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There’s a big kerfuffle these days regarding artists and their independence. With the likes of Russ (an artist who blew up thanks to SoundCloud), being a recent outspoken critic of the perception of “independent” artists who are really backed by major labels through their distribution deals or Action Bronson who appeared in the news recently decrying his album being in major label limbo.
In an era where artists can reach their fans directly, is there still any benefit to signing on a major label? I’m still inclined to say, yes. While an artist can get preliminary exposure through mixtapes via independent means, I am dubious that they would still have the same flourishing career and had the same opportunities present themselves.
Firstly, indie labels come and go with few exceptions. Not everyone can be Stones Throw Records. And even big indie labels perish – r.i.p. Def Jux. Secondly, true indie artists can grind for close to 10 years before making an impact. So while I can sympathize with Action Bronson being frustrated with having a project ready only to be lagged by things outside of his control – he really shouldn’t complain after having his face plastered all over VICE.* VICE records is a division of Atlantic records.
The success of Odd Future while meteoric is an anomaly. Not everyone gets to be an indie darling and move on to great commercial success. As not every indie label is created equally, so must the business of performing being filled with pitfalls. Indie labels simply don’t have the same resources to compete with say, the Interscope machine. While artists can breakout via new technology, they would be wise to hang onto something with footing. Technology is simply too volatile to be relied upon. Vine is no longer with us, and YouTube is too precarious. So the question becomes, where would the artists who broke there go now?
There is no easy answer. So what do Indie labels offer? Well, they offer a path to develop a loyal fanbase. There may be fewer people buying an indie artist’s album but they’re buying merch and more often. A smart indie label would be wise to capitalize on that. The success of ICP and Psychopathic records cultivated loyal fanbases and did precisely that.
It’s worth noting that indie labels fail artists as well – they just don’t get the same flak for it. While people can be up in arms about the shadiness of the recording industry’s business practices, many artists simply do not have the luxury to reach so many people without backing. New technology has helped artists gain support but can’t be continuously relied on. Smart indie labels find ways in which artists can develop cult followings and build. Either way, artists need to be prepared to cut their losses or be left in the wind.