I recently took part in the True Music Forum in Madrid, an event organized by Boiler Room. I was on a panel that explored whether DIY is now coming of age with a host of high profile artists, most of them urban artists, bypassing or twisting the traditional label model and still achieving stand-out success. On the surface, these look like golden years for DIY, and in many ways they are, but much of what is happening at the top end of the scale has little to do with DIY. Streaming is transforming how artists view recorded music income and is making it possible for artists to pick and choose what label capabilities they want. But more often than not, it is a variation of the label model that succeeds rather than a replacement of it. This is the start of the post-DIY movement.
The First Wave Of DIY
Firstly, to be clear, DIY is alive and well, better than it has ever been in fact. With labels increasingly only signing artists once they have seen them build up following and ‘a story’, it is becoming increasingly common for artists to spend the formative stages of their careers ‘DIY’, releasing their own music, managing their social campaigns, making their own videos, booking their own tours etc. Added to that, the combination of streaming, direct-to-fan platforms and social apps have combined to make it possible to build niche audiences on a global scale. So it is now possible for a new tier of artists to exist, a tier of artists that may never dent the charts (for whatever they may be worth these days) but that can build solid, sustainable careers by engaging their fans directly. Stalwarts like Bandcamp and CD Baby have never had it so good, while a whole crop of new entrants, such as the much hyped BandLab is emerging to drive the market forward. And of course, Soundcloud, for all its financial challenges, provides artists with a platform to engage massive audiences globally without need for any middleman whatsoever.
DIY Versus Empowered Superstars
That is the DIY movement that will go down in history as one of the most culturally significant legacies of the Napster market shock. An organic, grass roots musicians’ revolution. Now though, we are seeing the emergence of a more commercially minded take on DIY, one that draws on the practices of its predecessor but that combines them with the big label model to take full advantage of the best of both worlds. This new breed of superstar DIY artist enjoys the benefit of fiercely held independence with world class distribution and marketing. They are taking the tools of DIY but not all of the ethos. The superstar DIY artist typically builds a strong brand and buzz (and often, but not always, a big live following) and then uses that as a platform to strike a deal with a major label (or a major label subsidiary company) to get the benefits of major label scale without giving up control (nor masters). This can take various forms, such as:
- Using a major label’s distribution company (e.g. Stormzy’s ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ is distributed via Warner’s ADA)
- Setting up a label within a major label (e.g. Drake’s Ovo Sounds is part of Warner Music Group)
- Creating a tactical joint venture with a label for a specific release
In each scenario the artist retains large amounts of control (or at least more than in a traditional label deal) but gets the support of world class, global infrastructure and marketing. The artists picks the services s/he wants, like an advertiser does with a full- service ad agency. The label services and standalone distributor models have been around for some time, but now they are being used by business savvy, super ambitious superstars in-the-making. And the artist gets to retain an aura of authenticity and independence.
For those artists that want to push the needle even further, streaming services are emerging as an additional weapon in the armoury. Chance the Rapper revealed that Apple paid him $500,000 to become the exclusive streaming partner for ‘Coloring Book’, following hot on the heels of Frank Ocean’s Apple Music exclusive for ‘Blonde’. Apple is setting itself up as a modern day equivalent of the Medici – the medieval Italian family that was a driving force in the Renaissance through its patronage of artists such as Rafael, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Some time or another, Spotify will follow Apple’s lead. The superstar artist fits this streaming-service-as-label model best because an artist with big potential is going to deliver much better ROI for streaming services that are eager to drive market share and differentiation via original content.
Hip Hop Is Setting The Innovation Bar
Urban music, and hip hop in particular, has become a hotbed of artist-led business innovation. Although hip hop has always had stronger commercial sensibilities than other genres, streaming has brought the business innovation to the fore, ranging from the original hip hop superstar businessman Jay Z and his Tidal service, through Frank Ocean’s Apple Music released ‘Blonde’ to Stormzy’s streaming record breaking streaming success. And the innovation is happening at the grass roots of hip hop too. As the brilliant Kieran Yates noted on the Boiler Room DIY panel, many UK Grime artists are now signing publishing deals before label deals as a) this can often mean bigger advances in today’s indie music market, and b) there is a perception that this means giving up less control, which in turn empowers the artist to strike a better deal with a label, or label-owned company. This also opens up a world of opportunity for independent music marketing agencies etc who can become part of new, agile teams.
Streaming has been continually rewriting the rule book for many years now, but we are entering a period of even faster change, with many of the more fundamental effects being the indirect consequences, such as the rise of post-DIY. It would be wrong, however, to think of this as a ‘death of the label’ narrative. Because the labels (majors and indies) are being smart enough to be as flexible and agile as artists need them to be. Artists are changing and labels are changing just as fast to meet their new needs and terms of reference. Perhaps, the best way to capture the approach of the new era of post-DIY artist is to go back to Jay Z’s classic ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ lyric: I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man!