I talk to artists everyday who consistently think that they need to get a “major label deal” in order to find success in the music industry. I spend probably half of almost all of my conversations each day explaining to emerging artists that in today’s music business it is completey unnecessary. You don’t need a major label to be successful! I guess in some cases it can help with various aspects of your career…but only LATER on down the line when you could possibly use the “big machine.” Down the line when there is a demand that warrants it. Getting a major label deal is more of a means to an end. It is like “franchising” your business. But, I truly feel any success can really be achieved on your own. In today’s music market, utilizing social media, online distribution, great recordings (sometimes even home recordings if done properly), branding, marketing, and learning the current music business is all any recording artist needs to succeed in today’s market. This can all be done successfully as an independent artist. In the old days, yes you needed a major label to help you succeed in the music industry. But those days are done! Those were the days when you had no other options. No other outlets besides getting your albums placed in major chain stores, and having to rely on a major label to market you through their channels. These were the only channels that were available. There were very little to no options available aside from a major label. But not anymore! Thousands of artists are able to generate a substantial amount of revenue, and even become successful without having to depend on a major label today. One of the more notable groups to succeed recently in the current paradigm of the music business is the hip hop duo “Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.”
Hailing from Seattle, Washington, rapper Ben Haggerty aka Macklemore and producer counterpart Ryan Lewis, have been doing a unique style of hip hop since the early 2000’s. They have become one of the hottest acts in music by continually working on building a solid grassroots following that incorporated dropping self-made E.P.’s/albums, touring relentlessly, and leveraging social media. On October 9th, 2012, the duo released “The Heist,” and within hours it was the #1 album on iTunes. The album received widespread critical and commercial success, with publications like Rolling Stone Magazine saying it “is one of the year’s sleeper hits.” The duo received an enormous amount of hype due to the fact that they refused to sign with a major label nor use samples for their music. They also found themselves in a substantial amount of controversy by dropping the singles “Jimmy Iovine” (based on Interscope-A&M-Geffen Chairman who is one of the most successful record execs of the last 30 years), and “Same Love” (which addresses homophobia in the hip-hop culture.)
Check out the single “Jimmy Iovine” here:
Check out the single “Same Love” here:
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have recently been in music news headlines for striking a worldwide distribution deal with distribution heavyweight ADA. ADA (Alternative Distribution Alliance), was formed in 1993 to focus solely on the independent sector of the music business. It has become a home for some of the biggest indie labels in the music business. Matador (known for bands like Interpol, Pavement), Saddle Creek (home for indie hipsters like Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk), Merge (critic favorites like Spoon, Dinosaur Jr., and Grammy Winner’s Arcade Fire), Epitaph (punk legends like Bad Religion, Pennywise, and Social Distortion), and Domino (London based label for indie rock bands like Artic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, and The Kills) among many others have all benefited from ADA.
ADA’s goal is to give independent labels the access and flexibility to a major distribution system that combines the effectiveness and reach of a major label. A major factor for the development of ADA is for indie labels to be able to retain the qualities and capabilities that make an independent label so attractive to a recording artist. ADA’s business model has proven to be extremely successful by proving the importance of having a national distribution channel that is built on a strong artist development model. In 2007 ADA was named the “Medium Distributor of the Year” by the NARM (National Association of Recording Merchandisers), and has been ranked the No. 1 indie distributor for 6 years in a row, according to Soundscan. According to Wikipedia, “Warner Music Group combined Ryko Distribution with ADA to create an independent label service company that provides a suite of services including physical and digital global distribution, physical production, merchandise production and distribution.” There are many additional factors that make ADA an attractive distribution company for artists and indie labels. They offer accounting management, in house music licensing, the ability to customize products and services, an in house team that can develop strategic marketing and sponsorships, and many digital marketing tools.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were able to secure an outstanding worldwide distribution deal that is comparable to that of any major label NOT by sending unsolicited material to A&R staffs. They didn’t get their “music heard by the RIGHT person” (actually got it heard by a zillion fans). They did it by building a grassroots campaign online, leveraging a fan base, and playing an endless stream of shows. Their following and social media presence became so compelling that they were able to strike a domestic deal with ADA. After the initial US deal with ADA became so successful, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were able to turn the US distribution deal into an international one. The international distribution campaign began in Australia where their lead single “Thrift Shop” went six times platinum and spent seven weeks at the top of the chart. The album eventually went to #1 in Australia. What followed was an unprecedented string of chart topping success in almost every country it was released in. “The Heist” went to #1 in Denmark, Canada, New Zealand and the US. It is also in the top 5 in both Norway and France. The release became a top priority for ADA chief Dan Chalmers, who personally oversaw the international deal and release. Chalmers stated in an interview with Rolling Stone.com, “Our structure has been designed to provide successful independent artists like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis with the strategic global distribution capabilities of a major label to support the release of their own music.”
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s deal with ADA is probably the first of many like this that I believe will eventually end up being the blueprint for the future of the music business. It will be a business that starts with an Indie artist blowing up on their own by utilizing a grassroots strategy. Then forgoing a major label to retain their rights and their creative control, while eventually partnering with various companies to help broaden their reach to fans. Majority of artists who take their art and business seriously see a value that a major label could possibly offer them. But ALL of them always mention that if they could, they would choose to stay independent and keep control of their music. When signing to major label for the first time, you essentially forgo an incredible amount of creative control over your image, brand, and YOUR MUSIC (you will only gain some amount of creative control when you exceed a certain amount of albums sold and prove you know what you are doing). You forgo it at the chance of being able to utilize the major label machine to reach a larger audience. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s manager Zach Quillen explains how they adore the fact that they were able to stay independent and gain international distribution while keeping control of all aspect of their career. Quillen says, “It’s of utmost importance to us that throughout the whole process we retain our artistic independence. By partnering with ADA we are working with a team who recognize and respect that while at the same time enabling us to deliver against our global ambitions for this album.” In today’s music business paradigm, what a major label will offer you can be duplicated as a DIY (Do It Yourself) artist. Originally distribution was one of the main hurdles for an indie artist. Today that issue is clearly resolved with companies like CD Baby and TuneCore offering worldwide distribution to anyone at an affordable price. Then you encounter the marketing factor. Many artists say that they are unable to reach fans and build a fanbase the way a major label could do it. Well look at artists like Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, Psy, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, among MANY others. All of these artists had built an enormous fan base on their own. They figured out how to utilize social media, play shows non-stop, had digital distribution, had music on online subscription sites, and were successfully able to brand/market their music to build a fanbase. The one caveat is they learned how to leverage these tools better than everyone else trying to do it. Remember it is a flooded market place. Millions of artists are online just like you are. In order to stand out, you need to learn how to utilize all these tools you have at your disposal. Just being on those sites is not enough today. A successful artist is one that has developed a certain amount of entrepreneurial zeal and music business acumen that unsuccessful ones either don’t have or refuse to learn. Take a page from literally the #1 artist today. Learn the biz. Invest in yourself and your business. Record the best music you can. Play shows anytime, and anyplace. Speak to your fans. Make new fans. Learn how to leverage those fans to build more fans. Add all this up to create a consistent stream of revenue. I don’t see the dire need for a major label in this equation. Neither did Macklemore & Ryan Lewis…and look at where it got them? Literally at the top of the charts worldwide.