that Spotify, the world’s most popular streaming service, mostly obscures record label attributions only helps to muddy the waters. And the press has arguably been complicit, too: Time Out painted Skepta’s house as DIY merch warehouse in a 2016 profile; Dirty Hit founder Jamie Oborne fronted a special “Indie Takeover” issue of Music Week in 2020. As journalist Cherie Hu noted in her Water & Music newsletter at the start of this month, “DIY has become a corporate commodity.”

With the upper echelons of the music industry taking a battering from all corners over the past year, it’s perhaps not surprising that many artists are keen to distance themselves from the current industry quagmire and assert their independent status. The debate around streaming incomes – focused by the lens of the recent DCMS inquiry into the economics of streaming – for example, has pitted artists against their industry patrons and brought questionable dealings on the label side of things in particular to the surface. Labour MP Kevin Brennan wondered aloud this week whether it’s a great look for Spotify founder Daniel Ek to be chucking a few million dollars into a hypothetical pot to buy Arsenal football club while some outwardly successful artists struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

Elsewhere, high-profile outbursts from the likes of Kanye West (last year he tweeted out all 113 pages of his legal agreement with Universal), Megan Thee Stallion (who sought a restraining order against her label) and Taylor Swift (who has gone to the lengths of rerecording whole albums in order to reassert control over her songs) have helped stir up public contempt and brought back old images of industry suits preying on artists’ apparent naivety and idealistic intentions.

Taylor Swift is among the artists who have helped stir up contempt of major labels

“[Being independent has] become a bit of a badge of honour,” agrees Musgrave. But beyond scattered examples of small-scale DIY operations and acts selling direct to their fans via sites like Bandcamp, the days of any clear-cut division between bona fide independent artists and major label attachés are seemingly over.

Much of this is down to how music reaches fans’ ears in the modern age. The early Noughties advent of digital music and the uptake of streaming in the 2010s brought with it a host of new companies claiming to cut out the middleman and give artists the ability to get their music into download stores and onto streaming services without a traditional label deal. Independent distributors (or ‘distros’) and so-called ‘label services companies’ such as TuneCore, The Orchard, Caroline and INgrooves posed a threat to the major labels, who had been slow to adapt to the prospect of digital listening. In 2007, when the Top 40 welcomed its first digital-only single, it was Ditto Music, a distributor founded by brothers Lee and Matthew Parsons, who were behind the breakthrough – not a traditional label.

In the years since, the three major labels have established their own standalone distribution arms and label services offerings, and acquired a whole raft of formerly independent distributors to boot. In her newsletter, Hu mapped out the current landscape and discovered that less than a third of the so-called independent distribution market is actually functioning independently. The majority is owned by major labels or tech companies.

In January, Sony Music UK boss Jason Iley claimed during the DCMS inquiry into the economics of music streaming that “there are more avenues [for artists releasing music] today than ever, than I’ve ever seen in my time doing this job.” A month later, Sony announced that it had snapped up indie distributor AWAL (an acronym for, ahem, Artists Without A Label), with Little Simz, Flohio and Deadmau5 on its roster, for a cool $430m – which seemingly undermined Iley’s claims. Hu’s analysis suggests that the options available to artists wanting to operate outside of the major labels’ immediate orbit are becoming slimmer with each new acquisition.

Deadmau5 (far left), whose formerly independent distributor was bought by a major, and Kanye West (centre) who has spoken out against his own contract with Universal

And the opacity of these arrangements is having a knock-on effect on artists and their teams. As one artist manager, who wished to remain anonymous, tells me: “A lot of [artists], when I speak to them, don’t even understand that Caroline [a distributor owned by Universal and now known as Virgin Music Label & Artist Services] is part of the system. All of these things are part of the system. And the people that work there are also from majors, they’ve got major label brains, that’s how they think.”

There are cultural consequences to all of this. In the music business, authenticity – or at least the appearance of it – sells. The ‘self-made’ narrative is a particularly attractive one. It’s a status especially sought in the world of rap, from Drake’s “started from the bottom” boasts, to the mogul status of Jay-Z, P Diddy, or Dr Dre.

This is something that Shauni Caballero, founder of music rights management and publishing company The Go 2 Agency, says that UK acts are keen to replicate. While photos of signing deals and sipping champagne in label offices were once de rigueur for artists on social media, Caballero notes that artists are increasingly and actively downplaying their label relationships in an attempt to “appear independent”. All of which, of course, seems to jar with the otherwise obsessive dedication to projecting authenticity.

Success, then, is something to be ground out and the reward of being able to say, “I did this on my own,” Caballero adds, is what makes it all worth it. If that means obscuring a helping hand here or there, so be it. Another industry insider describes this approach as misleading and worries that it opens up “upcoming kids who don’t understand the business” to exploitation or simply disappointment when they realise how difficult doing everything independently can be.

For her part, Caballero defines independence simply as having “ownership and control”. In this sense, the definition of independence becomes more about retaining control over your career path (and your talents) than the companies you’ve dealt with in order to attain your success.

Similarly, Hu concluded that “maybe the most generative way to think about the future of ‘independence’ is less about specific copyrights and pipes, and more about artist autonomy and choice as a whole”. Andy Musgrave agrees, and views this loosening as a positive thing. “Artists in the community talking loudly about how they’re independent, they run their own business, and they make their own decisions: that’s a really positive thing to see,” he says. “It promotes the notion of entrepreneurship in music, which is, I think, key to a future where artists do have more control over their [lives] – to understand that they have options and that they don’t have to just go and do a traditional record deal.”

All of this might seem a far cry from the days of sticking it to ‘The Man’, but plenty of acts have shown it’s possible to make the system work for them. And with these shifting definitions, there are power shifts, too: acts like Stormzy – who said in 2017 he’d “never seen a major label know what to do with black artists” – have been able to leverage their position to force wholesale change; at the end of last year he left his Atlantic deal to spearhead a UK-focused offshoot of Def Jam Recordings.

However, the problem of consolidation remains. “The majors will make a point of buying everything out for you to have no choice,” says Caballero, “until they have total control over market share.” It’s hard to imagine how this contributes to a healthy musical ecosystem. Ian McQuaid, head of A&R at the fiercely independent Moves Recordings, compares the ongoing spate of indie distro acquisitions to the major labels’ efforts to tie up vinyl pressing and distribution operations in the 1970s.

He points to another naked attempt at market consolidation that’s drawn considerably more public ire in recent weeks. “People are stressing about the [European] Super League. I mean, have you heard of Warner, Sony and Universal?” he says. “It’s great that people stress about the Super League, I encourage them to stress about it – and I encourage them to bring their energy to other aspects of our life, and to look at where those corporations have completely f***** up the chance for the smaller teams to have a moment of glory.”

Perhaps it’s not all bad news, however. A report last month from industry analysts Midia Research identified small independent imprints and go-it-alone artists as the fastest growing sector in the industry and, in a separate report, argued that the industry’s centre of gravity is shifting in favour of “creators”. Platforms like Bandcamp, with its monthly no-fees campaign Bandcamp Friday, are putting the focus back onto those creators’ pockets.

Caballero believes we’re about to see more creative, independent companies cropping up to offer bespoke services to artists who want to stay clear – or at least informed – of the major label web. Whether these nimble organisations will be able outpace the majors’ acquisition sprees remains to be seen. A recent letter sent to Prime Minister Boris Johnson by the #BrokenRecord campaign, the Ivors Academy and the Musicians Union, and signed by more than 150 artists including Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Kano, and Damon Albarn, called for “an immediate government referral to the Competition and Markets Authority” of the “multinational corporations wielding extraordinary power” in the industry.

Too much power? Daniel Ek, the founder of Spotify

Even further into the future, it’s been suggested that decentralised technologies like blockchain, NFTs, and cryptocurrencies will have a similarly upending effect on the industry that the internet had back in the days of early pirate download sites Napster and Limewire. Musgrave is buoyant at the prospect of so-called smart contracts that could allow royalties to be shared more fairly among the various contributors to a song or album. Needless to say, major label execs are already scrabbling to grow and consolidate their interests in those spaces, too.

For now, the age-old opposition remains. “I think a healthy music industry is when there’s an interplay between majors and indies,” says McQuaid. But for that friction to exist, there needs to be a clearer distinction between the two sectors. That means labels being more transparent about where their interests lie, and artists being honest about their routes to success.

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