Navigating the music industry as a new artist could be tricky, especially on the music business side of things. Getting signed may seem like an 'obvious' route (although many could argue the same about staying independent), but how exactly do you go about this? Major label or indie? What are the pros and cons of either? Abdul-Jabbar Obiagwu weighs in on this dicey subject.
Some of the common perceptions surrounding record labels in Nigeria are more harmful than helpful to artists from this part of the world. The music industry’s dichotomy carries through to our shores but not quite as clearly as it does in developed nations. The difference between a major label and an independent label runs far deeper than their self-explanatory titles, but they do serve as helpful definitions. Major labels have headquarters in cities worldwide, establishing a global presence. They are large, corporate bodies that handle everything related to music production, from distribution (usually through subsidiaries or sister companies) to licensing and merchandising. Indie labels are more accessible, scaled-down versions of major labels. They do not possess the same reach and resources as most majors do, but what they lack in personnel and organization, they supplement in their focus.
Modern-day artists have had a long time to study the movements of the market and the workings of the industry. Artists (and companies) have been more vocal about the fine print in their deals more than ever before. Music mogul Kanye West detailed the terms and conditions of his longstanding agreement with Universal and Roc-A-Fella Records on Twitter late last year, appealing to the court of public opinion to hasten the decision-making process of the label regarding the rights of his first to fifth albums. Pleas such as West’s have only served to solidify the notions of artists that have opted to go the indie route. From a range of reasons varying from unduly complicated paperwork to the limitation of creative freedom, it is becoming the modus operandi for modern-day music professionals.
The internet age is celebrated for many reasons, such as access to resources that were not available ten years ago for artists. Such services include self-service publishing companies. Many artists have found mainstream appeal without being signed to a major in recent years, with global artists such as Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper setting the blueprint. Interestingly, major labels have turned their attention to what indie labels are doing better and have tried to incorporate some of those tactics. Being major means access to nearly inexhaustible coffers exist, and buying your competition is the next best thing to beating or joining them. Sony’s recent acquisition of the British independent artist servicing platform, AWAL (A World Artists Love), stands as one of the most prominent examples of such an instance.
Asides from the founded paranoia of working with a corporate entity that puts itself before its talent, many other reasons are responsible for the conscious shift of new-gen artists towards indie labels. The famed music leaks of the early 2010s set a dangerous precedent for many artists; the labels they looked to for structure and order could no longer be trusted to protect their intellectual property. The introduction of digital music retail stores and streaming services also helped shrink the hold majors had over the market as the appeal of owning the rights to the music serves as a key reason behind younger artists’ reluctance to go the major route. Watching artists ‘game’ the system (looking at you, Frankie) helped create the narrative that the days of these out-of-touch, archaic institutions who never had the artists’ interests at heart were coming to an end.
While many of the reasons stated above indeed moved the needle for independent labels, it also has to be said that majors provide a lot of support that their counterparts are simply incapable of delivering. The chances of being offered a lucrative recording advance (fancy verbiage for recording loan) by an independent label are close to none. Many independent labels opt to pay for recording instead. The marketing departments of majors are also better equipped to handle artist rosters simply based on the personnel and experience they bring to the table. The trade-offs are clear whichever route an artist decides to go.
However, the romanticization of being an indie artist is quickly becoming a misleading narrative. The notion that if an artist is signed to a major label, they immediately lose all ability to make decisions regarding their music and representation is often used to buttress this point of view. The artists who fall under this umbrella can sometimes come under fire for choosing to first be independent, gain a fan base, and then join a major to amplify their reach. Fanbases can turn on their deities and demand a return of the same elements that helped the artists in question to garner the fans in the first place. The phrase ‘gone Hollywood’ is the perfect exemplifier of this sentiment.
Unable to accept that an artist can be signed to a major and maintain their persona, more and more artists come into the game with an air of disdain towards artists on the other side of the fence. To maintain whatever authenticity helped them get to their respective positions, many artists forget that growth is a crucial part of artistry. Higher production value has never hurt anyone, but try convincing a new artist that signing to Sony is not equivalent to selling your soul. Some artists who stay indie maintain an inclined view of ‘purity' in the music they create simply because they do not make music positioned for the mainstream.
It stands to reason that shareholders and industry execs who work at majors are responsible for the direction of culture to a large extent. Upon discovering every new sub-genre or sect of society, they make concerted efforts to capture these new markets by signing artists affiliated with them. And quite often, artists of this ilk are found out and branded as “industry plants”. So the average indie artist’s fears are not entirely unfounded; there have been historical records of major labels employing such strategies without any interest in genuinely helping the sound or scene develop.
Nigeria recorded an uptick in foreign labels in the mid-2010s. The efforts of artists such as Wizkid and Davido had geared majors to tap into the source of their inspiration – Nigeria itself. Since then, skeletal versions of major labels have been set up in the country, with one office effectively serving the West African, East African and South African markets e.g. Universal Music and Warner. This non-committal approach to breaking into new regions has been met with disdain by the artists and the music community in general.
Indigenous labels have also developed a negative reputation in the country for not fulfilling contractual obligations to their artists. Eric Manny Entertainment and Runtown, Milli and Chocolate City, YCee and Tinny Entertainment. These are only a few examples of how an ‘indie’ label might not be the perfect fit for every artist. With a dire economic situation that has stretched decades, very few income sources are spared from the wrath of Nigeria, and the music industry is no exception.
To help artists navigate the murky waters of artist development and the music business in general, we have put together a list of critical pros and cons for major labels and indie labels. The most important aspect of the decision-making process is identifying what matters to you as the artist. Once decided, pick a path and pray for success.
Independent “Indie” Music Record Labels
• Artists Maintain Their Music Rights: This is one of the key benefits of signing a contract with an indie label. Unlike in the case of Kanye’s first to fifth albums, artists in this category can license their intellectual property as they see fit. By being allowed to keep the rights to the music, artists have the option to do what they would like once the song has been recorded.
• Getting Signed by People, not the Machine: Indie labels are usually smaller companies not bound by the whims of a board or investors who are seeking commercial success with every act. The belief in one’s art and brand is essential to budding artists.
• Personal Relationships: Due to the differences in scale between indie labels and their sizable counterparts, artists are more likely to receive dedicated attention from label reps who are less likely to have signed a roster of fifty artists.
• Pro-Artist Contracts: Although some of the more prominent indie labels use contracts close to those of the major record labels, they are usually less complicated. The indie label contracts are more artist-friendly, giving the artist more money for their work through either profit-sharing programs or a larger royalty percentage than that offered by the major labels.
• Lack of Funds: The most common issue for independent labels is a shortage (or lack) of funds. A lack of funding means a smaller budget for recording, production, packaging, distribution costs, tour support, merchandise, etc. Another significant issue caused by a lack of budget is that proper marketing for the artist is sacrificed, making the artists promote themselves if they want to be seen and heard.
• Disorganization: Because many independent record labels are so informal, there is the possibility of doing things incorrectly with no consequences. If proper accounting is overlooked, it could mean incorrect payment for artists.
• Size: Although a smaller size allows artists to form stronger relationships with an indie record label, it also means that the label itself has less influence and power within the music industry. Hence, they may not be able to cater to an artist’s tour and promotion needs.
Major Music Record Labels
• Inordinate Amounts Of Funding: Major labels can lay their hands on a lot of funds. Their legacy positions mean they have grown profits for decades from other artists and built wealth, which is used to promote another set of acts. The polished production and marketing that is afforded artists by these labels are unmatched by most indie labels.
• Networking and Connections: In addition to the deep-seated connections that major labels have made in their many decades of being in business, their even deeper pockets allow them to get their foot in the door to most media outlets.
• Size and Reputation: Obviously, size can significantly differ when dealing with the biggest names in music. It may be more challenging for some of the smaller indie labels to influence a magazine like Rolling Stone to review their newest artist’s debut album. Yet, due to the size and reputation of the major record labels, Rolling Stone would be more willing to review a new artist, knowing that it opens up doors to get the interview from a big name later down the line.
• Fight For Attention: Contrary to popular belief, major labels sign many artists, but much of what is signed quickly gets turned over. If your music doesn’t immediately stick, you may find yourself having a hard time getting any attention from the label. If this happens, you could end up spending more time in a battle for attention than working to further your career.
• Artist Unfriendly Deals: Being that major label record companies are a business, they will likely do everything they can to profit as much as possible from their investment in you, your music, and your brand. Not only does this mean the possibility of small royalties, but it means the artist does not get to keep the rights or even the creative control over the music.
• Corporate Structures: Again, major label record companies are businesses. Major label record companies have shareholders and a board of directors pressuring the staff to make the right moves to make the most money, not display the best music. One of the hardest things for an artist to comprehend is that although there are people who work within the music industry that love music, there are just as many who don’t and see it as a business with the music as a product. As an artist, your music is only the product that is in style then.
Armed with the knowledge, picking the best situation for yourself as an artist can hopefully be a less daunting task than it seems.