When I returned to school after winter break in elementary school, there was only one thing on everyone’s minds: What sort of gifts did everyone get? Everyone seemed to be interested in seeing if their presents were as cool as everyone else’s. In fifth grade, my good friend Tyler and I had each received iPod Nanos. However, there was one difference between our two devices — while I had about forty songs on my iPod (Radio Disney Kid Jams Vol. 1 and 2), Tyler had hundreds.
I didn’t know it at the time, but there was no way Tyler was listening to all of those songs as a fifth grader. But either way, I was jealous. I wanted to have more songs on my iPod. So after asking Tyler about how he got all of those songs on his iPod, I learned about a website called Limewire where you could (or as I understood it), “Download songs for free.” And so began my relationship with music and instant gratification.
Music streaming has been almost seamlessly integrated into our everyday lives. And with this emergence of a new way to access music comes those arguing for and against that method. Many claim that streaming services hurt the artists, while others think that it allows listeners to experience much more music than ever before.
Both sides are right, in some respect, but the argument that the artists are losing money from streaming services is only partially correct: Artists that relinquish control of their streaming rights to labels are really the ones losing out. Relying on an internet-based music platform without adapting to an internet-based plan of making, producing and serving music is not a recipe for success. With increased ease to produce and release music due to advancements in technology and the proliferation of the internet and an increased demand for instant gratification from consumers, the need for artists to have a label is becoming almost irrelevant.
One of the most famous examples of an independent artist is Chancelor Bennett, or, as he’s more commonly known, Chance the Rapper. Bennett started by releasing his debut mixtape, 10 Day, to the world, garnering upwards of 500,000 downloads on the mixtape sharing site DatPiff. After being recognized as one of the most prolific up-and-coming artists by publications like Complex and Forbes, Bennett released his second mixtape, Acid Rap, in 2013 to even more widespread acclaim than his previous mixtape.
However even after achieving such a high level of success and working with artists like Childish Gambino, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, getting millions of streams on streaming services, and selling out stadiums across the country, Bennett continues to stay independent. When asked if he would ever sign with a label in an interview with Rolling Stone, Bennett replied, “There’s no reason to. It’s a dead industry.”
A lesser known but still very familiar artist is Claire Cottrill, better known by her stage name, Clairo. Although Cottrill is now signed to Fader, a record label based in New York City, and has also been accused of being an “industry plant,” her initial success can be completely attributed to herself and websites like YouTube and Bandcamp. When I first saw Cottrill’s music video for her song “Pretty Girl” on YouTube in late August of 2017, it had a couple hundred thousand views. Now, the video has surpassed 26 million views on YouTube, and although the single wasn’t added to streaming services until a short while after the videos initial release, the track has over 34 million streams on Spotify. All for a track produced completely by Cottrill on equipment she described as, “pretty shitty.”
Although she has only been signed to a label within the past two years, one can see music released from Cottrill from as far back as 2013 on various online platforms. From covers to originals, Cottrill has the freedom to post whatever she wanted for everyone to listen to. And although she’s been accused of being a sellout many times, the consistency in sound of Cottrill’s music begs to differ.
Sites like Bandcamp, Soundcloud and YouTube have allowed artists like Clairo to release their music to the world without going through a label. Although this can give artists a lot of freedom and options for their music, it also complicates things a bit. Because these services exist to artists for basically no cost, and home recording is becoming a cheaper and cheaper activity (many current computers including multitrack recording software upon launch), basically anyone can release music.
With all of this music being released, it’s not surprising to see how saturated the music industry has become. Every minute, twelve hours of music are uploaded to Soundcloud. That’s a lot of music. The amount of new music that people have not heard yet continues to grow at a rate that is unachievable for the average listener to catch up to.
So how do listeners decide which new artists they want to discover? The purpose of a record label used to be to produce artists’s records and then promote them. Well, artists are already capable of producing their own work, so how has this new age of the internet and technology influenced that? Are labels still necessary for that?
Well … sort of.
While it’s true that labels might have more money to promote artists and send them on tour, artists are still fully capable of marketing themselves, and even booking their own tours. Social media has completely revolutionized the way we communicate with each other and has changed the way we advertise as well. It’s now easier than ever to reach billions of people that are connected online for free or close to it.
The DIY music scene and its continued emergence in culture exemplifies the ease of self-promoting and booking in the 21st century. Countless student-run bands from Ann Arbor have put on tours of their own, traveling across the midwest and beyond without the help of a label; simply asking friends if they know anywhere they can play is enough of a start for them to go on tour.
But self-funded shows go a lot further than DIY basement shows. Bands can easily book their own national tours, and even fund them. Sites like GoFundMe and IndieGoGo make it possible for bands to raise funds for tours on a grander scale.
Ann Arbor favorite Vulfpeck figured out a way to fund a national tour back in 2014 using resources that would have only been available to them in the internet age. By uploading an album of silence to Spotify, asking their fans to stream it while they sleep and then using the money made through streaming to fund a tour, the group was able to fund a tour that was completely free to fans spanning from Los Angeles to New York.
A musical artist’s metaphorical tool belt continues to grow and grow each and every year. The more resources they have, the less they need a label and the more they can focus on expanding their brand on their own terms. Consulting professionals can still be helpful, but the need for artists to sign daunting and binding contracts is just not there anymore.