All the artists, independent

Are you listening to music on any major streaming platform while reading this? No? Then stop pretending you care about music and go buy a CD.

If you are, congratulations! You’re almost done generating a whopping $0.00454 of revenue for the artist you are currently listening to! That is, of course, before the label, manager, publisher, promoter, and that one guy that helped them set up their drum kit in the studio take their cut.

We often hear about these crazy situations of how little an artist makes after all the stakeholders take their cut of the incoming revenue. To most people, this feels and sounds like an injustice. Shouldn’t the artist be the one to profit the most off their work? What do these people do that make them so important to the artist? And since technology is more accessible than ever, why can’t we just do the things they do ourselves? Apparently it’s not so straightforward.

Let’s simplify how that works.

As outsiders, the music industry looks pretty messed up and complex. In this blog we try to simplify how it works. This way you don’t have to, and it gives us ideas about how it could be changed to benefit artists. It’s also a way to educate ourselves and make you like us enough to buy our apps.

“I wish the music industry worked how ppl that’s not in the music industry thinks the music industry works” — T-Pain

The music industry in 2019 is still complicated, in the same way that your relationship status is still complicated. Labels. Managers. Booking agents. Publishers. They all exist because the artist exists, not the other way around. Remove the artist from the equation and the whole music industry is irrelevant. Without music, there is nothing to book, distribute, publish or market. Think about that for a second.

So even though the artists are the most important piece of the industry by definition, it feels like the record companies and publishers are. Well, it also shows in their earnings. Let’s look at some images to get a rough idea of money gets distributed if we compare an independent artist with an artist signed to a major label.

Revenue streams for independent artist vs major label signed artist

The reason for the percentages adding up to 120% is because of the management fee. In other words, the manager gets 20% of whatever goes to the artist after all other parties take their cut of the revenue.

These companies exist with the sole purpose of providing the infrastructure in which the artists’ creations can be broadcasted and monetized to the world. Because they own this infrastructure, they control the way in which most of the money in the music industry is made. This simple fact means artists mostly have to rely on this infrastructure to make a living. Sure enough, it can also help the artist by bringing cash, a huge network and knowledge, which can be essential to having success.

For a very long time it was unthinkable that artists could make a living without this infrastructure as labels and publishers were prerequisites of having a career in the first place. Think of distribution for example, as an artist you had no choice but to rely on someone else to physically produce and distribute your music on the CD format. At least, that’s how it used to be for a very long time.

Fortunately we live in a world where technology exists. These days distributing your music is a matter of signing up for CDBaby and uploading your music and artwork. Social media offers the chance to reach global audiences and target niche markets. Merchandise can be sold to customers directly through the artists’ website. You’d think artists could be truly independent in a world that allows for legitimate alternatives to a record deal, but it’s not so easy.

What does it mean to be independent?

It seems that this word gets thrown around a lot in the music industry without people actually agreeing on what it means, and I can understand why. Record deals come in many shapes and sizes, some better aligned with the artists’ interests than others.

People might argue that artists who signed a deal could be considered independent in terms of real-life, practical differences, given enough freedom in the contract. Sure, we’re talking about given freedom, but the same people would argue: what’s freedom worth without opportunities? What if I sign a two-week streaming contract with Spotify? Am I still independent?

I don’t really like this way of thinking since it allows for endless discussion without merit and makes it easy to change the meaning of the word ‘independent’. Let’s look at the dictionary definition.

  1. able to take care of oneself or itself without outside help
  2. not being under the rule or control of another

If you look at this definition within the context of artists in the music industry, it should be obvious what the meaning of the word ‘independent’ is.

  1. Not needing a record deal to make a living as an artist
  2. Having full creative control over your sound and image as an artist

Basically, if you can make a living without a label backing you, and you haven’t signed away any of your creative rights, you’re independent.

Why would you want to stay independent?

First of all, even if you’re planning on taking on a record deal, you don’t just go on the web and apply for it like you’re ordering take-out. You need to make sure you’re big enough to be picked up by a label. So until that time, you’ll need to grow on your own, which is not an easy task. Also, gaining a bigger presence will give you a better bargaining position when discussing a deal.

It’s a good idea to stay independent and build up clout to make sure your market value goes up. This puts you in a better position as soon as labels are interested.” — On The Fence

But when you’ve reached that point, there’s also many reasons artists don’t take that deal. If you would ask 20 independent artists why, you would probably get 20 different answers boiling down to the same practical terms: control, effort and accomplishment.

Control is the biggest one. You own all your royalties. You own all your copyrights. Owning your copyrights means that you determine how much of the royalties each person that took part in the track will get. Giving up your copyrights means giving up the ability to control how much you make.

Creative control is also part of it. It means you have full control over decisions made around your music. You decide when to work on your music and when to release it. You decide if there gets to be a video for a particular song or not. Giving up your creative control means giving up the ability to control how, where, when and what to do with your music.

Effort is often overlooked. When taking on a record deal, you often lose certain responsibilities that now someone else is doing for you like marketing, a&r or content. Ask yourself this, what incentives does a salaried employee at a record label have to make sure to do a better job than you would for yourself? Ever had your mom upset at you for not doing something exactly like she would do it?

You’re the mom, except you are tied up in a chair for three years watching random people claiming that they’re experts coming into your house to clean the sofa, only to put back the pillows in the wrong order and clean your windows using 3-in-1 body-wash. They then proceed to take a third of the food in your fridge as compensation and leave 10 minutes before their shift is over.

Then there’s accomplishment. People like to accomplish things by themselves, it feels more rewarding than receiving help. By being an independent artist, every victory is your victory, no matter how small.

Okay fine, there seem lot of upsides to being an independent artist.

So why is it still tough to stay independent?

I don’t know. Why is mo bamba still a popular song? I guess some questions are just really difficult to answer, but we can probably point at a few big factors.

As an independent artist you are no longer relying on others to take on responsibilities for us doesn’t mean those responsibilities stop existing. Those are your responsibilities now. You’re doing the finances, you’re doing the marketing and you’re doing the outreach for your new release. That means these are things you have to be able to do, skills you have to develop. and tools you’ll have to learn using. Being able to develop the right skills is tough, which results in less people being able to be an independent artist. You’re not just an artist, you’re an entrepreneur.

“Take me for example, I’m lucky I used to work as a designer and creative. I used to spend my days developing sophisticated campaigns for brands and do the design for them as well. Some artists don’t have these skills which means they have to look for people that can help them, like labels.” — On The Fence

Another simple reason is money. Independent artists don’t get to rely on record label advances. This usually means independent artists have more of their time getting things done the low-cost way which normally would be solved with money, like advertising or doing a tour. Independent artists generally have to make up for this lack of cash by being smarter, taking the longer road or working harder.

While record deal advances aren’t exactly the most artist friendly agreements, they are, essentially an instant influx of money. Just to get it straight: these advances are just loans. Anything the record company pays for will get reimbursed by the artists’ royalties. For artists who get signed, but fail to recoup expenses, they will be in debt. They will not have to reach into their pocket to pay back the label, but that debt will transfer to the next album they make.

Lastly of course, connections. As an independent artist you probably don’t have access to the same network as a record label. Relationships aren’t built overnight but they’re an essential piece of the puzzle to be able to make a living.

Clean it up, johnny

Learning to be an independent person is life. Learning to be an independent artist and pay your bills is life on hard mode. The potential reward of owning it all makes it an incredible offer. Unlike not too long ago, the music scene today allows for people like this to exist, people like Chance the Rapper, Lauv and Little Simz.

Through technology we’ve seen innovations happen in the creative industry like Patreon and crowdfunding platforms. There are many examples of direct-to-fan platforms being developed in the music industry as we speak. The fact that these things actually work means there are more opportunities than ever. It’s an exciting time to be an artist with tools like these at your disposal, and we’re just getting started.


We’ll be writing about a different topic in the music industry every month. Want to know who we are? Check out our meta blog. Thanks to On The Fence for helping out with his thoughts as an independent artist. Check out his music here.