The music industry, where lies, deceit and secrets keep the doors revolving. Knives are thrust into backs, artists are screwed by the fine print and illustrious riches are only acquired by a cut throat few while the others divvy up the pennies. It has the attraction of Las Vegas, a business for gamblers that have enough self-belief to turn coal into diamonds. Before the internet, the industry was small and narrow, like maneuvering through a labyrinth built by Daedalus. Without a deal, you weren't getting in or getting on. The back door was guarded, the front door was locked, without the assistance from a label there was little hope of being anything more than a popular niche artist. Major labels had access to money and resources – manufacturing, distribution, studios, music video budgets, magazine connections, radio play and touring. That old industry is fading fast, but not gone entirely. We are in a time of change, transformation and confusion. The internet has knocked down walls and presented alternative routes that are allowing the unsigned and independent to conquer the maze like none before, while at the same time labels have scrambled to install their own locks on the new doors being built. Change is happening at a dizzying pace, yet in many ways when we talk about artists and the music industry, we still talk like it's 1995.
Before, it was a deal or no deal industry. Now there are seemingly countless levels and layers to the music spectrum: Signed, indie or mindie, organic or orchestrated, industry plant or Illuminati member, fantastic team or financial benefactor, all of the above or something completely new. There's very little clarity, and often artists and labels are purposefully working to further muddy the waters. We only know what we're told. Once we begin to peel back the surface, ask questions, search for what’s hidden, curiosity only leads us to more questions and uncertainty. Raury’s industry plant shirt, GoldLink’s Rosenberg interview, Post Malone in Fader, D.R.A.M’s studio snapshots with Beyonce, all recent occurrences that left me dumbfounded. It’s like seeing someone standing at the top of the Empire State Building without ever seeing them get in the elevator at the ground floor. It could be luck, skill, or a bunch of hidden factors that allowed their tremendous opportunities. Most likely a combination of each. How do we separate the plants from the organic followings? The independent and the mindies? Is it safe to assume everyone is secretly acquiring funding from outside sources? My head is exploding with questions.
Conversations about the topic spin in circles, in large part because there's such little agreement about what words we're using - words like "organic" and "indie" and "industry plant" - actually mean. So maybe the best thing to do is to label the unlabeled, create a pyramid to explain the hierarchy that has become an essential part of understanding the artist of this new era, separate the artist into sections that define their current situation in the industry. It will be far from perfect, there are just too many complications and exceptions to be accurately drawn by anyone but M.C. Escher, but it might help give us a common ground to talk about artists in a way that's more than just grasping at invisible straws. So we made the 2015 Music Industry Pyramid.
Tier 5: The Bedroom/Garage Artist
The bedroom artist is ambitious and determined to fulfill their dreams of rap stardom despite the lack of money and resources, or maybe genuinely only in it for pure artistic expression, purposefully hiding from any money or fame. They are well trained in the art of D.I.Y, graduated from YouTube University, majoring in tutorials with a minor in trial and error. Their equipment is the bare minimum, minimum wage makes it hard to afford the more expensive gear or studio time, but they make do. Money is tight, buying production is a luxury, others learn to create their own out of desperation. A lot of time is spent emailing blogs and trying to upstart a following through open mic performances and social media presence. This is where almost everyone begins, only a lucky few skip this stage, which is unfortunate. This is where the blood, sweat, and tears are poured. You’ll learn that making it isn’t so easy and simple, where the naivete is destroyed. Even the most talented will suffer from being frustrated, ignored, overlooked, and will constantly contemplate quitting. This is only the beginning, before money and fame, where the boys are separated from men.
Before the internet bedroom boom, this tier had a smaller success rate. Less resources, limited connections, it was more for demo makers, hobbyists and teenagers before accepting the art-free realities of average adulthood. Uploading videos to YouTube and Soundcloud are creating huge possibilities for the artist with less. Perseverance and a bit of ingenious can make a difference now. Still, the vast majority of these artists will never make it out of their bedroom, and that's by no means a bad thing.
Tier 4: Management/ Team Building
An artist can accomplish plenty from the bedroom, but most will have to depart and build a team to truly have a chance at conquering the industry. For every large-scale successful artist there is a great manager, a cast of supporting characters. They may stand in the background, but their level of importance is immense. Where would Eminem be without Paul? Can Tyler and Odd Future become successful without Clancy, would Raury wear that hat without LoveRenaissance? They stand the furthest from the spotlight but their roles are essential. The right management and team will take the artist from the bedroom to the studio, from open mics to opening performances, few blog posts will become many. They also can play a role in artistic development, helping to decide brand and marketing strategies. Finding the right photographers, videographers, PR agents, producers, and possibly meeting with some labels. Connections can be everything, and more people on your team means more connections. There might be some income, but probably not enough to quit and pursue rap full time, the day job is probably kept. Unless a label has signed secretly or a billionaire aficionado is showing interest (see Tier 2), expect money to be thin for all parties. This is also a very slow grind, a manager isn’t a magician, it could take years of preparation before the desired results are achieved. It’s a step in the right direction for turning a passion into a career.
When I spoke to GoldLink’s manager a few weeks ago, he told me everything I was seeking from the Rosenberg interview. Giving me insight on the humble beginnings and his pivotal role in helping a young man he stumbled upon through a high school music program. Throughout our conversation he stressed the importance of the music. That the music is their brand, it stands before all. Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, mean very little in comparison to Soundcloud, a social media platform built strictly for music. That is the focal point of their movement, The God Complex is about recreating the separation between artist and fan that it was before the internet destroyed the wall and made the larger than life seem painfully ordinary. He spoke with an enthusiasm that told me that he believes in GoldLink’s vision and assisted in every way possible. It worked too well, hence the industry plant accusations. This is the kind of manager that will create results. Someone that believes in your music and dream like it’s their own.
In the past, Tier 2 was the departing point for a major label signing. You’re starting to make some local noise, your team has been built and promoting the music and shopping around a demo in hopes of nailing a meeting. The end goal was to receive a deal. Some managed to make it to Tier 3 (see below), but for the vast majority it was stay at Tier 2 or sign to a major. This is where the industry has really changed over the last few years.
Tier 3: Independent Success
This tier is for the artists who are basking in the success of independent reward, part time jobs are officially a thing of the past. The ball is officially rolling and music is beginning and/or became a full time career without the assistance of a major. Mac Miller's early success with Rostrum Records is the perfect example of how fruitful reaching this stage in your career can be. There’s a growing, core audience that is ready to ride or die for the artistry. Merchandise is being sold, performances are common occurrence, and touring is no longer a fantasy. Blogs are posting the music without request and even the magazines are beginning to show interest. Artists that have a strong following and a growing buzz might be able to afford a modest home with a few toys.
There’s many layers to independent success in hip-hop, Tech N9ne is on the highest possible level that anyone could hope to reach. Then you have Chance, by all indications completely independent and is well known to commercial and underground audiences. Don’t forget artists like Skyzoo, Rapsody, Mick Jenkins, Joey Bada$$, there’s countless artists living life full and independent. With labels like Jamla, Brainfeeder, Strange Music, Rhymesayers and Stones Throw churning out incredible music from incredible artists I can see modern musicians wanting to align themselves with the independent instead of Def Jam, Interscope and Warner Brothers.
The internet has a lot to do with the success, with the growth and prosperity of indie artists. In the past there was much more money and notoriety working within the major label infrastructure. It did give an audience searching for an alternative sound something to gravitate toward. They were truly underground, a hip-hop counterculture, a secret society for certain fans that wanted a certain kind of music that didn’t exist on the radio. Now that CDs don't have to be manufactured at large factories and YouTube can break more artists than a magazine, a true Tier 3 artist can outsell many major label artists, with an exponentially larger share of the profits going into their pockets. Competition getting to this tier is fierce, but for those who make it, Tier 3 can be more rewarding than ever.
Tier 2: Secret Deals/Industry Plants/Mindies
This is a fairly new addition to the music industry pyramid, a strategy that traces its origins back to the '70s punk movements later co-opted by major labels, but has re-emerged in the digital era. This is atier that has brought up the most questions and confusion when referring to "independent" artists, the great and growing grey area. This is where you will find the mindie artist, industry plants, and any secret dealings that bridge the independent with corporate backing.
In truth a lot of artists live on this tier, but portray themselves as a Tier 3 or Tier 4, sometimes even a Tier 5. People gravitate toward the underdog so the labels deceive in hopes of creating a following that can be monetized for bigger bucks later. Logic admitted that he was signed to Def Jam for years before the announcement, he was a Tier 2 rapper living publicly as a Tier 3 (he's now firmly a Tier 1). The rapper D.R.A.M. took off into a different stratosphere when Beyonce stamped his single “Cha Cha.” A picture has surfaced of the two in the studio. Recently, the latest rumor that seems to be circulating Atlantic Records will be pushing the single to Urban Radio starting next week. D.R.A.M told Sway a few months ago that multiple labels were chasing him and that he would only sign with one that fight right. D.R.A.M can seemingly be placed in the 3rd or 4th tiers, he has a team, was working at Best Buy not long ago, but I still feel suspicious. Consider it journalistic intuition.
It's confusing enough there, but Tier status is also constantly changing. Rumors are swirling that GoldLink is secretly signed to RCA. If that is true - and we should stress that it hasn't been confirmed - but as a hypothetical, would that make him a Tier 2? Or a Tier 4 who just hasn't announced their Tier 1 status yet? The same questions surrounded Raury before his deal with Columbia was announced and haunt really any seemingly Tier 3, 4 or even 5 artist experiencing success. For example Austin Richards, who went from Bob Dylan covers on YouTube to being Post Malone, aka hip-hop’s White Iverson. He completely transformed and seemingly catapulted from Tier 5 to at the very least Tier 3. Is it farfetched to believe he might’ve had some Tier 4 assistance, maybe even Tier 2?
Not every industry plant pretends to be Tier 3-5, some are outright Tier 1 but benefit from additional secret deals denied to other Tier 1s. Iggy used Clear Channel’s “On The Verge” program for her single “Fancy." It’s an engine built to create a widespread phenomenon by flooding the radio waves with the song. There's no annual Illuminati meetings where the next famous artists are decided, but this is as close to a true "industry plant" as you're going to get. A music industry literally conspired to make her successful. Macklemore portays himself as a Tier 3 artist, but he muscled his way onto the radio by using major label influence. He paid for ADA’s assistance to push “Thrift Shop” and it happened to be a major hit. Does that make him a Tier 2, or a Tier 3 who smartly used Tier 2 as a bridge to reap Tier 1 benefits without actually signing to a major label (although rumors that he is a signed Tier 1 persist).
Tier 2 is the land of confusion, a place where easy definion goes to die.
Tier 1: Major Label Success
The traditional order of things. Create a buzz, sign a deal, announce the deal, be famous. It was once the pinnacle of success for rap artists. Eminem, Kanye West, Drake, all cemented into Tier 1. (Although it's interesting to think about Drake's rise, was he as high as Tier 2 before putting out So Far Gone?) Money and resources, the machine can supply both for a fee. It’s a trade off, one that had to be done in the past. Signing a deal in 2015 is strictly based on what the artists wish to achieve for their career. It’s not necessary, you can reach a stature of success that could rival or transcend the artist that are stuck in unhappy situations where their creativity is hindered. This is no longer the '90s and they know it hence signing anyone internet sensation or one-hit-wonder. This is the top of the pyramid but it doesn’t take much for the bottom to rise up.
With every new emerging artist comes with a bit of ambiguity, the speculation is what drives us to want and know more. Looking for clear answers from the music industry is like searching for the truth from a habitual liar. This pyramid is far from the absolute truth as well, in the constantly changing and shifting music industry maybe there is no absolute truth, but I hope it will give us truthseekers some sort of common language to conduct our investigations. For some, probably most, these Tiers don't matter; who cares how the music got to them as long as they like the music? But for the rest of us, the diggers, the unravelers, sure, even the conspiracy theorists, the truth is everything. Our heroes are bedroom and garage dwellers like us, until we find out they're secretly only steps away from the top of the pyramid and then it's time to go back to the bottom in search of new heroes.
[By Yoh, aka The Yohluminatti, aka @Yoh31]