How independent artists have changed the music industry

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The rise of the internet, social media and streaming means artists can now break a scene themselves. A report by Daniel Khalili-Tari for London’s Independent.

This year saw the rise of independent music. From Stormzy to Lady Leshurr, the otherwise socio-economically disadvantaged are emerging as the new profiteers and, more importantly, owners of their own culture. Previously, black music was owned by big business and its portrayal was delineated by those which it didn’t represent. But things are finally beginning to change.

The artist born Che Moran and know as AJ Tracey is from Ladbroke Grove: the same area of London where Bob Marley recorded his ninth album Exodus, and where Jimi Hendrix died. In October, Tracey’s fifth EP Secure the Bag! reached No 13 in the UK album charts, a considerable feat for a 23-year-old independent artist – and a clear example of the liberation of black culture. Fortunately, he’s not the only one.

Birmingham MC Lady Leshurr emerged on the scene in 2009 and has since released nine mixtapes and four EPs. Despite having yet to release a debut album, the artist – born to Caribbean parents – has received over 100 million YouTube views. Her lyrical ability, deft flow and refusal to rely on her sexual appeal has established her credibility among both new listeners and grime’s esoteric community. And her supercilious approach towards performing has led to her being described as a “queen” of the genre, attracting hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide.

The British urban scene at first struggled to gain recognition in mainstream culture and has primarily depended on independent media to help it reach its audience. Platforms such as Link Up TV and GRM Daily galvanised the acknowledgement and appreciation of urban music, eliminating the various barriers that prevent those from disadvantaged backgrounds in pursuing musical careers.

Saquib Butt, 22, is the social media manager and A&R at GRM Daily and welcomes the shift in power. “The recent success of artists like Skepta, JME and Wiley has led to a resurgence in independent black music,” he explains. “They proved that rappers can have successful careers without the backing of a major label.

“The growth in technology has helped too. Now artists can stream their music to millions and if they convert just a small percentage into paying fans, they’ve got a credible income. It’s a positive move in many ways. It gets young people off the streets and allows people from lives of hardship to make a change, while inspiring people in the process.”

But, there’s still work to do, he says, noting that grime is currently listed as a subsection on the hip hop/rap page of iTunes: “However, the rise of the internet, social media and streaming means artists can now break the scene themselves.”

Music streaming services such as Spotify, Apple, Google and Amazon have revolutionised the way in which artists are able to promote their music. The shift has decreased the reliance on more traditional industry methods such as signing record deals, releasing albums and securing radio play. The latest statistics show that 16- to 34-year-olds account for the greater part of music streaming in the UK: ideal for the urban scene, as the majority of its listeners also fall into this demographic. Acts like Not3s, Hardy Caprio and US artist Chance the Rapper all accredit their success to streaming.

The urban scene has an abhorrence for authority and a belligerence for the mainstream. Its counterculture lyricism, aggressive rhythms and ability to articulate social issues means it has proven difficult to amass more traditional and commercial support. This, however, has led to collaborations, the rise of independent labels and media, as well as internal support from other artists.

Veterans such as Akala, JME and Skepta have used their position to help the scene’s next generation. In 2012, Skepta took Krept & Konan on tour with him, which led to the infamous “Tour Bus Massacre”. The duo later thanked him on their track “My Story” for “fixing us”. As well as touring, prominent rappers have explicitly shown their support for upcoming acts like Stormzy, AJ Tracey and Dave. In a recent interview with The Independent, AJ Tracey cited JME as “one of the gatekeepers who supports people”, and received support for his EP on social media by other established artists such as Stormzy.

Hip-hop artist Akala, meanwhile, described an appearance on Question Time by rapper Dave as “phenomenal”. Both artists have always supported the independent route, using the internet to showcase their talents.

The greatest benefit of the scene’s grip on independence is that it allows artists to own their culture and to not be subject to the political and social constraints which signed acts have had to abide by. The ever-increasing interest in British rap has led major labels to make concessions in order to get artists on board. Universal Music Group, for example – one of the biggest music labels in the world – created the subsidiary label 54 London, so that Stefflon Don would sign. The deal allowed Stefflon to sign her label to Universal, granting her full artistic control over her own music.

The shift in power from the corporate world to independent artists has led to many acts openly stating that they’re not interested in getting commercial support. AJ Tracey said he wouldn’t join a major unless they could “do something which he couldn’t”, while rappers such as Bashy have spoken about not signing a deal as a positive thing.

Alternatively, Stormzy – one of grime’s best-known figures, who pioneered a transformation of the genre from a once discredited excursion by the mainstream to an internationally acclaimed genus – partnered with Warner Music to distribute his debut album Gang Signs & Prayer, which went on to become the first grime release to reach No 1 in the UK album charts. However he is still viewed as an independent artist, and recently said majors “don’t know what to do with black artists” in an interview with the London Evening Standard.

So, what does it mean to be independent? “Independent basically means that you haven’t got a record deal. So, the artist has to front all the costs,” Butt says.

“Stormzy doesn’t have the public backing of any major. However, he did arrange a distribution deal for his album and in reality, without it, it would have been difficult for him to sell so many copies. That’s not to say that the distributors didn’t benefit too. Of course they did. Who wouldn’t want to distribute Stormzy’s album?

“The shift in power, however, has had an effect on labels. Before, majors would primarily offer 360 deals [involving other income streams such as touring, merchandise, endorsements, TV and film roles, etc] and literally take a percentage of everything an artist made. But now, they know that they have to be fairer because artists can do it without them.”

This year saw GRM Daily host its third annual Rated Awards, while artists such as Stormzy, Dave, Giggs and Stefflon Don continue to surpass industry constraints. If authorities on urban music are right, this could be just the beginning of a shift in commercial power. Leaving the onus of black culture on those who it’s supposed to represent

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