I Created the “Mindie” Artist, Now It’s Blown Up & Left Me Behind

By | one year ago
I first wrote about indie artists secretly signed to major labels years ago, now everyone from GQ to The New Yorker is following.
2016-01-08-mindie-artist-update

Coming up with the term "mindie" might literally be the only thing I can say I created completely by myself. I'd like to believe my writing and reporting is of the more original variety, but even at my best, I'm only putting my own spin on what's come before, coming up with new recipes using existing ingredients.

But mindie? One day that word didn't exist, not in the way it's being used now, and then the next day I typed it into existence. Even at the time, years ago now, I acknowledged it was a...I'd say a bad joke, but it wasn't even a joke. More like a lazy smushing together of two elements, the linguistic equivalent of pouring ketchup on spaghetti because it turns out you're out of pasta sauce. And so that's why it's vaguely surreal watching mindie now being used in headlines from Pulitzer Prize-winning publications. 

New Yorker Mindie

Here's how we got to this point.

2013: I first write an article introducing the idea of a "mindie" artist on my old site, RefinedHype. At its core, "mindie" described an artist who was publicly pretending to be independent but behind-the-scenes was secretly signed to (and funded by) a major label, a new strategy I had accidentally learned about at a meeting at Atlantic Records. The idea of an "industry plant" had been around for years, but this was a new level of specificity and smoke and mirrors, and so I came up with a new (pretty dumb) word to describe it. The thinking went that these artists were buzzing because their fans identified with them as underdogs and outsiders, and labels and artists were loathe to upset that dynamic by revealing to fans that their authentic indie hero was in bed with a giant, faceless corporation. Major label but pretending to be indie = mindie

October, 2014: I shut down RefinedHype, all those old articles disappearing into the black hole of the interwebs, and move over to DJBooth. Since I first wrote about "mindie" artists I had only grown increasingly more paranoid that every buzzing indie artist was secretly mindie, and so I essentially rewrote that old RefinedHype piece. The major difference this time around was that I named names: Logic was mindie, Young Thug was mindie, Kevin Gates was mindie, the same for Cam Meekins, Skizzy Mars and many more. 

The idea was that a big part of these artists’ appeal was their “indie” status. Fans loved feeling like they were supporting an indie artist, loved feeling like the artist’s successes were their successes, and that by making a major label signing public they’d ruin that relationship. Even though behind the scenes they’d be giving the artist a marketing and promotions budget, they’d keep the relationship in the background, if not hidden. It made sense. Everyone loves feeling like they discovered an awesome new artist, no one likes feeling like they’re the target of a corporate advertising campaign, especially when it comes to music.  - Your Favorite Indie Rapper is Secretly Signed to a Major Label

August 5, 2015: Fader runs a cover story on R&B singer Kehlani, written by Fader editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner, that makes "mindie" a prominent part of the piece. 

Kehlani pays her rent with money from her label, Atlantic, which is priming her as a crown-jewel “mindie” act—a major artist with indie bonafides. Now that streaming has become more popular and grassroots Vine memes have started breaking actual hits, it’s an increasingly common strategy. A label provides studio time and marketing budgets to an artist who has already found some success independently, taking care not to disturb the existing (and profitable) direct relationship the artist has with their fans. In some cases, these partnerships are kept quiet so fans don’t feel like their favorites have changed course; for example, the rapper Logic has said he worked with Def Jam well before announcing his deal." - Kehlani Earned This

They could have thrown a blogger a link, maybe a name mention, but even though it was obvious exactly where Zeichner had gotten the idea and the term "mindie" from, there was no plagiarism, no theft, just one writer bringing another's idea into a new context. I was mostly just excited to see the idea spread - hey, I made a thing other people recognized as having value! - and counted the spread of mindie as a victory. Do your dance young writer, do your dance

September 24, 2015: Carrie Battan writing for The New Yorker about Carly Rae Jepsen and mindie artists with a set-up involving Kehlani. 

There is a semi-official name for this breed of artist: “a ‘mindie’ act—a major artist with indie bonafides,” The Fader explained in a recent story about Kehlani, a promising young R. & B. talent from the Bay Area. “A label provides studio time and marketing budgets to an artist who has already found some success independently, taking care not to disturb the existing (and profitable) direct relationship the artist has with their fans.” Kehlani signed with Atlantic, earlier this year, and then released a for-sale mixtape (“You Should Be Here”) that felt like one of her D.I.Y. projects, in a seeming attempt not to alienate her fans or relinquish her cool-kid cred. - Carly Rae Jepsen and the Rise of the “Mindie” Artist

Now I'm starting to feel some type of way. Semi-official name? What do we have to do make it official, Carrie? Because I kind of feel like a publication that's won 117 Pulitzers and counting using the word in a headline and as a centerpiece of their article is about as official as it's going to get. And I'm a little salty that Fader is being credited and I'm not, but only lightly seasoned. It's becoming clear that the word has spread to the point where any idea of "ownership" is a ship that long ago sailed, leaving me on the shore. Battan even took the idea a step further, writing about Jepsen as a kind of reverse-mindie artist, someone trying to escape the trappings of their mainstream success by digging for some newly minted indie cred. 

It's also odd to see that Kehlani is now so strongly identified with the term mindie that she's being repeatedly asked about it in interviews, even though I never originally wrote that she was mindie or even suggested it. Kehlani and I are now strangely linked in this indirect, meandering way. The internet is a weird thing sometimes. 

January 6, 2016: GQ releases a profile on Kehlani, written by Maggie Lange, who clearly read Fader's profile as research. And so we get this: 

When I ask what she thinks of her being labeled as a “mindie” artist (a major artist with indie background), she says, “I don’t think I’m mainstream. I don’t have a hit single or something on consistent rotation. I’m at the top of the underground.” - Meet Kehlani, the R&B Newcomer Who Arrived Earlier Than Expected

Reading that paragraph from GQ feels like I went to prison for five years, and when I came home I discovered that my son Michael now preferred to be called "Mikey" because that's what his mom's new boyfriend liked to call him. "Michael, I named you Michael. Not Mikey, Michael. WHAT'S WRONG WITH MICHAEL!?!?!?!" What major label artist doesn't have an indie background? That definition describes basically every artist ever. Mindie is actually a very specific thing. You're either secretly signed to a major label or you're not, a context at least Fader included but GQ completely cut out. 

The fact that "mindie" had now become something that could be hyperlinked to and summed up in a parentheses was a sign that the term had officially made the leap from anything even remotely in my grasp to the kind of more general cultural reference no one person could possibly control or contain. But I won't fake absolute nonchalance. A New Yorker and GQ co-sign is a very real and significant validation in the world of writing, and as patently ridiculous as the word "mindie" is, to see a phenomenon I discovered, identified and described years ago get that co-sign without my name attached stings a bit

At the same time, though, by their essential nature ideas and language are made to be shared, and you can't selectively pump the brakes on that essential nature just because it's "your" word. To use a current example, in June of 2014, the world had never heard the phrase "on fleek," then Kayla Newman said it on Vine and boom, Nicki Minaj is next to Beyonce saying "pretty on fleek" in a million dollar music video. You think Nicki invited Newman to the video shoot, maybe gave her a cameo? Frankly, I doubt Nicki ever even thought of saying "fleek" as the type of thing that demands credit, and fair enough. Culture giveth and culture taketh away from the creator - so it is, so it always was, and so it always will be. 

So I made up a dumb word that sailed away on the seas of other publications without me. So what? I'm narcissistic enough to wish I'd been credited in those "mindie" articles, but not so narcissistic to feel like anything's been "stolen" from me. The only thing I still really care about, the only thing that truly concerns me, is the same thing that originally pushed me to write that first mindie article; major labels and artists are lying to the public and music publications are too scared to truly write about it.  

Over the last two years I've felt heat from the proverbial industry attempting to pull back the curtain a bit, and had plenty of insiders coming to me with "off the record" claims about other mindie artist deals they've seen, which only let me know I wrote about something worth writing about. The primary thing I noticed as mindie has spread from myself to the larger world is that the term's successively had all its teeth filed down and replaced with dentures. It's gone from an attempt to reveal the hidden mechanisms of power in music to more of a soft-edged idea, some sort of very undangerous commentary on the underground vs. mainstream, whatever that means. The New Yorker and GQ aren't attempting to identify new mindie artists, they aren't investigating the music industry, they aren't challenging anyone or anything. And watching "mindie" drift away from its original meaning genuinely bothers me more than any lack of credit.   

If you really care about mindie, here's what you ask Kehlani: "You announced that you had signed to Atlantic Records in May of 2015, but the 'FWU' video you released in November of 2014 looks extraordinarily high budget for an indie artist without an album or tour to her name at the time. When, exactly, did you sign to Atlantic? Did they pay for that video? Were you signed when you dropped your Cloud 19 mixtape in 2014?" And then you ask some version of that same question to Macklemore and Post Malone and Raury and all the other artists who have raised mindie red flags lately. 

I'm well aware that I'm at risk of Meek Milling myself by insisting on a level of truth in music that the general populace couldn't care less about. Most people don't care how their hot dog is made as long as its delicious, if the man with the baseball bat is ingesting steroids as long as the home runs are raining down on them, and if the music is indie or major label as long as the music is great. And to a large extent I'm no different, I want great music too, regardless of who's funding it. But I also very much do care how the music that reaches my ears gets made, it bothers me when the truth is deliberately obscured and concealed, and if that places me in the minority than here I am.

Heavyweight backing is certainly no guarantee of success, even artists who openly have Jay Z in their corner fail all the time, and indie, mindie or major, ultimately its the artist themselves that will determine the level of their success. But I also personally know too many truly independent artists working two day jobs and still going into debt trying to keep up with their secretly-signed peers, too many fans spending their last twenty dollars on a show to support an artist they falsely think is independent, to just let this go. So however far mindie spreads, whatever form it takes, with or without me, I'll be here, trying to write something just a little bit closer to the truth.  

[By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter. Image via Instagram.]

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