New Age of Independent Artists

By: Miriam Felzenstein  |  October 24, 2023

By Miriam Felzenstein

There was nothing like the exploding music industry in the 2000s. Artists like Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, and so many others debuted. These names, all of which are still relevant today, came to light in the 2000’s and early 2010’s. Record labels found success in delivering breakout star after breakout star and discovering artists. However, in the recent decade, finding such artists has been next to impossible for these big labels. With the only notable breakout names being Olivia Rodrigo and Ice Spice, big labels and music managers have been stressed over the recent decline in breakout stars. While the labels continue to struggle, new music is still being made. Stars are starting to form without the labels.

Musicians, once dependent on a label or manager, are rising as independent artists, releasing music without the contracts and legal binds associated with major record labels. When a musician is signed to a label, the label takes a significant cut of the artist’s profits. On average, larger labels only give 13%-20% of profits to the artists, while more indie labels will still only give 50% of profits to the artists. The artist usually signs a contract, requiring them to release a certain amount of albums under their label. Labels can also control the creativity of the artists, dictating what type of music they can make. Having major control over the production of the artist’s discography, the label often owns the rights to the musician’s work. Because of the restraints, many musicians are choosing to release their music without the overbearing restrictions under labels. 

It all began with the rise of digital music streaming through platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. Instead of buying albums, people pay for a monthly subscription to stream unlimited songs. Profits from streaming services are far less than individual album sales for both artists and labels alike. Signed artists started to make significantly less, and had to find other ways to make money because of the decreased profits. According to Mashable, a popular entertainment site, music labels take out 80% of the profits from streaming platforms, as part of the traditional record deal on top of the already low payouts from streaming services. Larger artists can negotiate for a larger cut of the profits. However, streaming services, specifically Spotify, opened the doors for independent artists, as they can now forgo signing to a major record label to find success. Back in the early 2000s, the only way to be seen and advertised on a large scale in the music industry was to be signed. With Spotify, independent artists can publish their work on the same platform being used by millions of listeners across the world, putting them on the playing field with big-name artists. However, the creation of digital music streaming platforms was only the start of independent artists.

Social media platforms became the main source of advertising for artists trying to make it big independently. Even though there were platforms to get their music heard, they still had to advertise their music. Back in the 2000s, the main source of publicizing music was through radio station and album sales. This was extremely difficult without the backing of a major record label that had the necessary connections and finances. With the growth of social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, musicians can post videos and pictures of their work. These posts can garner thousands, even millions of likes and views. With all the traffic to their channel, they can post songs on Spotify and redirect fans there to listen to their music. For example, the song Escapism, was released by the Independent artist RAYE earlier in 2023, and went viral on TikTok, with the sound being featured in over 850,000 videos as of January 2023. This became her first-ever number one hit in the UK. 

With all these new tools, artists are able to gain a following and make a sustainable income without the use of labels. However, some artists are leveraging their social media following and music streaming numbers, to gain the attention of labels to make better deals for themselves. Artists, such as popular British rapper Central Cee, and American singer/songwriter Natalie Jane, used their social media following to get the attention of major labels and sign better deals. Artists who managed to gain a following on social media, but decided to sign to a label, felt the positive attributes of being signed outweighed the negatives. An independent artist is responsible for acquiring their own PR team and managing that team as they grow. Any costs of going on tour, higher quality production for music and videos, and any legal and transaction fees, would have to be fronted by the artist. While some individuals would prefer to be their own boss and fully in control, on a larger scale having the team and support provided by a label takes the burden off artists. Labels also provide great networking opportunities and brand recognition that can help further artists’ growth. Both Natalie Jane and Central Cee had more favorable terms since they were already established. They got more money and got to have a bigger say in their image and song styles. Some artists that grow online decide to stay independent. With the rise of social media and music streaming, more power is given to the independent artist, as they do not need the backing of a label to make it on their own. 

In my personal experience, I find that labels can be controlling of the work musicians produce, more so controlling if the artist isn’t as established. Choosing to sign to a label may open more doors and be beneficial to artists who want to have a larger reach. However, some artists prefer to have full creative control of their work. Now with social media, artists are already establishing a brand before signing a deal, and in some cases, labels are reaching out to these artists first. Back in the early 2000s, it was more common for artists to send out demos to labels. But now that the labels are actively reaching out to more established social media artists, giving these artists more power to negotiate their terms. This can help new artists have more control of their work and more profits if they choose to sign. For artists just starting their journey with less of a following, they might not have these same benefits. Regardless of whether an artist signs to a label or not, with the new age of social media and music streaming, independent artists can still rise the charts and gain a following.