What Does It Mean to Be An “Indie” Rapper in 2016?
The times change a lot faster than words.
TV hosts will still implore their audience to "stay tuned" even though most TVs haven't had tuners since the Clinton administration, and mixtapes haven't been on tape in over a decade, but people still call music they listen to streamed through an app on their phone a "mixtape." And now it's time we really took a long look at what it means to be an "independent" artist in 2016.
In his recent piece, "Why Chance The Rapper Is Not a Truly Independent Artist," Andrew Friedman crystallized a sentiment I've heard a lot over the last two weeks or so, that it's time to give Chance the boot from the indie rapper category:
"It shouldn’t reflect negatively on Chance, but anyone with the backing of a company worth $700 billion — several times more than all the major labels combined — can’t be considered independent." - Factmag.com
A statement like that raises a powerful point that for the fans and artists who view "indie" music it's much more than a question of semantics or business arrangements, it's about identity and art.
Let's backtrack for a moment. While the image people have of signing is often solely about access to power and money, the most fundamental aspect of a deal is that "signing" to a label really means "signing away the rights to your masters." The "master" is essentially the music itself as it was recorded (separate from the publishing), and I don't think the true weight of what not owning your own masters means sinks in for artists until much later in their careers. All their music, the music they made, they don't own it. They can't leave the label and take the music with them any more than you could work at Subway and leave with every sandwich you ever made when you quit.
A lot of people laughed at Prince when he changed his name to a symbol, saw it as a sign he was losing touch with reality, but that move was essentially about an epiphany he had about not owning his own masters.
For most of all of my adult life, I have labored under one construct. I compose music, write lyrics, and produce songs for myself and others. My creativity is my life; it is what guides my everyday, my sleepless nights. My songs are my children. I feel them. I watch them grow and I nurture them to maturity. I deliver them to my record company, and suddenly, they are no longer mine. The process is painful. I have been long ready for a new program. The time is now. - Prince, quoted by Anil Dash
So on the most fundamental level, the question of independence is simple. If you own your own masters you're truly independent. You can do whatever you want with your music - sell one copy for millions, bury it in a vault, tie a thousand CDs to a raft and set it adrift in the Pacific Ocean, whatever - without needing anyone else's approval. That's independence.
If someone else owns your masters, you're not independent. And by that measure, Chance the Rapper, for example, is independent. Case closed.
In practice, though, very few people think about masters when they think about "indie" music. Really what they mean is access to power and resources, and that's the definition that's shifted wildly in the last decade.
For the entire history of modern recorded music before the internet truly took off, signing to a label was all about distribution, both physically and in terms of media coverage. In 1998, to pull a recent year at random, the only way someone was going to be able to hear your music was on a CD, and only labels could afford to manufacture CDs at a national scale. Even if an indie artist built themselves up to the point where they could get a few thousand copies of an album made - as indie legends like E-40 and Master P were doing—they didn't have the infrastructure to put those copies on trucks, ship them across the country and put those albums in stores from Maine to California.
And putting aside physical copies, the labels also controlled many of the access points of major media outlets. If national radio wasn't playing your music, if MTV wasn't playing your videos, people just flat out weren't going to hear it on any large scale without signing to a major. There were exceptions, of course, but for the most part, there were really only two choices. Stay an independent artist who never got bigger than a regional act, or sign away your masters to a label and have a shot at becoming a big star.
With the exception of mainstream radio, which major labels still have a stranglehold on, all of the above was largely destroyed by the internet. Why does it matter if you can manufacture millions of CDs or not anymore? Who needs major media when anyone can upload a video to YouTube and have millions of people across the globe listening to their music in seconds? And to circle back to FactMag's point, independent artists could always theoretically do deals with giant corporations like Apple, but without a major label, they couldn't build the kind of audience size they needed to attract companies like that. Independence hasn't fundamentally changed, someone else still either controls your music or not, but what you can accomplish while independent has morphed radically.
...it's a little more complicated than that. Apple doesn't own the masters to Coloring Book. Chance will walk away from them with 100 percent ownership of his music, but he's also agreed to give them exclusive rights over streaming the album for a period of time, so he has given away some level of control, even if that control is his to give away or not.
And beyond Chance, while I've heard whispers to the contrary, to the best of my knowledge Macklemore never technically signed to a major label, but he did sign a distribution deal with ADA/Warner Music Group that allowed him access to radio. Does that make him a major label artist, or an independent artist who figured out a new way to access the major label system without actually signing? Similarly, before their implosion Funk Volume had signed a similar distribution deal with Warner; did that remove them from the "indie label" discussion, or make them a label that was playing the major label game on their own independent terms? Even Tech N9ne and Strange Music, who I'd consider the most powerful purely independent hip-hop label in the country, have some ancillary ties to the majors if you dig deep enough; their distribution deal is with Fontana, who previously has connections with Universal. Not nearly close enough ties to affect them at all, but is that how pure we're being about the "indie" label? Absolutely no even tangential connection to any powerful company or person whatsoever?
We can all agree that "indie" artists who are secretly signed to a major label are not indie, but beyond that, the lines are getting blurrier than a freshman's vision during rush week. It's too easy to just say the term "indie" is meaningless now, not when artists are working two jobs, without any financial backing or high-level connections, just to put their music out and then have that music overshadowed by those with deep-pocket backing.
Not when fans equate "indie" with the authenticity of the music they make parts of their life. A big part of Chance's appeal is his "independence," the feeling that when you're buying his t-shirts or going to his shows that you're directly allowing him to continue to make the purest music he can, without interference or control from any faceless corporation.
So I completely understand when other indie artists and fans are quick to expel the successful from their ranks, but I also think there's a level of limitation there that ties the idea of being "indie" with struggling. Isn't what Chance is doing right now what we always dreamed of for independent artists? Powerful enough on their own terms to spread through all the channels that were formerly only open to those who signed away their art? With a large enough fan base to attract veteran booking agents like Cara Lewis without a label?
For many, myself included, indie isn't just a term, it's a mission, a life dedicated to living outside the control of the powerful. So what happens when our independent heroes become more powerful than many of the people that sought to control them? Before 2016 we never really had to confront that question, not really, and now it feels unavoidable.
The indie rapper is dead. Long live the indie rapper.
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.