Hello! So maybe I haven’t written in six months and the first thing I post is about music. We’re rolling with it! This was a school project in Literary Journalism, and I had a great chance to interview some cool people about their experiences as independent artists. This first post is mainly an overview, based on my discussion with Malachi Lossen.
Musicians tend to pursue their careers to create and share art. Record labels start as profit-seeking ventures. This dissonance leaves many artists feeling betrayed and constrained, but with modern streaming services and independent distribution options, artists are creating their own careers. Record labels have served their purpose and have assisted many of the world’s greatest modern musicians, but like all industries, they’re being replaced by a better method. The dissonance of art and bureaucracy is getting too loud to ignore, and the artists are taking control, one song at a time.
Artists have been speaking out about these constraints for years, but independent distribution is offering new leverage to even the score. “There’s a lot of noise being made right now about record labels. A lot of things that are about to change,” according to Malachi Lossen, an independent rapper, and communications major at Bethel. As an observer of the record label industry rather than a participant, Lossen is rather skeptical about the future of Big Records. Popular musicians have struggled with their record labels for decades, the most recent example being Kanye West, who recently revealed his contracts on Twitter, comparing himself to Moses and the record industry to slavery. This garnered attention from major media outlets and drew comparisons to acclaimed Minneapolis artist Prince, who performed on the Today Show with the word “slave” written on his cheek. Like Cobi, Prince had more available material than the label could handle and wanted more creative control. He was introduced on the Today Show as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” after legally changing his name to a symbol in 1993 in protest of his constraining record contract.
Lossen points to the enduring problems of labels and the recurrence of reform efforts. “[Kanye] started the conversation that people have already been having, just not on this big scale. . . record labels will sign people to contracts and then essentially screw them over because they own all the artist’s masters.” However, the tide is slowly but surely shifting. In this new generation, a lot of artists see the commonly horrific terms of record deals and aren’t signing. If they do sign record deals, they agree to record leasing where the label has masters for only a few years.
All of the independent artists interviewed use DistroKid to release their music. DistroKid is a popular subscription service that uploads music to Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon, and other platforms for $20 per year. This is just one of many affordable and independent distribution services that allow artists to pace their own careers. Prince found a unique way around distribution problems by mailing physical copies of his Planet Earth album to newspaper subscribers in 2007 and creating an exclusive online fan club. Prince would be overjoyed and proud of the independence in this new generation of unlabeled creators. This is an amazing innovation, but the best feature of DistroKid is that artists entirely own their master recordings.
“Master recordings” are a somewhat nebulous term, but a decidedly contentious concept. The master is defined by MixButton as “the official, original recording of a song”. Owning “master rights” connotes controlling how and when the song is distributed. The legalities of master rights have caused major controversy for major artists from Prince to Kanye to Taylor Swift.
As the rules of producing and releasing music change, Lossen muses that “labels are having to adapt to the times, and I think all hell’s probably gonna break loose before anything gets better…the labels are gonna [sic] have to adjust or maybe rip up some contracts.” The main historical advantage of record labels is leverage, such as funding for recording and industry connections, and now independent artists can create their own industry connections through social media. With the rise in independent artistry, the ballad of the record label may be playing its final notes.