Last week, Kanye West took on the music industry in an eventful fashion. He may not be an ideal messenger, but he had merit when he called out Universal, and the rest of the industry, for “unfair” business practices. It is only fair for major labels to be held accountable by powerful acts that have the means to challenge them in the court of law and public opinion. But more aspiring artists should realize that major labels aren’t the only road.
Independence is a challenging, yet rewarding path that gives artists ownership of their work and the chance to have full control over their operation, from the music to the marketing. One way that an indie act can set themselves apart from the vast pack of talent (and put good money in their pocket) is by garnering headlines with a unique music release. From the late Nipsey Hussle’s famous Crenshaw release to Roc Marciano’s self-releasing to the Wu’s legal entanglement with Martin Shkreli, there are plenty of innovative ideas for independent artists to examine and incorporate into future releases.
These projects might not show up on SoundScan, but don’t let that confuse you. Many of these artists ended up making good money and garnering invaluable notoriety with their releases. We’ve put together multiple independent music roundups and a Bandcamp Friday showcase. Here’s another resource. This is by no means a comprehensive list, so if you feel like we missed someone, feel free to comment below or let us know on social media:
De La Soul / Geto Boys
Legacy acts will always have hoards of (established, adult) fans ready to support them. In 2015, Geto Boys launched a Kickstarter campaign for their Habeas Corpus album, which raised $100K. The next year, De La Soul put together their own Kickstarter campaign for the album that became And The Anonymous Nobody. They also asked for $100K but raised over $600K on the platform. Artists boasting a hefty fanbase should tap into it if they need assistance with the production and marketing of an album. If nothing else, acts know that their supporters are virtually guaranteed to give them a listen. In the age of crowdfunding, “If you want new music, help us fund it” is a pretty simple ask.
The LA-based Latashá is another artist exploring crowdfunding for her music, but she’s offering more than a project. Her current LyteWrk crowdfunding initiative is also seeking funding for a media outlet focused on women in rap and empowerment workshops pertaining to songs on her upcoming album. LyteWrk a genius way for an artist to use a project as a springboard for an entire movement.
— Elliott Wilson (@ElliottWilson) August 8, 2020
There are few artists doing physicals better than enigmatic New Jersey rapper Mach Hommy. He piggybacked off of the Nipsey Hussle model with several releases, including his latest Mach’s Hard Lemonade album. The project is available on Tidal, but he also created a website where fans could purchase a limited supply of physicals at above-average prices: $77.77 for a cassette, $99.99 for a Digipak CD, $111.11 for a Jewel case CD, $222.22 for a standard vinyl, and $444.44 for a deluxe vinyl that comes with a wooden case as well as a Mach’s Hard Lemonade slipmat, stress ball, and air freshener.
For the past several years, artists have bundled low quality, mass-produced merch to their music in order to bolster their Billboard figures, But in Mach’s case, he added a limited supply of functional, well-done merch to his physicals in order to bolster the value of what his fans are receiving. The stress ball alone is worth the purchase these days.
When you’re independent, you can do what you want. That’s the logic R.A.P. Ferreira and Elucid put into their Nostrum Grocers collaboration project, which was released on cassette and sold for $1,000 on Feirreria’s Ruby Yacht website as “a thousand dollar tape cos i say so.” When you’re your own boss, and have fans who long to see their favorites be able to live off of their art, this is the kind of thing you can do.
Even in their heyday, CDs generally went for no more than $20. The late Nipsey Hussle sold his for $100 — twice. Observers scratched their head in 2013 when Nip announced that he was only pressing up 1,000 copies of his Crenshaw album, and they’d be going for $100 a pop. $100,000 later, Nip was laughing to the bank. The project sold out in 24 hours (with Jay-Z buying 100 copies), setting a standard that the people who love you will value your work as much as you do. The rollout was so successful that he did it again in 2014 for Mailbox Money.
Both mixtapes were marketed through his #Proud2Pay movement, stoking a sense of community (that received a free concert) and allowing buyers to feel like their purchase wasn’t just a transaction, but a statement on supporting independent artists. The most important takeaway from Nipsey’s releases is that you don’t need a million fans to make $100,000, just 1,000 that believe in you.
Roc Marciano is a godfather of today’s gritty, mostly-independent scene of spitters. He set a standard not just with avant-garde, drumless production, but by circumventing DSPs with his projects and getting back maximum value. Telling DJ Booth “if you’re not supporting me, then I can’t give you the art,” he sidestepped streaming providers “until (and if)” he felt otherwise and released 2015’s Rosebudd’s Revenge 2: The Bitter Dose directly on his website for $30. He told DJ Booth that the album was “printing money,” and tweeted that in 2018 that “this blueprint changed the game, If u build it they will come.” That lesson is as straightforward as it gets.
Run The Jewels
Most of the artists on this list sought to make a maximum profit off of their music releases. But in Run The Jewels’ case, they offer a free download of their Run The Jewels project, then run it up through merch. They’re among the best at using their music to lure supporters, then monetizing through vinyl, CDs, high-quality merch, and a (usually) busy tour schedule. It takes a particularly rabid fanbase (and creative merch) to pull off this model, but those looking to do the same should study them.
This release is from the brilliant idea, shoddy execution files. In 2014, RZA sought to create the most exclusive music release of all time, pressing a single double-disc and putting it on auction in 2015. The Once Upon A Time In Shaolin album could be released for free and played during listening parties, but it couldn’t be commercially exploited until 2103. It was a bold idea that ended up not working out mostly because of its purchaser — reviled “pharma-Bro” Martin Shkreli.
RZA says Shkreli made his purchase before his controversial price hike of the Daraprim drug. Out of guilt, they ended up donating most of $2 million to charity. Shkreli immediately began leveraging the album to troll fans, streaming snippets online, and telling Vice he’d consider “installing it in some remote place so that people have to make a spiritual quest to listen.” Shkreli tried to break the deal by selling the project on eBay, but he was arrested for fraud before the transaction was completed. The Justice Department seized many of Shkreli’s assets, including the album.
This is a cool idea for a prolific artist to emulate, though not in the way RZA did. The most important thing is screening prospective buyers, and possibly lifting exclusivity after a reasonable timeframe. Fans were upset about the idea because Wu projects are rare these days. But an artist who’s still releasing music while an exclusive, myth-making project is also out can have their cake and eat it, too. It’s hard to get people to value digital media in the same manner that older generations valued a CD (who remembers only having enough to buy one CD but wanting multiple?). But having a project that most fans could only hear about for a period of time would leave them eager to savor when it’s released to the public.
yasiin bey / mos def
produced by myself, lord tusk and acyde. pic.twitter.com/aG2htaq5jx
— Steven Julien (@FunkinEven) March 30, 2019
Late last year, Yaasiin Bey’s Negus album was played as part of a listening installation at the Brooklyn Museum. For ten weeks, fans could go to the museum, pay $25, and hear the first new music from the man also known as Mos Def since 2009. The project, according to NPR, was meant to “acknowledge the importance of hip-hop as a fundamental American art form” and also contained visual art from Ala Ebtekar, Julie Mehretu, and José Parlá. As of now, the album won’t be released in any other format, which riled fans of his in a manner similar to the Wu release.
Negus, like Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, is an innovative idea better exploited by an artist who already has new music out. An exclusive release is cool, but it will surely incur backlash from fans who aren’t able to access it.