Written by: Wisdom
As the record industry tries to recover from declining sales, many artists have decided to go the independent route, leaving the labels in a precarious position. I am an advocate of artists within the hip hop diaspora going the independent route, but making sure they fully embrace the "business" portion of the music business. Because there are four major labels at the moment (Sony Music Entertainment, EMI Group, Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group), the industry have really shifted to a more entrepreneur-based mentality. Here in Baltimore, for instance, with the blue-collar aesthetic that many artists embrace, you will find countless individuals that are going for dolo, setting up de facto independent labels. Of course there are some aspects that independent artists have to overcome to be successful. Successful is a relative term, however; success from an independent standpoint doesn't necessarily equate to huge sales from a SoundScan or Billboard perspective. Success can be building a steady, solid buzz with a core audience. Generating income from shows and tours can be a measure of success as well.
The problem that independent artists may encounter is not building a solid plan to negate the lack of major label push and promotions. Truth be told, record companies, upon signing a prospective artist, act moreso as banks than musical partnerships. This "plantation mentality" is one of the main culprits taking the reigns to the careers of signed artists. As Q-Tip famously stated in "Check The Rhime" (from The Low End Theory), "Industry Rule Number 4080, record company people are shady". Artists need to take heed to that, because a label is only looking at the bottom line in today's industry. Grooming and cultivating an artist is probably at the bottom of the totem pole when a label is signing an artist, not only in hip hop, but in general. That is why independent artists should be astute from a business standpoint, read and research as much as possible, network and communicate, and be a "business-minded" artist. When I say "business-minded", the artist should treat the business as art by being creative. With the advent of social media taking over the lives of many, independent artists are using Twitter, Reverbnation, Myspace, Facebook and other portals as avenues of spreading his or her music to the masses. The internet bridges the gap, so an artist based in Baltimore, for example, can now reach out to potential fans in Anchorage, Alaska, showing that Baltimore is indeed more that The Wire.
Other advances in technology, such as computer-based software packages such as FL Studio (Fruity Loops, made popular by 9th Wonder) and Native Instruments new creation Maschine (a hardware/software combination), allows independent individuals the opportunity to create within their own walls, saving monies with the recording process. Previously, an artist had to spend exorborant amounts of money in the studio, writing, recording, re-recording, all on the studio's clock. Now an artist may be able to either do pre-production, or the entire production or project, at home. This all-encompassing nature is giving rise to many independent artists, and it is a breathe of fresh air, because now artists are not necessarily being governed by a dictating label.
Of course, the downside to the plethora of independent artists is a lack of quality, because anyone and everyone may profess to be "independent". I have encountered many individuals that are releasing mixtape after mixtape that doesn't differentiate itself from the next project, causing a lack of creativity. Conversely, there are many an artist that deserves shine on a national front, but may not be known. Ultimately, talent, creativity, and drive are key elements in an artist being noticed from an independent standpoint. Monetary push is also important, but having the most money will NOT ensure that a project is widely accepted, and this is true from a major label or independent notion.
Again, I advise artists to be versed in the business aspect of music. Focusing solely on the musical portion may help with putting out a good project, but that good project may not get any type of notice without proper business acumen. I am a firm believer in acquiring knowledge and information from as many sources as possible. This opens the doors to numerous opportunities. A good reference tool to acquire that proper music mindset is Everything You'd Better Know About the Record Industry, written by music artist and producer Kashif (Brooklyn Boy Books, 1996). This comprehensive book, written with an eagle eye by a music insider, is a must-have when entering the music business. So for all aspiring emcees, producers, deejays, managers, promoters, label heads, or venue owners, purchase this book to acquire that knowledge that will be so very useful in the industry. Experts have been depicting the demise of the music industry for a good while now, with overall sales declining. That decline in sales can be attributed to pirated music and available online downloads. I believe that the demand for music is as high as ever, but the way the music is delivered has to be observed. File-sharing and data transfer are very popular right now, and the industry has been too slow in adjusting to this notion. I do see a slow movement in the embracing of social media and other means in delivering the music. Just as experts ten to twenty years ago issued a death knell to vinyl records, there is almost an underground/cult movement of sorts with deejays and vinyl connoisseurs. I don't believe that vinyl records or albums will die, because there is a sub-culture that relishes that feel only a vinyl recording can give to someone from an audible standpoint. In the same manner, CD's are not going to be fully replaced in this day and time. MP3 files and music USB flash drives are the new wave of music distribution. Custom crafted music USB flash drives can now be designed for independent artists to distribute music. These USB flash drives work in the same manner as a normal USB flash drive, but they deliver music and other media to your laptop or desktop. Now an artist can have a fully-formed project, including album art, liner notes, lyric sheets, songs, remixes, and links to social media on a USB flash drive that can easily be attached to a keychain. Indiedrive (http://www.indiedrive.com/) is a company that specializes in this exciting and new market. Their marketing approach is simple yet creative: deliver a product that is cutting edge. I advise independent artists to look at this site to gain ideas about marketing and delivering their music from a 21st century standard, and be ahead of the curve instead of behind the proverbial eight-ball.
I hope that this synopsis on the pros and cons of independent music will shed some light, spark some conversation, and ultimately push artists to find ways to be marketable, creative, and noticed. It doesn't take platinum record sale status to be a viable artist in today's age. A comfortable career can be made going the independent route. Tech N9ne is a perfect example of this. If you aren't familiar with this Kansas City, Missouri artist, check out his discography and backstory at http://www.therealtechn9ne.com/ for further proof of how he has mastered the independent artist niche. "Independence Day", in my humble opinion, will no longer be a movie or national holiday, but mantra to artists in Baltimore and abroad.