It used to be that a musician would know they'd made it big when they were signed to a major label. Now, almost the opposite may be true. The major labels are struggling, and generally, they're about as clueless as the average SoundCloud amateur about how to hit on today's musical climate. Often, label deals come with their own set of hassles, including pressure to make formulaic commercial music, albums that are delayed forever and generally exploitative contracts. Just look at the contract between Sony Music and Spotify that leaked on Tuesday — the labels don't really have their artists' interests at heart.
Thankfully, a whole new generation of the biggest names in music aren't standing for it anymore. Artists don't need labels to make vital, evocative music and establish successful careers. Here are some of the biggest names that have either started their own labels or gone entirely without.
1. Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper's breakout mixtape, Acid Raps, was so successful that even though he never released it for sale, a bootleg managed to chart on Billboard. In the whirlwind that followed, the 22-year-old Chicago rapper was approached by executives from across the industry, who all wanted his ink on their contract.
"I've met with every A&R, VP of A&R, president of the labels, CEOs. I know all these people," Chance the Rapper told Fader. He turned them all down, and he's loving his freedom.
"I can do whatever I want," he said in an interview with Billboard. "I can do whatever videos I want, I can play whatever shows I want, I can release when I want, talk how I want, freely about any subject. I have a certain responsibility and I feel like conforming to the mixtape to mixtape to album rule would just defeat the whole purpose of not signing [with a major label]."
Instead, he's thrown in his lot with SoundCloud, as he announced in a tweet earlier this month.
He may use the service to release his upcoming album with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, to be entitled Surf. From what we've heard so far, it's going to bring some radical new sounds to hip-hop — the kind most major labels would never risk.
2. Joey Bada$$
"I think it's important to stay independent as an artist because – I mean, for me, it's always been my vision, it's always what I wanted to do and always what I've seen myself doing," Joey Bada$$ told Rolling Stone in July 2013. "My rollout was, 'I'm just going to do this shit from the ground up, I'm going to start my own record label – I ain't going to sign to nobody ...' So that's what I'm working to, that's the goal I'm trying to achieve."
It isn't for lack of opportunities. In 2013, on A$AP Rocky's "1 Train," he rapped, "Just got back to the block from a 6 o'clock with Jigga / And I'm thinkin' 'bout signin' to the Roc / But my niggas on the block still assigned to the rocks."
His fierce independence is paying off. His recent studio LP B4.DA.$$ (released with help from independent labels Cinematic Music Group and Relentless Records) beat out Lupe Fiasco's Tetsuo & Youth, released by the major label Atlantic, to debut in Billboard's top 5.
3. Zoë Keating
Cellist and composer Zoë Keating is an independent artist in every sense of the word. She owns her masters and publishing rights, and she actively blogs about her experiences making it on her own in music. Keating gained a lot of attention in January 2015 when she wrote about her issues with YouTube's Music Key, which allegedly tried to force her to sign an exploitative contract that would greatly limit her ability to release as she chooses.
"I want to decide what to do when," she wrote on her Tumblr in a piece that asked fans "What should I do about Youtube?" "That is a major reason why I decided in 2005 to self-publish rather than chase after a record deal. I am independent because I didn't want a bunch of men in suits deciding how I should release my music."
In a footnote, she lists some of the absurd requests these "men in suits" have offered her over the year: "We need a sexy photo of you naked with your cello on top of you." No. No, you don't.
4. Jane Weaver
Jane Weaver's first experience as a musician was as a member of the indie group Kill Laura, signed to a Polydor imprint. The experience was a nightmare, as she recently detailed in a Guardian op-ed. She's ditched those digs and started her own label, Bird Records. Through it, she can be far more experimental musically. And she can provide other female musicians with opportunities to release music without having to put up with cutthroat label considerations.
"In many ways, it's easier to be an independent artist in 2015," Weaver wrote in the Guardian. "We can arm ourselves with knowledge about the way things work. We can put something on YouTube and it becomes popular. We can access a huge mixture of diverse music. There is a price, of course. It took me a while to finish The Silver Globe because of financial restrictions, but being independent allowed me to make that album, to experiment and to make it work."
5. White Mystery
At just 17 years old, White Mystery's frontwoman Miss Alex White released her first album through a record label called Missile X that she created with a friend. Twelve bands and 18 albums later, she's still independent, now working with her brother in the garage rock duo White Mystery.
"We've definitely received a lot of offers from a lot of different labels, but we are committed to independence," Alex told Cusp Magazine. "What I've told others and what I tell myself, is continue to follow your instincts ... you might be the right type of person for a label or maybe not."
White Mystery offered advice to those artists who do choose to remain independent in a recent piece on Fader. "The cost of making music differs for each artist, but the best way to make a profit is to work hard, look decent, be polite and live frugal," the band said. "Working with brands like Levi's and Red Bull allows White Mystery to play shows for bigger audiences and take on creative projects like releasing a double album while remaining a 100% independent band."
One half of the currently defunct Das Racist, Heems has always understood the hustle of art rap. Das Racist put out their first mixtape independently through a record label Heems created, Greedhead, partnering with the apparel company Mishka to help it pop off.
"Back then, it was normal to have a label," Heems told Pigeons and Planes. "Like French Montana with Coke Boyz. Meek Mill with Dreamchasers. It didn't seem innovative at the time. But it's been a great experience. We didn't need a co-sign because of it."
He's come a long way since then, becoming an indie mogul and trying to start a revolution in "indie art rap," as he calls it.
"Major labels try to sign who they think will be the next big hit, and then spit them out to the world without really being there for the process," Heems told Forbes, describing his label's model. "I'm more into being there for the hiccups, being there as the albums are being recorded, being around the concerts and taking the actual time to develop artists instead of just throwing them out to the world and telling them to sell records."
6. Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell likely signed a record deal when he joined the Drive-By Truckers in 2001. But since leaving in 2007, he's remained fiercely independent. He's released albums through his own label, Southeastern Records, run by his manager — and he's been killing it. He swept 2014's Americana Music Awards, earning Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Artist of the Year for his album, also named Southeastern.
But either these accolades didn't seem impressive enough to representatives for the industry's major players, or they haven't been paying attention. In November 2014, a talent scout for the Voice — which is connected to Universal — reached out to Isbell to audition for the show. In turn, he mocked them on Twitter.
When a fan, perhaps sarcastically, asked: "What if you did it...and won?" Isbell answered very seriously.
8. Nipsey Hussle
Nipsey Hussle made headlines last year for selling copies of his ablum, Crenshaw, for $100 apiece. He explained it as a desire to serve the die-hard fans: "Kinda like the effect of less kids in a class room leading to better education," he wrote in a statement released via Rap Radar.
"I'm more or less focused on fully serving the [fans] that have connected already," he continued. "If I'm goin' to offer a product made with no compromise or concession to the platforms (radio, A&R, opinion, label bias), then the way we sell has to change. Hence PROUD2PAY."
It's not a model most rappers could get away with, but it's worked brilliantly for Nipsey Hussle. It's allowed him to flourish creatively and commercially, and his creativity and thirst to reinvent the norm is an inspiration to artists everywhere. "I think you can give a pure artistic product if you understand how to build your own industry," he explained to Forbes. "A solution built by an artist serves the artist more than the solution the capitalist comes up with."
9. Keyshia Cole
R&B singer-songwriter Keyshia Cole made her break from the majors fairly recently. In February 2015, she told RapUpTV: "I'm definitely going independent, 100%. I've been wanting to do it, and I'm excited to see what happens, at least."
She doesn't feel that much about her process will change, because her previous label, Interscope, was always very hands-off with her recording process. Now as independent she will be able to reap all the benefits of her own hustle. "I'm true to who I am, so I want to control it. Why not?"
An added perk of going independent is she'll finally get to do a song with Prince, who is notoriously anti-major (he did recently sign a deal with Warner Brothers, his "slave" label throughout the 90s, though mainly to get his masters back, it seems). "The one time I did meet Prince, he told me he'd do a song with me if I go independent," Cole told RapUpTV. "Prince I'm holding you to that. ... Now I'm independent and I'm waiting."