The Rise of Indie Labels

“Lana crawled and Lorde walked so that Billie could run.” This brief sentence explains how much the music scene has evolved in the past ten years.

It was 2001 when then Katy Hudson came out with her first homonymous record, which only sold 200 copies. Seven years later, she hit back with the more mainstream One of the Boys, this time selling 47,000 during its first week and signed with the artist’s new stage name—Katy Perry.

Since then, the reception of indie labels and albums from the mainstream public has become much more welcoming. From feminist pop/rock acts like St. Vincent and Florence + the Machine to the folk-sounding girl in red and Phoebe Bridges, from the gradual rise of Arctic Monkeys to the “indie rap” of XXXTentacion—and the list goes on—alternative sounds are now so popular that they have now become the new mainstream.

Chance the Rapper and the Grammys

Tim Ingham from Rolling Stone calculated that DIY artists would earn more than $1 billion from their music royalties (record plus publishing) across 2019, a number that would only escalate in the years ahead. Another platform, Mezz Entertainment, takes indie artists Chance the Rapper’s unprecedented Grammy wins in 2017 as an example: “if a musician who acts as their own sole distributor,” they write, “without any label support, and zero album sales can win three Grammys and have a net worth of $25 million, what is the point of a record company?”
Chance the Rapper received in fact five nominations for his mixtape Coloring Book, produced by his group The Social Experiment, winning three awards for Best Rap Album—the first streaming-only album to ever win this award—Best New Artist and Best Rap Performance for the hit “No Problem” featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz.

Are Record Labels the Gatekeepers of the Music Industry?

This prospected success for independent artists might make anyone wonder, do you even need a record label anymore to make it in today’s music world? This is exactly the question that David Tsintsadze from Hollywood Insider asked himself to decide whether these institutions still hold the key to an artist’s success or failure, and whether they still have the power to elevate a musician above others.

Tsintsadze eventually asserts that yes, record labels still hold credibility in the industry, despite the almost overnight success of DIY artists. Record companies—the author explains—once were the gatekeepers to the industry, giving young artists an opportunity to be heard that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. That was the direction of the music market until the 2000s, when artists started having more and more control on their career—not only recording and producing but also marketing, booking, logistics and merchandize sales and management.

Independence, OkayBut is it Really Worth It?

But is it really worth it? if before the start of the new millennium artists like the Beatles or Madonna had to win a music label’s trust simply to have their music play on the radio or MTV, today’s artists have to compete with other fellow musicians in marketing their music in the most appealing way possible. Hollywood Insider estimates that more than 400,000 new tracks are released monthly, peaking the rivalry between artists. And it’s in this chaotic environment that record labels might still work as lighthouses that direct tomorrow’s biggest stars, investing money and resources in a single artist to guarantee their success in the industry.

The Power of Self-Marketing

Conclusively, with today’s endless resources on the internet, particularly the strong presence of social media which favors self-promotion, up-and-coming artists signed to alternative music labels can still have a shot at stardom.

Independent labels like Rough Trade Records, Island Records and Domino Recording Company can, today more than ever, still aspire to have the same impact on the market as those coming out of EMI, Sony or Universal.

In a nutshell, thanks to the Internet and social media, artists not only need to be digitally literate but also rely on their own self-representation and self-marketing abilities to make it big into the music market.

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