Opinion: Why Major Record Labels Are Dying A Slow Death


Does the DIY artist have the formula to make major labels minor players?

Illustration: MIKEY BURTON

THE PLAYING FIELD IS LEVELED. With increasing frequency independent music artists are making the case that mainstream success is obtainable without major label bells and whistles. With every Mac Miller record sold, Tech N9ne tour dollar earned or Macklemore & Ryan Lewis number one single, the question begs to be asked: Are major labels an endangered species?

Apparently it’s getting easier to do away with them. Rostrum Records showed true power when Mac Miller’s debut, Blue Slide Park, landed at No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart in 2011; and again this past June when the 21-year-old’s follow-up, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, hit No. 3 behind the albums of major label star J. Cole (Born Sinner) and megastar Kanye West (Yeezus). While Cole and ’Ye had music machines behind them with divisions that handle everything from A&R to promotions to marketing to publicity and distribution, Miller’s label did it all with an experienced seven-person staff. No fat; just efficiency and wins.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s 2012 shocker The Heist proved that indie hip-hop albums can still mine platinum. This year, the duo topped Billboard’s Hot 100 twice with multiplatinum singles, “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.” Although the pair didn’t sign to a major, it did link with Alternative Distribution Alliance—an indie business with ties to Warner Bros.—and have reaped radio benefits, while handling other duties like marketing on their own.

Many of today’s indie acts have succeeded with a concentration on digital. There are some, though, who have targeted their efforts toward face-to-fan interaction. Tech N9ne is the spokesman for how invaluable a good booking agent can be for a career. The enigmatic MC makes a bulk of his money on the road selling concert tickets and branded merchandise, as well as record sales. Last year, Tech hit number 192 on Pollstar’s 2012 Top 200 North American Tour chart––major artists Drake, Pitbull, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Wiz Khalifa were the only rappers to rank above him. Those are facts.

With artists like Kid Ink, The Weeknd and current L.A. champ Kendrick Lamar having established their star power via indie ingenuity before inking with the big boys, unsigned and heavily courted artists like Chance the Rapper and Joey Bada$$ now have to decide their best route.

Let’s be clear: Being signed to Interscope and Def Jam surely has its benefits. Majors still have an advantage on physical distribution and enough cash for hefty radio budgets, but any artist can land their music on iTunes. And companies like digital distributor INgrooves keep the skinny guy in the fight. The rise of satellite and Internet radio, along with streaming services like Spotify, will also ensure that both fans and artists aren’t new slaves to the terrestrial radio dial.

Unless you’re Justin Timberlake or Kanye West, independents can offer greater creative freedom and, at times, more lucrative deals—sleeker budgets and less recoupable costs. Mid-tier majors like Ace Hood, French Montana and Tyga––all of whom have sold less than Mac Miller this year––may want to consider this notion: Major record companies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But with the Internet and competitive digital music services, signing a big deal is no longer the smartest route.