Since the early 2000’s, the Recording Industry Association of America has served as a thorn in the side for retailers looking to cash in on the mixtape phenomenon that still proves to be as vital a tool in an emcees playbook as a clever vernacular and confident delivery. Yet, one of the biggest and brightest stars coming out of Chicago, Chance the Rapper – who harnesses poignant narratives indicative of an early Kanye West mixed with the unorthodox and impassioned delivery of Andre 3000 – serves as the new poster child for the bastardization of digital dominance and antiquated music methods. In July, Chance’s free project Acid Rap landed at number 63 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart – having sold 1,000 copies in the week ending July 7 – with profits being attributed to a company called “Mtc” – as distributed at $14 USD dollars a pop through iTunes and Amazon. It’s often said “the best things in life are free.” Apparently in this day and age, one man’s “free” hustle is another man’s day job. But it poses the question, with every single record label – including Columbia, Republic, Def Jam, RCA, Atlantic, Interscope, Shady and Capitol beating down his door – what are the benefits of being “signed” when you have proven to be a success regardless of having the help of the machine? In speaking with Billboard about Chance’s aforementioned charting, his manager, Patrick Corcoran, commented, “This shows that there’s a strong appetite for Chance in the marketplace. How often does a bootleg hit a Billboard chart?”
There is always going to be “the next big thing.” That’s how we as a society gauge our own aging process – recalling days when “so and so” were big and “what’s his name?” ruled the big screen. Whereas we used to be a world that pumped out kids who had dreams of being doctors and lawyers, the advent of social media and the ease at which we can get intimate details as to what it’s like to be considered famous is like giving a youngster a book of matches and a can of gas and telling them “you can blow up, too.” The irony of the current state of hip-hop is that artists sign with record labels to ensure that they’re not the next flash in the pan without understanding that they’re aiding in the vicious cycle of exclusivity by joining the very organizations that are actively looking for a replacement. The Yankees will always be the Yankees just like Def Jam is always going to be Def Jam – it’s just the roster and type of jewelry that changes.
When Abel Tesfaye, better known by his stage name The Weeknd emerged from obscurity three years ago with what The New York Times called the “DNA of Terence Trent D’Arby, Prince, Michael Jackson, and also the Smiths and DJ Screw,” the world was introduced to an undeniable talent who crooned under a mysterious banner that didn’t bare any major label marks. Naturally, every single label wanted The Weeknd like his moniker not only promised dollar signs, but all the warm and bubbly feelings that are attached to drunken Saturday’s and mimosa Sunday’s. Following Trilogy – comprised mostly of material derived from House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, The Weeknd attached himself to a variety of other people’s projects. The immediate benefit of being on a major record label is like being represented by one of the major Hollywood talent agencies because both fields of artistic talent management rely on the idea of “attaching talent.” In the case of film, agents sell projects to studios by attaching in-house directors and actors – thus fortifying a project and proving that the necessary and marketable pieces are in place to make money in the four quadrants. In music, heavily-represented acts remain culturally significant by being featured on other highly visible talents. In The Weeknd’s case, he fortified his staying power musically and culturally by figuring prominently on Drake’s Grammy-award winning Take Care. According to Tesfaye in an interview with Complex Magazine, “Crew Love”, “Shot For Me”, and “The Ride” were actually supposed to be on House of Balloons until Drake got a hold of them. In a certain respect, Drake furthered his own career at the expense of The Weeknd who was in limbo – having already earned high praise but missing the proper creative team to help shape him as much more than just a subsidiary of his fellow Torontonian.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ ode to sartorial archaeology on “Thrift Shop” marked the first time since 1994 that an independent act reached number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart – joining Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” from Reality Bites – which skyrocketed the songstress to cultural relevance despite not having a record label. Macklemore, born Ben Haggerty, has made his distaste for record labels quite evident thanks to his song “Jimmy Iovine” where he commented, “I’d rather be a starving artist than succeed at getting fucked.” Truth be told, Macklemore is at a place in his career – a monetary outpost of sorts between the poorhouse and penthouse – but he continues to zero in on the notion of being independent well after selling 4 million albums as eloquently stated on Chris Hardwick’s “Nerdist” podcast.
“Chris: I’m sure you’ve been approached a million times at this point, but you still don’t want the infrastructure of a label?
Macklemore: Yeah, there’s no reason to do it. With the power of the internet and with the real personal relationship that you can have via social media with your fans… I mean everyone talks about MTV and the music industry, and how MTV doesn’t play videos any more — YouTube has obviously completely replaced that. It doesn’t matter that MTV doesn’t play videos. It matters that we have YouTube and that has been our greatest resource in terms of connecting, having our identity, creating a brand, showing the world who we are via YouTube. That has been our label. Labels will go in and spend a million dollar or hundreds of thousands of dollars and try to “brand” these artists and they have no idea how to do it. There’s no authenticity. They’re trying to follow a formula that’s dead. And Ryan and I, out of anything, that we’re good at making music, but we’re great at branding. We’re great at figuring out what our target audience is. How we’re going to reach them and how we’re going to do that in a way that’s real and true to who we are as people. Because that’s where the substance is. That’s where the people actually feel the real connection.
And labels don’t have that.
So you sign up for a label. There’s not some magic button they’re now going to push and it means that people are going to like who you are. Or that they’re identify with your vision or your songs. It actually comes from sitting down, staring at a piece of paper for months or years on end, trying to figure out who you are as a person, and hoping that it comes through in the end. But a label’s not going to do that for you.”
In a decidedly pointed piece done by Zoe Chace for NPR’s “All Things Considered” the journalist starts “Macklemore and Ryan Lewis love the story that they’re too cool for the record deal.” After detailing a tweet Mackelmore sent indicating 78,000 records sold independently, Chace goes on to say, “the problem is, to say that these records were sold independently, it is not entirely true, because Macklemore and Ryan Lewis hired a company to help them” – a company called ADA (Alternative Distribution Alliance) – which is a direct arm of Warner Brothers Music Group. She goes on to run through a worn back story for most up and coming artists – recalling playing a string of smaller, sold out shows on and around the Pacific Northwest – before seemingly coming out of nowhere for most thanks to the effect of “Thrift Shop’s” reach via the radio – a medium that 90 percent of people still use. This is where Chace insists that Macklemore and Lewis relied on ADA to get placements in exchange for a share of the revenue with Warner Brothers. “You really cannot get a radio hit at this point without major label backing,” says Gary Trust from Billboard – the same institution tracking the success of a certain aforementioned free project.
In one of the more transparent tidbits ever written about the music business, Courtney Love layed out a scenario where a record label could take home $11 million dollars in profits off a “hit” album and leave the artist with nothing. Starting with a band receiving a million dollar advance with a twenty-percent royalty rate Love contends, “What happens to that million dollars? They spend half a million to record their album. That leaves the band with $500,000. They pay $100,000 to their manager for 20 percent commission. They pay $25,000 each to their lawyer and business manager. That leaves $350,000 for the four band members to split. After $170,000 in taxes, there’s $180,000 left. That comes out to $45,000 per person. That’s $45,000 to live on for a year until the record gets released. The record is a big hit and sells a million copies. So, this band releases two singles and makes two videos. The two videos cost a million dollars to make and 50 percent of the video production costs are recouped out of the band’s royalties. The band gets $200,000 in tour support, which is 100 percent recoupable. The record company spends $300,000 on independent radio promotion. You have to pay independent promotion to get your song on the radio; independent promotion is a system where the record companies use middlemen so they can pretend not to know that radio stations — the unified broadcast system — are getting paid to play their records. All of those independent promotion costs are charged to the band. Since the original million-dollar advance is also recoupable, the band owes $2 million to the record company. If all of the million records are sold at full price with no discounts or record clubs, the band earns $2 million in royalties, since their 20 percent royalty works out to $2 a record. Two million dollars in royalties minus $2 million in recoupable expenses equals … zero! How much does the record company make? They grossed $11 million.”
Consider this: for every $1,000 dollars in music sold, a signed artist makes $23.40. Should the most promising, young emcee in hip-hop sign with a major label? No, Chance.
Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who can be found @smart_alec_.