More and more musicians are releasing their own music: Here's why

  • Published
Lauren-Spencer SmithImage source, Lauren Spencer-Smith
Image caption,
Lauren-Spencer Smith gets 100% of the royalties when her songs are streamed

Last week, US singer Lauren-Spencer Smith stormed into the top five of the UK singles chart with her lovelorn ballad Fingers Crossed.

Much like Olivia Rodrigo's Drivers License, which was released this time last year, Smith's song is a mournful lament for the end of a relationship that went viral on TikTok before crossing over to mainstream success.

But there's one crucial difference: While Rodrigo is signed to the world's biggest record label, Universal Music, Smith has no record deal at all.

Instead, her music is distributed by a US service called TuneCore, which puts her songs onto services like Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube for a flat fee. Smith retains ownership of her master recordings and gets 100% of the royalties when her songs are streamed.

Achieving this level of success as an independent artist "is just really crazy," she says.

"I definitely felt in order to do something like this, I needed a huge label behind me and I needed a machine of people in marketing with a budget... but the fact is that we have not put a single dime behind marketing this song, and it's already doing what it's doing.

"Everyone I'm talking to [is] just completely overwhelmed by it - we can't believe it."

And she's not the only one. More and more musicians are choosing to self-release their music, or to strike favourable deals with independent record labels.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Kylie released recent music on her own label

Kylie Minogue's latest album, Disco, was released on her own label, Darenote. Dave and Little Simz, who are up against Adele and Ed Sheeran at this year's Brit Awards, have full ownership of their music. And last year's Mercury Prize was won by Arlo Parks, who is signed to the small indie label Transgressive.

"Independent music is as important as ever, and it's growing and growing every year," she told the BBC shortly after picking up the prize.

"This [trophy] represents the fact that you don't need a mad expensive studio to make good music - and that you can be yourself and people will accept you for that".

Spencer-Smith's manager, David Ehrlich, even suggests that a major label could have put the brakes on her success.

"Oftentimes, we don't want to direct an artist's career upon other people's availability or their agenda," he says, "and fortunately, the mechanisms for independent release allow for that now.

"So, if you write a great song, you can tease it immediately. And if you're getting a reaction, you can put it out without having to jump through hoops that might occur if you're working with other parties."

So, what makes an artist independent?

The term covers any musician not signed to a multinational recording label or one of its offshoots. But within that, there are a few sub-categories.

  1. DIY acts who upload their own songs to Spotify, YouTube, and iTunes through services like TuneCore, Ditto, DistroKid and CD Baby.
  2. Semi-independents, who sign "label services" deals with companies such as Awal, Absolute and Believe. These firms act like record labels, spending agreed budgets on marketing, distribution and promotion - but, crucially, artists aren't signed to a long-term deal, and retain ownership of their copyrights.
  3. Artists signed to smaller, independent record labels - although this includes "mini-majors", like XL Recordings, which launched Adele's career.

How big are the indies?

It's no secret that major labels are being outpaced by the independent sector. In 2020, indie labels and self-releasing artists saw their revenues grow by 27%, compared to an overall market growth of 7%.

In the UK, the sector represents 26% of the market, a figure that's grown by an average of 1% every year since 2017.

Globally, the indies' share of the music market is at an all-time high of 43.1% - worth a not-too-shabby $9.8bn (£7.19bn), according to MIDiA Research..

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
South London rapper Dave retains ownership of his music

"Self releasing artists and independent labels have an inherent advantage of being incredibly nimble," says Paul Pacifico, CEO of the Association of Independent Music.

"When they want to do something, they can get on and do it. This sets them up for success in that very dynamic, competitive area of new music."

"It's increasingly normal for independent artists to crack the top of the charts," says Tatiana Cirisano, a music industry analyst and consultant at MIDiA.

"Even artists that do end up signing record deals are often breaking through when they're independent, which is something we haven't seen before."

Why is this happening now?

In a word: TikTok. The video sharing app has revolutionised the way people discover new music - removing many of the traditional barriers that smaller, DIY artists used to face.

"Music discovery used to be governed from the top down," says Cirisano.

"Record labels would decide who to sign, then they'd market them, send them to radio, put the CDs on the shelves and you'd discover music from there. And now, I feel like the music industry is just increasingly reactive to fans' discoveries. So the equation has flipped, which is fascinating."

This is exactly what happened to Spencer-Smith. The Canadian singer-songwriter and American Idol graduate posted a casual clip ("without permission") of a recording session last November, where she was working on an embryonic version of Fingers Crossed.

The 47-second video gained more than 23 million views, with fans begging the star to release a studio version of the song.

"That's really propelled everything," says Andreea Gleeson, CEO of TuneCore.

"Fans on TikTok are connecting with artistry in a different way. When they find music they resonate with, they root for these artists, and then it propels it forward and it has offline success.

"It's just the dream. You don't need a gatekeeper for that any more."

Who's benefitting?

In the 80s and 90s, indie was a genre - scratchy, awkward guitar music, sometimes shambolic, often beautiful, written by outsiders and sung for the underdogs.

Nowadays, independent musicians span every conceivable genre, from Chance The Rapper's kaleidoscopic hip-hop, to Rina Sawayama's shape-shifting pop anthems.

The UK rap scene has been steadfastly independent for the last decade - with artists like Skepta, Dave, Stormzy, Little Simz and Central Cee all retaining ownership of their music.

"To be brutally honest, that probably came from a place of necessity," says AIM's Paul Pacifico. "I think that UK labels were less likely to sign artists in rap than they were to sign artists in other genres so rappers and hip-hop producers in the UK had build their own businesses."

The achievement is worn as a badge of honour. "Changed how we do it, went platinum with no deal," boasted AJ Tracey in last year's single, Little More Love.

Image source, Wolf James
Image caption,
Nina Nesbitt "thought her life was over" when she left her record label in 2016

Being independent "gives me creative control and freedom," the star told the BBC in 2019. "It's about being able to express myself exactly how I want to, instead of maximising profits."

Pop singer Nina Nesbitt tells a similar story. After struggling to make headway at Island Records, she switched to the small independent Cooking Vinyl in 2016 and saw her career take off.

"At the time when I was on a major label, it was very much a conveyor belt system, where they would sign you because you fit into a certain box," she says. "You would be the singer-songwriter girl and then, a few years later, another singer-songwriter would come up.

"I remember when I wanted to change my sound, it was really difficult because they were like, 'Well, we've signed you as the singer-songwriter and we already have people that do pop music.'

"Since going independent, I've just had a lot more control creatively. The label I'm on are much more like, 'We'd rather you have a smaller fan base, but a loyal one. People that are actually into your music, instead of the ones who know a song off the radio but don't have a clue who you are."

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

Nesbitt now has 4.6 million monthly listeners on Spotify - and says she's "definitely" making more money when her music gets played.

"I think it's concerning how small a slice of the pie people get on major labels," she says.

Is it right for everyone?

Everyone I spoke to for this article made the same point: Being a DIY artist is hard work. Not only are you making music, but you have to take all the big decisions on promotion, touring, video budgets, photoshoots, and all the other stuff that a record label usually covers.

"A couple of my videos have cost upwards of £50,000," noted AJ Tracey. "If I I don't recoup on the video, there's no label behind me to write off that money. It's me. I've just lost £50k out of my account."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
AJ Tracey won Best British Song for Ladbroke Grove at the 2020 NME Awards

When Nina Nesbitt answered the phone for our interview, she was busy pre-shooting TikTok content for an upcoming single - something that's increasingly part of the job.

"There's definitely a lot more pressure on the artist to be the one that leads the creative side of things, she says. "It can be a bit overwhelming - so it really depends on what kind of artist you are, but for me it's worked really well."

Burnout is a major issue for independent artists, agrees MIDiA's Tatiana Cirisano.

"The rosy dream of being an independent artist is sort of oversold," she says. "In reality, you're churning out content 24/7 - which, by the way, major label artists are being forced to do, too. Everybody is on this content treadmill.

"And there's this feeling that fans will move on really quickly if you don't continuously release music and have some sort of unique marketing campaign for everything that you release. So it's never been easier to release music independently, but the market has also never been so competitive."

Should the major labels be worried?

Not really. They still control the majority of the market and many have established their own "label service" companies, offering their global resources to third-party musicians.

Choosing between a major label and going it alone ultimately depends on the sort of career you want, says Paul Pacifico.

"If you're defining success as organically building a sustainable business, territory by territory, and really adding the personal touch, then an independent label may be a really, really good option.

"If what you're looking to do is to hit global scale very, very quickly," like Dua Lipa or Ed Sheeran, "then a global apparatus and a huge global marketing spend may be what you need."

Image source, Warner Music
Image caption,
Dua Lipa has the might of a big label behind her

Luckily, you don't have to stick with your first choice forever. Artists like Stormzy and Lil Nas X are among the artists who've harnessed the power of bigger, multinational labels to take their career to the next level after breaking out as independents.

Even Spencer-Smith isn't ruling out a major label deal after the success of Fingers Crossed.

"We're looking at all options - we'd be crazy not to," says her manager, noting that labels have become more willing to allow artists to retain their masters.

"You need a little leverage to do that," he says, "but that's something they've become a little more receptive to."

What happens next?

In the last 24 hours, 60,000 songs have been uploaded to Spotify every day... And that figure will continue to grow as artists become more aware of how easy it is to release their own music.

"If you have 10 bucks to put out a single, and you pay that each year, we'll get your music out worldwide to over 150 stores, streaming platforms and social media platforms," says Tunecore's Andreea Gleeson.

The problem is getting heard amongst all that noise.

Platforms like TikTok and Twitch allow you to experiment and get feedback in real time. Singers like SZA and PinkPantheress have found a success by uploading demos and unfinished songs, then putting their full resources behind the ones their fans seem to connect with the most.

It's a strategy that plays directly into TikTok's creator community, says Gleeson.

Fans 'falling into niches'

"The more raw and the less polished [a song is] on Tik Tok, the better, because it feels more native to the platform.

"We survey our users all the time and the thing that's holding them back from releasing their music is, 'I don't think it's ready'.

"But you don't even know who your fans are yet, so test it. Get your song out on social platforms. You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Cirisano thinks fans will play an even bigger role in sustaining the "middle class" of artists in the coming years.

"It used to be that mass fan bases were concentrated with a few household names - but it feels increasingly like fans are falling into sort of niches," she says.

"That's not specific to the independent sector but I think it benefits them. It's not about fame and fortune and being a superstar - it's about finding your core fanbase, who are going to be engaged and listen and buy your stuff, so that you can make a meaningful income from music."

Follow us on Facebook, or on Twitter @BBCNewsEnts. If you have a story suggestion email entertainment.news@bbc.co.uk.

Related Topics