James Blake Talks ‘Anarchistic’ Campaign Behind His First Single Since Going Indie

James Blake is “the freest [he’s] ever felt,” tells Billboard over a recent Zoom call.

After about twelve years spent signed to Polydor Records, the producer/singer is now independent and experimenting with new ways to release his music to “match the speed of the internet,” he says.

On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Blake released “Thrown Around,” his first single since he left Polydor. “I know it was an anarchistic move… Sunday’s a terrible day to release music, but I thought it was fun to try now that I can,” he laughs.

Part of Blake’s new post-label experiment includes paying creative collaborators both upfront (where applicable) and in “points,” or a percentage of the master recording royalties, so that everyone is “incentivized to push the song and to win together,” he says. Points on the master are typically only allotted to producers of a record, but Blake is going further, offering points to non-producing songwriters and his creative director, Crowns & Owls.

To pull it all off, Blake turned to Indify, a music company that lives by the slogan “artists are founders” and could benefit from raising capital for their releases similar to the way start-ups do. Instead of traditional label deals, Indify is a “service marketplace” for artists to meet strategic angel investors on a song-by-song basis, says CEO/co-founder Shav Garg. Interested acts select from an online leaderboard of angels – including music businesses like Thrice Cooked Media, Golden Kids Group and ATG and musically inclined Silicon Valley execs like Alexis Ohanian – to build their set of partners based on success metrics and the investors’ bios.

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Artists using Indify cede a percentage of streaming royalties for a given song until investors recoup the up-front funding and aid they offer. (Indify takes a 15% cut of the investor’s share of profits after recoupment and no investor is allowed to keep 50% or more of the streaming royalties after recoupment).

Founded in 2015, Indify is seen as a tool to “add gas to the fire,” as Garg puts it, on viral moments from independent artists. The company has had success stories include up-starts like Armani White, Pink Sweat$ and Anees, but Blake is by far the biggest artist to use the platform yet. “We’ve proven thus far that Indify can help artists go from, 20 to 70, but one of our goals has been taking an artist from 70 to 100, like major labels do,” says Garg. “I can tell James is willing and ready to lead the way for the next generation of artists and to take the jump, trying something like this first.”

Blake and Garg first bonded at a U.S. Open tournament several years ago and reconnected through Blake’s management when Blake began talking openly about his newfound independence and desire to handle his career differently going forward. Before “Thrown Around” dropped, Blake’s indie experiment included a partnership with superfans app Vault.FM to provide fans with unreleased demos for a monthly subscription. Garg and Blake aligned on the idea that “at a label, your music is subsidizing a million departments,” Blake says. “It’s a huge moving ship to steer, and it’s a bloated business with crazy overheads. I don’t want to pay for the CEO’s mansion in the Cayman Islands.”

Blake also felt there was a “lack of transparency” about how money was being spent on his behalf while signed to a label and that he didn’t have “much choice” in picking his team within the building, even if those assigned to him “didn’t really seem to understand” his project.

After going back and forth about what single to release as his first drop with Indify, Blake made “Thrown Around” and felt instantly that it was the right introduction to this new phase of his career. It’s easy to see why. The song (released May 26) and its video depict Blake as an artist desperate to get his music to go viral by any means necessary. At the end of the video, Blake is bloodied and bruised by all the ways he has dangerously attempted to feed the algorithm, and he ultimately learns that none of it was enough to sustain his art.

“James signed up online and used Indify just like anyone else does,” says Garg. Blake ultimately opted to pair with a combination of Good Boy Records and Stellar Trigger Marketing to build out his team for “Thrown Around” after finding them on the Indify leaderboard. Good Boy co-founder John Zamora says that “before the song came out, we already recouped the deal we did with James. We secured a pretty big synch, though I can’t say more than that.” Good Boy specialized in film/TV (or “synch”) licensing opportunities for Blake, but the company also connected with him over a shared interest in providing better compensation for songwriters.

In the last few years, songwriters’ dwindling payments in the streaming economy have made headlines, and a few indie labels have stepped in with a proposed solution to offer “points” for the songwriters who, unlike producers, typically don’t make money on the master recording side. As Billboard reported in December, this new cohort of companies includes Good Boy, The Other Songs, Facet Records and Nvak Collective. Some producers, like Good Boy co-founder Elie Rizk and Tre Jean Marie, have also been giving away some of their points to their songwriter collaborators. Now, with “Thrown Around,” Blake is joining the movement.

Stellar Trigger was brought into Blake’s Indify deal to aid with digital marketing. “Things have changed since I started,” Blake says. “Back then, it was quite easy to be mysterious. I mean, you have a whole generation of producers wearing masks. I think it’s pretty difficult to maintain that now and still get your music out there. It’s not the way it works anymore.”

Though Blake stopped short of wearing a mask, his early career characterized him as a mysterious musical genius with a “sad” disposition – an image he’s railed against in recent years. In a recent Instagram Reel, Blake wrote that he was “practicing looking sad for those who want me to be sad so that I make sad music forever,” in a cheeky dig at his fans.

“This is the most connected I’ve ever felt with the way my music is being pushed,” Blake tells Billboard. To brainstorm, he’s been in constant communication with Stellar Trigger co-founder Ryan Peterson to build the multimedia storytelling of “Thrown Around.” “We wanted it to be meaningful. There’s a lot of narrative here, with James leaving the major label and coming to independence,” says Peterson. “I’m constantly texting ideas back and forth with him.”

The story told in the “Thrown Around” music video was teased out, piece by piece, in meta social media posts about how artists have to make social media posts. Whether or not the song ever hits the Billboard Hot 100 is unclear, but Blake maintains that “Thrown Around” is still “more successful than any previous single campaign” of his career.

More importantly, it serves as proof that digital storytelling, lean budgets, equity incentives and the freedom to pick partners on a song-by-song basis can lead to creative and financial success in today’s market. Now, he’s in talks with his team about working together again for a follow-up single.

“I feel we’ve made something groundbreaking [with ‘Thrown Around’],” says Blake. “I’m excited for the future.”