Before we entered the digital era, the criteria for an independent artist was pretty cut and dry. There were major labels and there were independent labels, and while there were still artists that operated outside of this paradigm completely, the infrastructure for them to gain notable attention just wasn’t there yet.
Enter the internet.
Last year, former DJBooth scribe Nathan S. pondered what it meant to be truly independent in an era where an artist like Chance The Rapper can cut a project deal with Apple Music but still retain the rights to his masters. Fast forward a year, and major labels are still secretly employing artists to foster the image of a grassroots trajectory and streaming services have all but leveled the playing field of distribution for scores of label-less artists looking to do things entirely in-house.
The line between major and indie is constantly being blurred, leaving the term “indie” to bear so many definitions that there’s no longer an easy answer to the question, “what does it mean to be independent?”
In an attempt to provide some context to a term that no longer has a static definition, we reached out to a variety of highly-respected industry veterans and asked them what they believe it means to be indie in 2017. While we didn’t come away with a singular definition—which suggests the lines are simply too blurred at the moment—we did gain some solid insight into what the landscape of independence looks like at the moment.
To some, including Dave Weiner, Vice President of indie powerhouse Strange Music, the basis of independence still boils down to actual ownership of your intellectual property. “An independent artist must own and control their masters,” says Weiner. “Their efforts may not be supported by major label muscle, financing and infrastructure unless the independent artist retains ownership of the masters."
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This explanation may seem pretty simple, but it’s worth noting that many artists out there are willing to part with a percentage of their masters in return for the extra push a major outfit might offer.
In cases like these, the line isn’t as clearly defined, but ultimately for Dave and others—including Head of Artist Relations at Genius, Rob Markman—independence literally means the freedom to operate with financial and artistic sovereignty. “These days, a number of independent acts are doing MAJOR business,” notes Markman. “A lot of people equate independence to struggle, but that isn't always the case. Being independent is about keeping the artist in control of their music; if an artist can hold ownership of their masters and execute deals that allow them to fully benefit then I'd consider them indie still.”
Is it possible, then, to be an independent artist even without sole ownership of your masters? Michael Luna, CEO of Never Sleep Music, offered an explanation that hinges more on the creative freedom than the absence of financial ties. In Luna’s opinion, "Being an independent artist means the artist has complete creative control over their own career from music to supplemental content to promote the music. Distribution model doesn’t matter nor does who owns the masters." Legendary producer and founder of JAMLA Records 9th Wonder simplifies this even further as, “Creative control and more control over your own destiny."
So by this criteria, a truly independent artist is one that has absolute control over their creative output and the means by which its promoted. This scenario falls more in line with the deals like the one Chance The Rapper made with Apple Music, where financial support was provided by a major backer but creative control was entirely in the hands of the artist from start to finish. As James Drew, President of Soulspazm put it, “You’re an independent artist if you can choose your own release date and actually make it happen.” So the means of distribution isn’t the defining attribute here, rather it’s essentially the final say-so over all matters creative.
As streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify continue to hone their business models, we’ll likely be seeing more of these deals, and eventually, streaming services could potentially act as the labels themselves, making one-off or multiple project deals with artists for music that will eventually live exclusively on their platforms.
There are still some, however, who point to keeping things in-house as the true definition of independence. TriState of Gold Chain Music believes being independent these days, “means you and your company/partners independently handle all the responsibilities of a major on a smaller scale. You're departmentalizing within your own circle. From A&R to marketing, PR, booking, merchandise and more. Whereas being signed to a major those things are handled for you (at a charge of course)."
In contemplating all the varied responses of seasoned artists and label personnel, the unifying theme here is control. Whether it’s complete financial control or simply a firm grip around intellectual property, independence is essentially answering to no one when it comes to creating and marketing music. There’s no longer a definitive circumstantial criterion for independence—major label artists can absolutely work out deals that allow for complete creative control with the benefit of established distribution and marketing departments, and artists outside of the label system can certainly pass off a percentage of their masters for the occasional backing of an industry giant.
It seems the digital era has allowed the routes an artist can take to multiply exponentially, leaving a literal definition of independence in its wake. At the end of the day, if you’re the majority shareholder of your own creativity and destiny, you’re independent.