The DIY Generation: The rise of the independent artist

“If one more label try to stop me…” ~ Chance The Rapper

The internet changed music forever. Almost overnight, the industry lost secure physical record sales to illegal downloads and online sharing platforms. The old model was changing and rapidly. Major Record labels sunk money in to projects that didn’t see a financial return, meanwhile the streaming model was still finding its feet. They say that the only constant is change so whilst the music world was trying to find a solution it paved the way for a new era of artists. The DIY generation saw the expansive online world as an opportunity. A chance to create, manage and interact with their audience whilst putting out their music as and when they wanted to. There wasn’t a set formula so creativity opened doors and viral content was pioneered by those that took risks. This signaled the rise of a new online community. TV and print publications made cut backs. YouTubers, Bloggers and Influencers created their own empires and were looked to for answers from not only the music world but brands and corporations globally. Streaming became the mainstream way for people to digest music and this meant that artists could distribute their catalogue easily without the need for a record label.

Instead of looking outside for answers, people realised that they were the ones in the driving seat and the possibilities were endless. As an independent solo artist, Ed Sheeran changed the game back in 2011. After playing over a thousand gigs, sleeping on his friend’s sofas and being snubbed by various labels he decided to collaborate with some of the undergrounds most respected Grime MC’s. When his project dropped on Twitter Ed had around six thousand followers. Very publically, he had played one of the smartest moves of his career. Each artist featured got behind him seeding and sharing the music to their fan bases. The EP effortlessly launched in to the top ten of the singer songwriter chart and forty-six in the National album chart. He gained fans, respect from fellow musicians and landed a major record deal that put him on the map forever.

Fast forward to 2016 and Frank Ocean hit the number one spot on charts across the globe with ‘Blonde’, Chance The Rapper’s ‘Coloring Book’ was one of the year’s best reviewed albums and Skepta won the Mercury Music Prize, all independently. The MOBO Awards saw more independent artists than ever being nominated and served as a major talking point with Jorja Smith, Ray BLK, Kojey Radical and even Popcaan standing at the forefront. Overheads are less now music can be released digitally so side stepping labels has become more than a financial decision. It seems that artists want to be in control of not only their creative but their overall project as a whole.

Fearlessness has proven key. Not only from artists themselves but from their teams, inner circles and more importantly their fans. People do not only follow sounds now, they follow people. Social Media has meant an immediate and authentic stream of content which means we know more about our favourite artists than ever before. Our careers are in our hands and that expands way beyond music. Brand collaborations based on an artist’s following has given musicians the freedom to earn money from their craft without being tied in to a long term record deal. Look at Stormzy working closely with Adidas and New Black and Skepta fronting a campaign for Uniqlo and bringing though new artists via The Levis Music Project. Ghetts recently put out music he made in the Relentless Studios and that’s before we have even mentioned the work that Red Bull do for the underground scene. Notoriously backing the likes of Little Simz, Disclosure, Jessie Ware and A$AP Rocky to name just a very few. It’s the smart financial backing and support that brands offer artists that’s lead to less pressure being placed on music paying for musician’s day to day lives. This has left more space for creativity and less focus on making music that will be catapulted in to the charts for financial gain. The underground scene has never been stronger and makes sense as to why the music world is more diverse than ever.

In a lengthy discussion with one of the key A&R’s from a Major Record company recently, we broke down the new wave of musicians and discussed why so many artists are turning down deals. Immediately, when you decide to grow your team you give away various percentages. Agents typically take 10% of your live income, Managers on average will take 20% of your overall income and that is before a record company has signed you in to any deal and taken their cut. Financially it is a very delicate balancing act and early on, your outgoings can outweigh your incomings. Add to that lawyers, touring costs, flights, hotels, session musicians and their associated expenses, studio time, mastering, video production, clothing and staging. To grow their fan base, many new artists even end up paying to go on support tours. It’s very clear then as to why so many artists decide to go it alone. Not only can they manage their finances more closely, they have the freedom and flexibility to make intuitive and brave decisions without having to get sign off from a label hierarchy.

I think it’s important to stress that Major labels should not be seen as the bad guys in this movement. As our discussion deepened, the A&R explained that many of the artists that they sign now are seventy percent of the way on their own before they put a deal on the table. Most of them know who they are, have started to build an online repertoire and have a clear vision of where they would like to be. The record labels then give them the extra guidance and support to take their music to a wider audience. Times have changed and even though there is no set formula the independent artists that are flying have one thing in common, their focus is the music.

The DIY Generation are not only breaking new ground but they are pioneering a model that expands way beyond the music industry. They are using community and collaboration to open doors and forward thinking technology to share and communicate their ideas. They make their own rules and in doing so are creating a new blueprint for future generations.

Carly Wilford is a DJ and Presenter and creator of IAmMusic & bass collective SISTER. She manages artists and has helped to break some of the musicians that you hear in the charts today.