Big music is primed for a reckoning. The idea that signing a huge record deal is what you need to launch a music career hasn’t aged too well. In recent years, the image of glamorous artist-label relationships has been replaced by the stories of unscrupulous bosses, sweet-talking agents, and harrowing contracts taking advantage of artists producing the hits we love. While jumping into bed with a label has its benefits, more artists are finding new ways to navigate the music industry on their own. The existing power structures have failed, and independent artists are taking control of their creativity, investing in their own grind. But forging a path alone can be daunting. While the literature on going the label route is very sturdy, what does being independent actually look like?
Tanerélle and Turunesh are two artists who bet on themselves and are thriving, pushing boundaries, and maintaining full artistic sovereignty. Here, they break down everything you need to know about going indie.
Meet Your Coaches
Tanerélle seems to have cracked the code on indie music success. The Atlanta-bred singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, model, and actress is the definition of self-made. With her music, she’s created a world of her own as the otherworldly Mama Saturn, traversing her atmospheric R&B and equally captivating visuals. “This year marks my 10th year in LA, working on this dream,” she tells me. “When you’re independent, don’t expect to be an overnight success. But now that I’m finally starting to see the flowers of my labor, it’s indescribable because that’s all me.”
Another artist who built her career from the ground-up is Turunesh. While African music is dominated by popular Afrobeats, the Tanzanian-Ethiopian singer is forging her own path with her distinctive voice and style of Afro neo-soul. “Obviously, it can be hard in the sense that a lot of infrastructures back home is necessitated by mainstream genres and there’s not a lot of space to be alternative back on the continent,” Turunesh says over Zoom. “As an African Neo-Soul artist, you can’t count on that big music support. That’s why I’m making room for myself.”
Why a Label Might Not Be for You
There's a whole world of nuance in how musicians can choose to navigate the industry, and an important first step is figuring out whether signing with a label or being independent is for you.
For Turunesh, being independent largely hinges on how much creative ownership she needs for her work to remain authentic. “As much as I love music and I love sharing, it’s still such a vulnerable process for me. And especially as an African making music in the wider industry, I don’t want my art to be mishandled by people who don’t understand it. That’s why it’s very important for me to be independent.”
Tanerélle expresses a similar fear of compromising to conform to a label’s commercial vision. “As a Black woman being in this country, in this world, I don't want people profiting off my existence. I want people to see me, see what it is that I do without the middleman watering it down to fit some business target.
“We have to question why it is that the people who are creating, giving their time, doing the performances, and making the music are the ones that get the shorter end of the stick?” Tanerélle asks. “As I started having meetings with record labels and saw my own contracts with my name written on them, I was seeing that [their terms] were extremely disheartening and unfair. And I know [when labels] put a machine behind you or money behind you, that you're not going to get 100 percent of what you want.”
While joining a label may provide artists significant financial support and resources, it’s important to remember that the recording industry was built on owning the copyrights of master recordings to be used in perpetuity. Take streaming revenue, for example. According to Ditto Music CEO Lee Parsons, “the problem is, whenever you see an artist complaining about streaming royalties, it’s always because they are signed to a label. Most artists actually make a lot of money from streaming — but with a label, you’re only getting very little back of what you actually earn.”
What Tanerélle and Turunesh describe is something many artists in the industry grapple with: the feeling that they need to reach for a persona that simply isn’t their own in order to sign with a major commercial record label. But when you look at the numbers, a lot of the time, the rewards aren’t necessarily worth that sacrifice. Independence might be a better fit.
Bet on Yourself
How should you proceed now that you know what record companies make versus what trickles down to artists? Thankfully, it’s only getting easier to release your music and build a career without the backing of a label.
“There’s a financial aspect of being an independent artist that can be very daunting,” says Turunesh. “Pouring your entire savings into your music, finessing, trying to make things work, pulling favors, paying people what you can, that’s all part of being an independent artist.”
You’ve got to be willing to invest in yourself first, and Tanerélle is a living reminder that there’s also power in letting others bet on you. In 2017, she put out her debut EP, 11:11, after crowdfunding it via Kickstarter. “I feel like people [contributing] to a project is stemming off their belief in you and what they already know and love about your art.”
When Turunesh was figuring out the funding situation for her album, Satin Cassette, she initially played with the idea of signing a deal. “It would have been a huge stress reliever to have a major label work with me. I had a couple of conversations [with labels] and things were looking good, and then I started seeing these deals, and it really, really broke my heart. I thought about what I wanted to achieve, and who I wanted to be, and I realized I wanted it to be more than just music. I wanted it to be an empire, and to do that, I needed to maintain ownership.” In the end, she felt empowered to take charge of her own work, to build something beyond music, which led her to start her own label, Neshå Empire. “I want to grow Neshå Empire. I want to build a legacy of my own. I want to give something to my children when that time comes, and uplift my community. There’s more room to do that if you’ve established yourself as a company and as a brand.”
It all sounds quite complicated, but “it’s actually quite simple,” explains Tanerélle, who also took the step to found her own label, Mama Saturn Enterprises. “I got an attorney and I got an LLC. It's really just a business move about having anything that is coming through musically go through your company and that's your label. I set that up so that moving forward, if there is someone that makes sense to go into further endeavors with, that will be a partnership. And I won't be owned by anyone.”
Creative Vision Is a Must
Tanerélle and Turunesh have mastered DIY success by going beyond the music as great visual auteurs as well. From creative directing to executive producing video and photoshoots, independent artists get to be very intentional about the work they put out. Tanerélle and Turunesh argue that it’s a necessary part of being indie.
“When you're an independent artist, you become a business. It’s no longer just about the music. You have to know how to market that. It’s all an art form,” explains Turunesh, whose intimate visuals feel like a peephole into the memories, desires, and rituals that inspire her songs.
Tanerélle agrees: “You don’t want to depend on attracting a fanbase purely on music. If I can bring people in with the visuals, if I can show my work, not only sonically, but visually, then they'll come for the visuals and stay for the music. And on the other end, people who come for the music can stay for the visuals.”
It can be as simple as getting more bang for your buck from photoshoots by shooting several looks in one session. “I mean, I'm changing the hair, the outfits, the background color, all of these things to where it seems like I'm shooting every day, but I probably did four to five photoshoots in a span of one week. And now I have very strong pictures to use for the next six to eight months.”
I remember a time I knew of the galactic Tumblr-esque aesthetic of Mama Saturn, circulating across social media, before I put two and two together and realized this was the same Tanerélle behind those moving songs. She doesn’t underestimate the importance of being hands-on while also having a team to execute her vision. “So many people have asked, ‘Do you shoot with the same person?’ And I'm always like, ‘No, I’ve shot with at least 10 people.’ But that is such an exciting question to me because it means I've successfully created this world for myself, that I'm always able to bring that essence regardless of who it is I’m working with.”
Do the Work
At the end of the day, being an independent artist means your work is no longer just about the music. Without that artist-label relationship, most of the artistic and financial responsibilities fall on you. “You have to be your own everything and it can be super exhausting,” says Turunesh. “That’s why [you should] have a plan that's as sophisticated as possible, and take your time.”
When asked about her biggest piece of advice for independent artists, Turunesh’s response is clear: “Patience,” she says. “Don’t be in a rush. It can be such a difficult, frustrating, and exhausting process, and you really, really have to have a backbone for it. You have to accept failure and be prepared to put your all into something and sometimes not see any result. Move forward and take that as a learning experience. It will all pay off.”
Tanerélle doesn’t believe she would be the artist that she is if she hadn’t gone the independent route. “I feel I’m in the space that I'm in now because I've got to study all these things, not only creatively, but the business aspect as well. It makes you confident and knowledgeable in yourself that you're able to take on these different forms when you start working with other people. It’s a slower process, but in the end, the rewards will be that much sweeter.”
Both artists speak of days waiting for calls, rallying teams, and pulling favors, days that felt disheartening at times but became part of the journey. “Focus on the mission,” Tanerélle advises. “One of the biggest things that really helped me get to where I am is, ‘Don't be afraid of hard work.’ I always tell people, the only way to not make your dreams come true is to quit.”