It’s the question all hip-hop artists ask themselves when they’re breaking into the rap game – should I stay independent or sign to a major label?
Just like any other profession, being a hip-hop artist gives you the opportunity to take one of two paths. While in some industries you’ll have more than two choices, in music you get to pick from one or the other.
Do you want to go independent and do it all on your own? Or do you want to sign up under a record label?
Once your music starts to become popular and turn heads, you’ll find that music companies and records labels will start getting in touch to express their admiration for what you do. They’ll start dropping little feelers to see how you feel about maybe signing up with them, and if you keep performing well they’ll eventually make you an offer.
So, what route should you choose? Do you want to emulate Jay-Z’s corporate hustle or Nipsey Hussle’s #ForgetTheMiddleMan and #Proud2Pay campaigns? How about Mac Miller who recently went from independent to signing a major record deal with Warner Bros. Records?
What provides a hip hop artist with the best chances of being a success? Typically, it comes down to the individual. Sometimes, though, there is a little bit more to it than just “where would you like to go?”
Pros and cons of signing with a major label
As you can imagine, signing up for a record label has many different benefits – but it also brings significant drawbacks that you have to take into account. When looking at the full situation form an artist’s point of view, jumping into bed with a record label too early can be quite dangerous.
The benefit of signing with a record label is fairly obvious – it’s like being employed. Much like a tradesman, when working with a record label firm you now have a set lifestyle that you will be following.
You’ll be expected to set an example for other artists and help to promote the “brand” as a whole. This can become quite tedious and difficult for even the most patient of hip-hop artists, and usually will at one stage involve a “chat” in which your style will be moulded to fit the brand style more.
This is something that many artists simply cannot deal with – why would you let someone else dictate how you actually sound? This is the key sticking point for many rap artists, as it can ruin their ability and their chance to express themselves as they originally intended.
All you need to do with a record label, though, is writing and performing. They’ll do all the promotions and deal with the bookings, the recordings, the signing sessions – everything. If you are good at putting on the face of a PR man then this is a good route to go, as you’ll be very much hands off in terms of your future.
So long as you give your fans something to cheer about and keep producing records that make profits, a music record label will buy into you for quite some time.
They’ll give you access to better tools than you could ever get on your own, as well. They’ll make it so much easier to start putting things in place and making a genuinely considered difference to your musical capacity. Photo shoots, interviews, recording…this is all taken care of and paid for by the record company.
However, as we all know, nothing is that good. You don’t just get handed wads of cash for doing less work than you would – otherwise anyone would have a record deal!
In return for basically managing your life and trying their best to turn you into a global sensation, they’ll take a massive cut of your profits. And this isn’t massive by normal standards –it can be nearly everything.
Once you top your overall cost to the record label that you are signed with, then you’ll start making royalties on the music. This means that you won’t make a dime if they invest, for example, $100,000 in you. Until you make that $100,000 back you won’t make a dime. It’s like a loan in exchange for your success, effectively – not so great.
Pros and cons for staying as an independent artist
However, staying as an independent artist leaves you in a totally different spot. The main reason that many hip hop artists choose to stay independent is because of the fact they get all of the money made. Additionally, being able to actually choose what you sound like is very important as well – nobody likes to be the impostor that writes powder puff lyrics!
If you feel genuinely close to your music and your style as an individual, being indy is probably the best choice for you. You won’t have some big corporation holding you by the legs in the air, shaking you for every last penny that drops out of your pockets.
You make all the revenue, you get all the sales, and you decide who and when you will be doing shows, recording or carrying out interviews. You’ll also get all of the bonus income that comes from this kind of lifestyle – you keep everything that you earn.
However, you do need to do everything as well. You need to distribute the music, sign contracts, manage your taxes, organize events and hire in others to help your music sound better. You’ll be paying out every penny in the same that you earn every dime – it’s a two-edged sword, effectively. You get all the acclaim and all the power, but you also foot the entire bill.
Remember – all of the top independent rappers in the game right now had to struggle, work hard, grind constantly and put up their own money to get to where they are today.
So, what do you think sounds like the more appealing way of living your life? Would you rather be the guy on the side? Or would you rather be the face that is in charge of absolutely everything?
The choice that make obviously comes down to your own ideas and interpretations, but if you believe that you need the help and can make up the financial gaps in a record label you should consider that.
If, on the other hand, you feel more comfortable in dealing with everything yourself and having the entire risk – and reward – hen staying independent might be the choice for you. They both have pros and cons, and it really does come down to your own ambition, talent and personality.
For the artists who are intent on shunning major labels and remaining on their independent grind, then make sure you check out our case studies on successful indie hip-hop artists to study their moves:
Chance The Rapper
Tyler, the Creator
In reality.... You don't need a Record Label. Take a look at the resources that's available for you to blossom as an artist. In addition to the digital music stores like Apple Music or Google Play, there’s a few platforms that you can add to your promotional efforts as well.
Having active profiles on each of these platforms will give you outlets that you can control every aspect of. Which is important when you’re sharing your music:
YouTube is the most popular platform in streaming music—currently beating out Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music for plays. Their streaming music traffic is growing by a staggering 109.2% every year. Those kinds of numbers demand action. Plus it gives you a chance to shoot that music video you’ve always wanted to make.
Soundcloud is perfect for getting your music sharable quick. One of the things that SoundCloud does best is making your music blogable. The circulation of your music in online communities is crucial. SoundCloud gives you the sharers edge. shiiiiing.
Bandcamp caters to anyone looking for an artists-first approach to sharing music physically and digitally. They even reward you for selling a lot! For digital releases Bandcamp takes 15%. But as soon as you’re making $5000 per month, it goes down to 10%. So the more you make the less they take. That’s like the bank giving you money just because your account got so fat. cha-ching.
The platforms are there. All it takes is sweat equity and sweet sweet music. And you can do it all without a label.
It’s ok to want a label. The right label can do wonders for an artist’s profile.
But with everything available to artists these days one thing is clear: you certainly don’t need a label.