Welcome To The Indie Era: Viable Alternatives To The Major Label System

With quality artists, business savvy and hard work independent labels may be ushering in the end of the predatory major label system.

Man Bites Dog Records is gaining momentum. Headquartered in one of America’s new age Stepford towns about an hour south of Washington, D.C.—the type with a major highway or two running through and every obligatory big box store and corporate restaurant chain crowding its shoulders—the nascent label entered the music market in the midst of an economic meltdown. In 2009, while the world wallowed in the Great Recession, MBD, essentially released its first LP—Mhz’s Table Scraps (reissue). Critically praised projects like Vast Aire’s anticipated OX 2012: A Street Odyssey, Killah Priest’s The 3 Day Theory, and Copywrite’s Life And Times Of Peter Nelson have all been emblazoned with the Man Bites Dog logo in the three years since. In the month’s ahead, expect full length’s from Roc Marciano and Harry Fraud, among others, as well as the upcoming UK reissue of Copy’s top-shelf 2012 offering, God Save The King—appropriately featuring a collection of compelling acts from Across the Pond. Whether the company is operating within or outside of the proverbial box is a lesser question. For in this “Indie Era,” there is no box.

“I’ve always just needed the artist that was going to have as big a fan base as possible to do these big ideas,” says Ryan Lynch, President of MBD, touching on the imprint’s strategy. Lynch honed his instincts coming up through the Punk Rock ranks in the 1980s and 90s. Here, sitting in the engineering room of his pristine home-studio (complete with enough amenities, space, and necessities to rival any major recording locale) the rewards of the “Do It Yourself” methodology are all around.

“We’re currently working on a new [distribution] situation,” he says, growing more animated at the mere mention. “We’re at the tail end of all the negotiations so we should be signing the contracts soon...It’s a big, big deal.”

Independence Day

To the uninitiated, newsflash: the albatross is gone…been gone since the year the Playstation 2 dropped. In the decade-plus since Napster first snatched the balls off of the music industry, an independent economy has reveled in an onslaught of opportunity. The behemoths no longer sleep in the comfort of “Game of Thrones”-type towering barriers to entry. Anyone with an Apple product essentially has their own DIY artist starter kit. Record, upload, share, and you too can be Soulja Boy. Rather than strictly terrestrial radio airplay and national television exposure, massive followings are regularly amassed through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and however Pinterest works. Independent labels like Man Bites Dog can now generate a global community without being a global company. And with the suddenly affordable cost of once unrealistically priced recording equipment, the quality gap between Universal Music Group, Warner Music, Sony Music Entertainment, EMI (for the moment) releases and everyone else depends more on mastery than access.

“Realistically, in my opinion, we can do just as good of a job as [a major record company] can do for a release in today’s market,” says Siddiq Sayers, CEO of Rhymesayers Entertainment in an interview with HipHopDX. Sayers can back it up. Over the past 16 years, Rhymesayers has increased in influence, creativity, and profitability despite being battered by the same macroeconomic tidal waves as the industry at large (pirating, shrinking profit margins, loss of retail locations). The last four releases from the label’s flagship act, Atmosphere, have all charted within Billboard’s US Top 100 (highlighted by 2008’s When God Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold’s debut at #5 and 2011’s The Family Sign debut at #13). Brother Ali’s two previous albums both debuted within the Top 100 (The Undisputed Truth at #69, and Us at #59), along with releases from once major label artists Freeway (The Stimulus Package with Jake One, #63 debut in 2010) and Evidence (Cats & Dogs, #64 in 2011) - all without significant radio or national television exposure. The Minnesota-based company attributes a major portion of its longevity to being based in a city far removed from music industry hubs, New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. “We had to learn how to handle every facet of this business on our own,” he says. “We gained a wealth of knowledge by actually doing it.”

No doubt Travis O’Guin would agree. The Strange Music CEO tried to “play the radio game” back in 2002, and now openly regrets it. “I spent $1,600,000 pushing four singles off of [Tech N9ne’s] Absolute Power,” he told DX in 2010. “If I had to do it all over again, I would take every dime of that money back, tell those dudes who took my money to fuck off, and done something totally different...”

Strange rocks a fan first mentality like a Chiefs’ snapback. The Kansas City-based label lives on the road, traveling through America’s major cities and little known crevices, captivating audiences through its high octane performances. They regularly host hour-long meet and greets, turning followers into family. The Strange Music blog is run like a multimedia center, complete with its own radio show, extensive video coverage, and seemingly instant updates on its roster. They keep their fan base active by posting and reporting on fan reviews of recent releases. Every pre-ordered album comes autographed by the artist and includes a T-shirt, and a sticker. In 2002, while the RIAA waged war against the internet, Tech N9ne gave away Absolute Power for free. That the label has sold over one million records independently is the exact opposite of surprising. Strange Music has kept its fans partying on a pedestal for over a decade now.

“We’re music connoisseurs,” Tech N9ne said, just after his EP, Klusterfuck debuted at #1 on the independent charts even though the label did not spend one dollar on marketing or promotion. “We’ve been buying music for years, since we were kids...This is how we would’ve liked to have our fan experience.”

Strange, Rhymesayers, and Man Bites Dog aren’t alone. Indie’s like Stones Throw Records and Duck Down Records continue to put a premium on creativity and continue to crack the charts. Top Dawg Entertainment—with its stratospheric Black Hippie collective—arguably boasts the most genre pushing lineup in Hip Hop since the Dungeon Family. Rostrum Records produced a superstar and a near-superstar independently, even if few insiders consider the Pittsburgh-based label a true “Indie.” A cluster of crafty, underdog record companies are earnestly competing, sporting a DIY, fan first-mantra, succeeding without national radio or television—the last remaining major stronghold.

Destroying The Five Pillars

In his book Tribes, noted author, entrepreneur, and e-marketing expert, Seth Godin explains the state of the original five pillars of the music business: (1) Free radio promotion, (2) a limited number of competing labels, (3) high production costs requiring financing from the labels, (4) a Top 40-hits based structure, and (5) a high-margin medium that’s difficult to duplicate (the album). “One by one, each of these five pillars has crumbled...,” he writes. “The result is that while there is still plenty of music, the music business is in trouble.”

Now, considering there are currently four true majors at the moment: Universal Music Group, Warner Music, Sony Music Entertainment, EMI (three, if European Union regulators approve Universal and Sony/ATV’s purchase of EMI’s recording music business and its publishing business, respectively). And those four companies largely monopolize the Billboard singles charts week-to-week. To say those first two pillars have “crumbled” may be a bit premature. Billboard singles charts are based on a combination of sales and airplay. An artist can sell hundreds of thousands of singles - like Mac Miller’s gold plaquer, “Donald Trump”—but if it isn’t linked to gratuitous radio impressions, good luck cracking national Top 40. Owning mass media is how the behemoths remain King-makers. Becoming rich selling music outside of the Matrix is a possibility. Becoming a Superstar, on the other hand, is much less likely.

The Age Of Enlightenment

But while the majors squandered the aughts practicing policies of “punishment and prohibition” (as DJ Booth’s Nathan S. would say), fighting change like the Republican party, inexplicably clinging to pillars four and five of Godin’s model, others learned how to do it themselves. While the RIAA sued Napster, Apple developed iTunes. While the behemoths attacked file sharing lockers like MegaUpload, Soundcloud and Bandcamp perfected the standardized embeddable audio player. Litigious fits took priority over logical investments that could’ve helped the conglomerates evolve with the pace of the future approaching. Now it’s more than just a few outlier imprints snagging market share. An entrepreneurial enlightenment has engulfed the music industry. Hip Hop has ventured into a vibrant new age deserving of its own name.

“The Indie Era,” designated FuseTV host, Esteban Serrano. “I think that now more so than ever, Independent Hip Hop is taking the front stage. Maybe it’s because labels can’t get it right. Maybe it’s because they’re fighting with the new technology instead of embracing it...It’s a really different world now, and the indie’s are winning because they can be financially wealthy out of their trunk; out of their crib. They can be doing everything on a big level. The Indie’s are the new majors now.”

And the labels are just the tip of the guitar pick. Companies like Karmaloop, RedBull and Flud found organic ways to harness the power of the blog star. Rappers who also produce music and shoot videos are now the standard. Unsigned hypes are touring off of mixtapes. Regional acts like Iron Horse Music Group are landing songs in blockbuster movies or in Super Bowl commercials, like Kosha Dillz. Independent radio programs like PNC Radio’s The Combat Jack Show featuring Just Blaze break major industry stories right along with Clear Channel and Cumulus. Platinum selling artists like David Banner and Chamillionaire are delving into the direct-sales game, side-stepping the label system completely. A financially viable music career is no longer contingent upon barreling down the Mainstream Highway. There’s no one way to do it. In the Indie Era more than ever, there’s no blueprint.

A Slow Evolution

Perhaps the biggest indicator of this industry remix is the behavior of the behemoths. As Sayers points out, the major label’s notorious “360 deal” is derived from the independent model. Imprints like Rhymesayers have always offered tour booking, management services, merchandising services, along with recording and distribution “out of necessity.”

In 2010, Sony launched Qriocity (now called Music Unlimited) - its own iTunes meets Pandora music and video streaming service featuring over 15 million songs from its catalog as well as from the catalogs of Universal and Warner Music. Since Music Unlimited just announced it is now available on Apple’s iOS, Sony is earnestly stepping into iTunes’ sandbox, even if it’s still seven years behind.

And if it isn’t obvious, the majors are throwing money at cyber popular acts like NBA draft picks. Kreayshawn’s rumored $1,000,000 deal from Sony put the Internet on pause for a few days. The same for the $3,000,000 A$AP Rocky scored for himself and his A$AP Mob cohorts - a head scratcher considering the Harlemite barely had a buzz at the time of the announcement. Universal/Interscope’s Top Dawg distribution coup looks to be the linchpin of the label’s future, as well. The behemoth’s are slowly coming through their self-sabotaging malaise, and they’re doing it pimping an independent approach.
     
So welcome to the Indie Era, where a fan-first mantra can yield millions without national radio or television exposure. Where activity is the new awesome and rappers whining about their label is strictly prohibited. Where the connection; the community; or as Seth Godin would say, the tribe that forms when people share common values is the real commodity, not the music. Imprints with galvanized audiences like Rhymesayers or Strange Music will continue to win big in the years to come. Ambitious DIY executives like Man Bites Dog’s Ryan Lynch pushing culture from their cribs are no longer outliers; they are the standard. Things done changed. In this Indie Era, creativity, consistency, and a savvy online approach reign supreme.

“It’s just a matter of continuing to work hard, I think,” concludes Lynch, swiveling back towards the iMac in his studio’s engineering room.  

Hard work. Yeah, that’s important, too.

Justin "The Company Man" Hunte is a freelance journalist covering music, politics, and entertainment for Tanning Of America, The Couch Sessions, The Well Versed, among others. The Brooklyn-resident is also the host of The Company Man Show on PNCRadio.fm and has contributed to HipHopDX since January 2010. Follow him on twitter @TheCompanyMan

46 Comments

  • hammerman

    I see them Man Bites Dog cats been making some big moves to get thrown in with these legends. They got some steam coming but lets see if it turns into any actual heat.

  • PM

    I ain't rich, but this harvest is the farthest from broke a n* ever been-Phonte

  • PM

    I ain't rich, but this harvest is the farthest from a n* ever been-Phonte

  • Kount FIf

    MAN BITES DOG JUST RELEASED AN ILL COMPILATION IN MARCH...RML & KOUNT FIF PRESENT THE SWASHBUCKLER VOL. 1 THE VIKING WARS FEAT ARTISTS LIKE ROYCE 5'9, ROC MARCIANO, WU-TANG, HELTAH SKELTAH, VAST AIRE , PLANET ASIA, OUTERSPACE, AKROBATIK, COPYWRITE, AND MANY MORE CHECK FOR IT ON ITUNES

  • Stranger

    The Company Man deserves a raise yo!

  • Pratet Ono

    I totally agree with this article. Indies are slowly showing their power through the fans' responses and likes. Who knows, at this rate, even traditional radio will be eclipsed by Internet radio where fans dictate what they want to hear. Better and smarter algorithms are always developed. The future of this industry lies with technology and right now, that favors the indies.

  • Assassin221

    Great article and rings true on every level. This is why I get sick of people going on about hip-hop is dead or radio and the labels ruined hip-hop or whatever. Hip-hop exists where hip-hoppers say it does, if you're too lazy to shut off the radio and look for some real shit that's on you. I always said if major label music is really that wack people will just go get their music elsewhere, and that's exactly what's happening. http://www.soundcloud.com/anarchy12

  • Ben Brilliant

    Great article. The ability for fans to quickly be able to get new music and listen has made it so only good music will stand the test of time. Support independent artists! Ben Brilliant Consigliere - Angels To Some Devils To Others www.ad609.com

  • Greg

    Agree 100% that the music business has changed forever. New rules apply for emerging artists. Stage 1: Don't worry about making money (i.e. get a side job to do that). Create good music, give some away for free (your music is ads for your live performances and albums), build a fanbase using all free tools at your disposal, both offline and online. Online, make sure fans can easily access your music and share it in one click. Stage 2: Monetize. We just launched our site Zamplify to make stage 1 easier for talented musicians. Greg Co-founder http://www.zamplify.com Easiest way to stream, download and share the next big hits.

  • MccrayAgnes

    what Anthony explained I'm in shock that some one able to make $9878 in 1 month on the internet. did you read this page(Click on menu Home more information) http://goo.gl/7NUYp

  • BK

    Tech invented the word Wack this cornball is str8 TRASH...Real rap!

  • H4ZE

    this article is about indie labels makin a name in game and ppl in here hatin on TECH?? wtf lol lovin the hate

  • 490717

    Indie's work if you want to make good money and own your music. But face it, if your smart and handle your business and dont let a major label fuck you out your shit you can survive and flourish on a major. ( I want that Madonna Money, lol) The real point is everyone so quick to make a buck that they don't take their time, find a good lawyer and read the damn contract. Artist sometimes lack business savvy that's why the majors fuck them. The smarter business minds tend to go indie, so it appears that indie is the way to go. I say it is about understanding your situation, your place and forming a plan to fit accordingly.

  • Anonymous

    FUCK independt labels, its all about YOUNG MONEY, you aint gon be performin in stadiums in front of millions if u indy, maybe 100k, but u aint makin that real guap, gettin million dollar coke and pepsi deals gettin real bread, YOUNG MONEY is where its at, EXPOSURE, caint get that if u sellin out ur trunk. now i gotta finish this last rail, peace

    • Anonymous

      L M A O !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Anonymous

      LMAO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • G$

    Mainstream HIp-Hop is fucking DEAD!!

  • Anonymous

    check out some real independent hip-hop official music video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAXiWdReNe8

  • Anonymous

    "Plus mainstream artists dont make as much as you believe" Eminem... T.I. Jay Z... Nas... DMX... Ja Rule (RIP to Ja's career)... Kanye... 50 Cent, etc. have all made millions of dollars from the mainstream. Why can't Tech Nine do this? I can understand and almost appreciate loving the craft of hip hop more than selling out to the highest bidder, but is Tech going to continue touring 365 days a year when if he signed to a major, all he would have to worry about is dropping 1 album, and touring. Maybe he loses some of his edge, but I bet he still makes a boatload, and maybe even starts getting nominated for Grammy's.

    • Anonymous

      listen to areola. they already "grammy award winners"

    • TaZzZ

      Tech does what he does because he loves it. He loves the love he gets back. Ever been to a Tech show? You can feel that shit. You don't muster up that kind of performance 90 times in 99 days if you don't love your fuckin fans. He made it on his own, no handouts. That would help get my ass outta bed every morning too...

    • Anonymous

      He is a multimillionaire already, I think his money troubles are behind him lol

    • casper21

      artistic integrity is likely the main reason. A&R and label heads tell artists what they need to include on their releases, what their singles need to sound like. The person who tech answers to gives him free reign over his material, nobody tells him make your record sound like this or we won't release it. If he did sign with a major his album would be just another one on the assembly line, and if the singles didn't make top 40 or the album doesn't sell like crazy he's stuck on the shelf unable to release anything else under his contract. For guys like Tech major labels just aren't worth it. He said it himself, Tech will never go mainstream, mainstream will go Tech. And he wasn't lying.

  • Anonymous

    "haha, he makes a lot more than many major label artists, just to let you know" Sure he does.

    • Anonymous

      He is a multimillionaire who owns the rights to everything and shows no signs of slowing down in the immediate future. So while he may not have more money than some artists he is definitely living well and will continue to do so which is more than you can say for a lot of people n the majors. http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110707/03264014993/riaa-accounting-how-to-sell-1-million-albums-still-owe-500000.shtml http://www.theroot.com/views/how-much-do-you-musicians-really-make?GT1=38002

  • Anonymous

    Just ANOTHER freakin' article to shill Tech N9ne *smh*please, HHDX do something new there ARE OTHER hip hop artists out there, you know????

    • firealarm

      cosign TaZzZ, its good to see dudes like Tech and Kendrick get attention. Definitely better than Nicki Minaj articles.

    • TaZzZ

      It took everyone a while but they finally figured it out. Dudes the pinnacle, most innovative hip hop artist of our generation, business and music-wise. They ride his dick for the same reason they ride kendricks, cuz they do shit their own way. What's more respectable than that?

  • Anonymous

    The thing that I have noticed about indie labels though is that they do not sign legit underground artist. Let alone any underground artist that chooses to rap on other subjects. Like you dont see them reaching out to, East Coast Avengers, Esoteric, Ill Bill, Cunninlyguist, Madchild, Prince Ea, and a lot of others. I know some of those guys got their own indies or ways to reach and sell albums to their fans but the indies act like they dont even exist and I would like to see a legit quality underground act get signed to one of these indies for once.

  • DrewDown91

    This article is quite good, but about 6 years LATE. Read "The Long Tail" by Chris Anderson. He mentions this happening to the music biz, again 6 years ago.

  • Pegasus Flow

    Good article, good to see some ink on this topic

  • Anonymous

    Fact still remains that most people want the big, flashy product, so while all this indie hustle is impressive on a certain level, it doesn't change the fact that in order to make it, it's almnost always about who you know. Would Tech Nine trade all this for one major label deal? I know he's making out like a bandit, but he literally has to do this 365 days a year to make what someone on a major could or does make in just one year.

    • Anonymous

      you say tech "has to do this 365 days a year" correction, he doesn't have to do anything. He could retire tomorrow, but he continues to do it for his fans.

    • Technician

      Not to be biased or anything, but Tech is the hardest working rapper/label owner/promoter in the business. In order for him to maintain, he does have to work everyday of his life. That's what it takes to maintain a certain level of success for Strange Music. He and his labelmates still sell, despite no radio play and little to no video play. STRAAAAAAAAAANGE.

    • Anonymous

      While i know its hard to believe to some of you younger guys but some people are satisfied with makeing enough money to support themselves and their family and be able to do what they truly love and believe in. If hip-hop is your true passion then money should not be a temptation that pulls you away from freedom to do what you want. Plus mainstream artists dont make as much as you believe because thy have to split that money up with the label and everyone envolved with the project. The reason guys like jay and diddy and birdman are so rich is because they have their own labels and have other business ventures.

    • a

      haha, he makes a lot more than many major label artists, just to let you know

    • Cl4rk

      He's spoken various times on being offered buyouts and giant deals from the majors. He's declined them all.

  • Jontell

    I LOVE YOU TECH N9NE!!!!! STRANGE MUSIC ALL DAY ALL NIGHT!!! FAN4LIFE!!!

  • The Hashtronaut

    bout time dx posts about something worth reading! 5/5!

  • jesterxxl

    STTTRRRANNNGE MUSIC

  • hamburglar

    super dope article. The Company Man always has his ear to dope music.

  • Dave

    Tech N9NE is taking over!