If you’ve been a part of music in the past 10 years, the bright-eyed pitch for independence is a familiar refrain: DAWs and DSPs opened the floodgates, SoundCloud rappers are signing huge deals with songs mixed on Bluetooth speakers—in short, you don’t need a label to succeed.
There’s some truth to it—but our current definition of an “independent musician” is murky at best. Does it mean you own all your masters and distribution? Or does independence apply to artists signed to independent labels? What about joint ventures? What about artists using a Renaissance playbook, funded by a patron that can support them in lieu of a label?
Before looking forward, we’d do well to start by looking back. A decade before the digital revolution cut the music industry off at the knees, independent music had another day in the sun. Until recently, the indie heyday was widely recognized as the grunge and indie rock wave of the ’90s—bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam proved that “alternative music” could be commercially successful without sacrificing its edge. Indie labels like Sub Pop and ANTI- outflanked the majors and made space for challenging, unique music. The revolution was short-lived, however, and major labels controlled about 72% of industry revenue by 2005.
Fast forward to today and the major label market share remains around 70%. Direct to artist revenue is a point of growth, however, and the barrier to entry has never been lower, and with this newly accessible music industry comes a wealth of questions. Chief among them is this: is a major label deal still a metric for success?
There’s no answer to the question, just an infinite number of opinions. So we decided to gather the opinions of those who might have a better idea than most: independent labels and musicians. In this brave new world of streaming services, merch bundles, and brand partnerships, how can a small artist survive? And what is/isn’t real about the lifestyle and business of an independent artist/label?