Discovery Mode: How the internet allows independent artists to make it big

The internet and social media has democratized everything in the world. At Presidential election debates, people directly ask candidates questions on Twitter. The Arab Spring movement in the Middle East was spurred by social media activism. Even movies and products are created thanks to crowd funding campaigns on websites such as Kickstarter. The same effect has reshaped the music industry.

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In the past, the only way for a recording artist to become widely known was to be signed to a major record deal such as Sony or Warner Music Group, who have large amounts of cash to spend on promotion and distribution. Artists from James Brown to Red Hot Chili Peppers were able to become massively popular acts due to financial backing from major labels. Airtime on MTV, radio, and advertising creates fan bases, but these tools are very expensive.  In fact, it can cost upwards of $400,000 to put one song on the radio. Obviously, most musicians cannot pay such as hefty fee themselves, and neither can small record labels. Independent labels, which do not receive funding from major organizations, were often used as starting points for professional musicians, in hopes of gaining some popularity and later signing to a larger record company.

However, there are downsides to signing to major labels. First, a major label’s number one concern is money, and they want musicians with talent to make them a lot of it. Therefore, record executives will often require artists to allow the label to control their artistic direction, and they will take huge cuts out of the artist’s profits to pay for recording time, promotion, distributions, and salaries. Artists would end up making $1 per album they sold or only 10% of the profits. However, independent music labels do not dictate the artistic direction of the musicians, and they often have much fairer royalty splitting deals. Thanks to social media and the internet, independent record labels and artists are able to efficiently promote and distribute music more than ever.

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Since the inception of the internet, musicians have the ability to promote their music for free or nearly free and without the help of a major record label. Websites such as YouTube or SoundCloud allow musicians and record companies to upload their work to the internet for no cost, and if people like the music, it can be shared with others on social media. For example, superstar rapper Macklemore gained wide recognition for his music on Youtube and created a massive fan base on Twitter and Tumblr long before releasing his debut studio album. He then released his album independently, for online programs like iTunes and Spotify make distribution much more affordable. Since the internet and social media allowed Macklemore to release and promote his music cheaply, the rapper was able to keep creative control of his music, take a much larger portion of the profits his work made, and rely on his fan base for support.

Since the internet has “democratized” music, the listeners and artists are now gaining control of mainstream music. Instead of just artists funded by major labels, now every musician can afford to share their work with the world, and whatever people like the most will become popular. Today, an artist’s success can be measured by views on YouTube as much as number of albums sold, and musicians are not discouraged to make the music they want, for they do not need approval from a label in order to sell their music.  Instead, musicians depend on the listeners to become successful. Thanks to social media, people can discover artists from around the globe whose music might have never reached their ears, such as Phoenix from France or Yung Lean from Sweden. Regardless of an artist’s culture of origin, music can become popular in any country, like PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” Therefore, the internet and social media has made the music industry more artist and listener driven than ever before.

One thought on “Discovery Mode: How the internet allows independent artists to make it big

  1. Social media has definitely changed the music industry. Artists like Macklemore would’ve never been successful before it. A lot of rappers are successful because its easy to get out a mixtape online now and then get a deal from that.

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