Breaking through to the other side, in the words of Jim Morrison, is what every aspiring musician desires. Getting their music heard and loved by millions, getting recognition from their peers and the industry, and of course, getting to make a living exclusively from music - these are the main goals and milestones that all independent artists dream of. Of course, getting there is an entirely different story, riddled with obstacles and frustrations, setbacks and disappointments.
Sometimes it can feel like no matter how hard you try and no matter how much talent you have, you’ll never get where you want to be without the support of a major record label. You either don’t have the knowledge of how the industry works, you don’t have the time and energy to put in all that work on your own, or you simply don’t have the resources. That’s why so many artists end up signing deals with major labels, because they desperately need funding to finance their musical projects, and they don’t know how else to do it. The good news is that there are numerous successful artists out there who managed to ‘break on through’ without singing ‘a deal with the devil,’ as many call it.
Why are independent artists on the rise?
Independent artists love to be just that: independent. Signing a deal with a label involves giving up a big chunk of your creative control, as well as a big chunk of your royalty payments. If you want to have full control over your music career and have the last say when it comes to how your music will be produced, released, and used, then a record deal might not be the best option for you. If you don’t want to feel the pressure of meeting deadlines, selling a specific number of records, or making live appearances that are not exactly up your alley, you might want to stay independent and keep pushing.
Another good reason why independent artists are on the rise is because they have many more ways these days to connect and engage directly with their audiences. Think social media channels, live streaming, newsletters, podcasts, digital marketing, and more - all of these tools allow musicians to reach out to their audiences without needing a record label or publishers to intermediate this connection.
Can independent artists make it big without support from a major label?
As digitalization has opened new doors for artists to connect and engage with their fanbase in a direct, unfiltered, and authentic way, independent artists can now achieve worldwide success without ever signing to a major record label. Through online platforms like Spotify and social media channels like YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok, artists can now grow their brand online and monetize their content without the need for backing from a label. They can even get funding for their musical projects through crowdfunding, music grants, and low-risk advances, which can help them kickstart or boost their career while retaining full creative control.
5 Successful independent artists who made it big on their own
If you have the talent and the determination it takes to make it in today’s music industry, there’s no telling where you could end up, even without the backing of a major label. In fact, there are numerous global artists out there that managed to build an incredibly successful career without relying on a label for any kind of support. These are some of our favorites, but the list is definitely not exhaustive!
Benjamin Hammond Haggerty, otherwise known as Macklemore, is one of the most well-known success stories in the modern music industry. The artist, alongside business partner Ryan Lewis, made a huge splash with their track Thrift Shop, taken from their album The Heist. The track went platinum and was the first ever rap song to reach the top spot on the Billboard Top 100 without the backing of a major label. Macklemore’s debut album was a huge success, and it was released under his own label, Macklemore LLC. He did have minimal support from the Alternative Distribution Alliance, however, but mostly he handled everything on his own.
R&B singer Mya Marie Harrison signed a deal with Interscope Records back in 1996 and went on to be one of the most prolific artists of the 2000s. However, the singer, songwriter, dancer, and actress always wanted to be independent and take her career into her own hands, and that’s what she eventually ended up doing. She created her own record label, Planet 9, and continued to release music, selling over 7 million albums globally and over 3.2 million albums in the U.S. She’s also won a couple of Grammys and was dubbed the ‘Artist of the 2000s’ by Billboard.
3. Chance the Rapper
Chancelor Johnathan Bennett, best known as Chance the Rapper, boasts one of the most impressive success stories in music history. He was the first music artist to win a Grammy award without selling physical copies of his music - and without selling or promoting his music pretty much at all. His 2016 mixtape Coloring Book took home the Best Rap Album award at the Grammys, the sole streaming-only album to win such an award. Since then, Chance the Rapper went on to win many other awards for his work, without ever signing a deal with a major label. In fact, he reportedly declined several major offers over the years, choosing to maintain his independence and have full control over his career and creative direction.
If you’re of a certain age, then you’re surely likely to recognize the ‘Mmmbop’ sound in an instant, and have one word come up in your mind without having to even think about it. That word is Hanson, the name of a popular group that released a song that is forever etched in our collective brains, for better or worse. A lot of people assume that Hanson were somewhat of a one-hit-wonder group, when in fact, they’ve continued to make music and sell over 16 million records. Interestingly enough, their label dropped them after the release of Mmmbop, thinking nothing could ever top that success. They didn’t give up, however, and have been releasing records under their own label, 3CG Records.
5. Frank Ocean
Alright, so we’re cheating a little bit here, because Frank Ocean only joined the independent artist game after he had already made a name for himself in the business. He was ‘discovered,’ as they say, by an artist who recognized his amazing songwriting skills. Ocean went on to write for and collaborate with major names like John Legend and Justin Bieber, before joining Odd Future Records and dropping his debut album, Channel Orange. It worked very well for him, earning him a Grammy award, but he was determined to follow his own path. So, he launched his next two records without the backing of a major label. Endless was only available on Apple Music when first released, while Blond was only available in small, independent record stores. This didn’t stop them from becoming major successes and establishing Frank Ocean as an incredibly gifted musician.
Of course, these are just a few of the artists who managed to breakthrough into the music industry without having support from a major record label. Other artists who went the independent route, either at the start of their careers or after getting their big break, include Childish Gambino, Tyler, the Creator, and Lizzo, among many others. So, if you’re an aspiring musician struggling to make it big on the music scene, don’t rush to sign the dotted line with a major label just yet. Try going the independent route and find alternate ways to fund your music career.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do independent artists distribute their music?
Independent artists have various options for distributing their music without relying on traditional record labels. They often utilize digital distribution platforms such as TuneCore, CD Baby, DistroKid, and others, which allow them to upload and distribute their music to major online stores and streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon. These platforms typically charge a fee or take a percentage of the artist's earnings in exchange for handling the distribution process. Additionally, artists can leverage social media, their own websites, and email newsletters to promote and share their music directly with fans. This direct-to-fan approach, combined with the accessibility of online platforms, empowers independent artists to reach a global audience without the need for a large-scale record label infrastructure.
What are the challenges independent artists face nowadays?
Independent artists face several challenges in today's music landscape. One major obstacle is the oversaturation of the digital market, making it difficult for artists to stand out amid the vast amount of content available. Limited resources and financial constraints can hinder effective promotion and marketing efforts, impacting an artist's ability to reach a wider audience. Securing opportunities for live performances, especially in the context of global events like the COVID-19 pandemic, remains challenging. Additionally, without the support of a major label, independent artists may find it challenging to access industry connections, secure high-profile collaborations, or receive widespread media coverage. Despite these challenges, the rise of digital platforms and the ability to connect directly with fans provide independent artists with opportunities for success and creative autonomy.
What are some examples of successful independent artists who made it big without a major label?
Several independent artists have achieved significant success without the backing of a major record label. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis gained worldwide recognition with their independent release "The Heist," including the hit single "Thrift Shop." Chance the Rapper made history by winning a Grammy for Best Rap Album ("Coloring Book") as an unsigned artist. Tech N9ne, a veteran rapper, has built a successful career and a dedicated fan base through independent releases and touring. British singer-songwriter Frank Turner has found success without major label support, cultivating a passionate following through extensive touring and grassroots promotion. These artists demonstrate that with talent, strategic decision-making, and effective use of digital platforms, independent musicians can thrive and achieve mainstream success.
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