The Indiepocalypse

For the first time in two decades, an indie artist is topping the Billboard charts. For the last three weeks, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” has remained at the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100, beating the likes of Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.

The only other unsigned artist to ever hit #1 was Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)” in 1994, when her friend Ethan Hawke gave the track to Ben Stiller to include on the Reality Bites soundtrack. She quickly signed to a major label, releasing her debut album the following year with Geffen Records.

Lisa Loeb switched to a label as soon as she could because, in 1994, it was the only way to finance a full album, nationwide tour, market an album, get radio/TV airplay, and get distribution to record stores.

That prized record deal didn’t work out the way she’d hoped. Four years before Lisa Loeb joined Geffen, the label was acquired by MCA, later renamed to Universal Music Group. She ended up on Interscope/A&M, one of Universal’s many subsidiaries, where she received less-than-stellar treatment.

“They became a really big label and I felt they weren’t focusing a lot on music,” Loeb said in 2003. “They had executives telling you one thing one day and then telling you something different the next. They couldn’t deliver on their promises.” A planned music video was rejected by the label because they disagreed with the concept.

In the end, she had to negotiate to buy the rights to her own master recordings from Interscope.

Lisa Loeb wanted her work to be heard and she wanted to make a living doing what she loved, so she sacrificed her creative and financial control to get there.

For hundreds of years, publishers across every industry — book publishers, record labels, film studios, videogame publishers — solved problems for artists in four major ways:

  1. Funding. The cost of creating a new work, paying the artist’s expenses during the creation process, often with an advance.
  2. Production. Design, manufacturing, and printing of the finished product.
  3. Marketing. Going on tour, making a video, promotion in various media outlets.
  4. Distribution. Getting the product into people’s hands.

And how does this play out now?

Digital distribution subverted the monopolies held by physical distribution, bypassing distribution deals with record stores entirely, allowing artists to sell directly to fans. Social media and online music services changed the way people discover music, making the payola systems of MTV and radio airplay feel quaint. Production costs dropped dramatically as computers became more powerful and audio editing software got dirt cheap, along with new services for printing on demand. And, finally, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms offset the financial risk to artists.

Most importantly, each new platform let artists find, communicate, and sell directly to their fans.

Music is hardly alone here. Videogames, film, comics, books, product design, hardware, software, board games, whatever. Hackers and makers across every form of art are finding their fan bases, interacting with them, and selling to them.

We’re at the beginning of an indiepocalypse — a global shift in how culture is made, from a traditional publisher model to independently produced and distributed works.

Artists that were royally screwed over in the past now have an alternative.

As high-profile artists keep popping up across every industry, other artists will inevitably follow. For every Louis CK or Amanda Palmer, there are 10,000 other artists ready to wake up and try something new. It will be the default state for new artists, and a rising trend among artists with existing fanbases.

Publishers will have to evolve just to stay alive. Labels, studios, and other publishers can provide huge value — they can take care of the bullshit that artists don’t want to do. And they can apply knowledge and existing relationships to help artists, rather than asking artists to learn everything from scratch.

Artists of all kinds want to focus on making art, but not if it means giving up a large financial stake in their work, exclusive rights to their work, or a loss of creative control.

It would take much more work, but Macklemore and Ryan Lewis could do it all themselves. Why sign with a label, if it meant giving up so much?

If you have any doubt over whether Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will sign to a major label any time soon, check out the lyrics to “Jimmy Iovine,” a track off their debut album, named after the head of Interscope, Lisa Loeb’s former label. In the song, he sneaks into Jimmy Iovine’s office to try to get a record deal.

Finally see an office with a mounted sign, heaven sent

Big block silver letters, read it out loud: President (nice!)

This was my chance to grab that contract and turn and jet

Right then felt a cold hand grab on the back of my neck

He said, “We’ve been watching you, so glad you could make it

Your music gets so impressive in this whole brand you created

You’re one hell of a band, we here think you’re destined for greatness

And with that right song we all know that you’re next to be famous

Now I’m sorry, I’ve had a long day remind me, now what your name is?

That’s right, Macklemore, of course, today has been crazy

Anyway, you ready? We’ll give you a hundred thousand dollars

After your album comes out we’ll need back that money that you borrowed.”

“So it’s really like a loan?”

“A loan? Come on, no, we’re a team, 360 degrees, we will reach your goals!

We’ll get a third of the merch that you sell out on the road

Along with a third of the money you make when you’re out doing your shows

Manager gets 20%, booking agent gets 10%

So shit, after taxes you and Ryan have 7% to split

That’s not bad, I’ve seen a lot worse, No one will give you a better offer than us.”

I replied, “I appreciate the offer, thought that this is what I wanted

Rather be a starving artist than succeed at getting fucked.”

It took two decades for a second unsigned artist to top the Billboard charts. I’m guessing it won’t be long before we see another.

18 thoughts on “The Indiepocalypse

  1. worth noting:

    https://twitter.com/macklemore/status/293934766280015872

    @macklemore: “Kicked it with Jimmy Iovine today. Thought there was a good chance I was gonna get shanked….. Turned out to be a great dude… Shank free” (Jan 2013)

    Later he posted a pic of some beast by dre that Iovine apparently gave him.

    also:

    https://twitter.com/macklemore/status/255776195306737665

    @macklemore: “For the record…the song Jimmy Iovine isn’t a diss song against him. I’ve never even met him. It’s a story about the current state of the” (Oct 2012)

    Finally, some very unfavorable reviews of the record are appearing (after it reached #1)

    http://www.spin.com/blogs/stop-saying-nice-things-about-macklemores-thrift-shop

    “Right now, the worst song in the country is the biggest song in the country. … [Thrift Shop] misses the mark and ends up as a party track for privileged dweebs.”

    http://www.seattleweekly.com/2011-03-02/music/macklemore-the-head-and-the-heart/full/

    “Make no mistake, Macklemore is a preacher. Or at least preachy: ‘Wings’ is a morality play about why you shouldn’t fetishize expensive sneakers, because somewhere someone might die over a pair. There are strings, a children’s choir, and an overly obvious takeaway: Once the song ends, you’ll never lace up your Nikes the same way again.”

    The thing that struck me about these two reviews is that they focus on two tracks from the record that are explicitly anti-brand marketing; they might as well have been co-sponsored by Black Spot and AdBusters.

    There is something happening with Macklemore’s sales success that is very weird; I saw more reshares of the “Thrift Shop” video from fortysomething peers than I did from what I would think of as their target market.

    Finally, I would *love* to read some critical analysis of the record or other individual songs on it; the Seattle Weekly piece begins to examine an aspect of the material, the didacticism, but is primarily concerned, earnestly concerned, that Seattle musicians shouldn’t come off so earnest. The Spin review reads as pee-marking turf-defense to me and was therefore not very interesting.

    Side note:

    https://twitter.com/johnroderick/status/296352232817954816

    @johnroderick: ‘Here’s the link: “@simplogical: @jonathancoulton @therealmix @KUOW http://www.kuow.org/post/politics-federal-immigration-reform … starting at about 36:08” ‘

    Roderick and Sir Mix-a-Lot on Seattle’s KUOW on the Jonathon Coulton Glee thing and also Macklemore.

  2. Wow, that Jimmy Iovine does not seem a popular chappy… Die Antwoord had a helluva lot to say about him on their second album too (after they quit Interscope).

  3. I put the Heist on for the first time during my early morning workout on the day of its release.

    Hearing allusions to gladwell’s 10,000 hours in the first minute was a jarringly beautiful tipping point I won’t forget.

    Watching the tools and ethos of our independent creative subculture travel into and radically change culture at large is mesmerizing.

  4. This is mostly about the pop music industry, and only slightly applies in other creative areas. Authors have always been mostly independent, but still need editors to create high-quality works and promotors to get them seen (though there is less need for marketing and killing trees now thanks to tablets and e-readers).

    Top-tier video games require millions of man hours for both technical and creative work in addition to millions invested in online infrastructure – yes there are independents now, but as awesome and profitable as Minecraft is, it’s not World of Warcraft in quality or scope.

    You could argue that movie-making has been independent for years: Each movie is a new startup that gets funding, hires hundreds or thousands of employees (professionals who want real salaries) and then creates a product – distribution has been the real choke point, but that’s not changing even in the era of Netflix and YouTube because Bittorrent has maybe made theater play even more important.

    My point is that the music industry has been full of graft for years (as sung by Floyd) and is ripe for disruption, but other areas of entertainment have already *had* some sort of independent faction, and what’s left is mostly needed for anything but the one-off exceptions or the most niche/amateur efforts.

  5. Hey Andy, I left a longish comment here with a bunch of links and on submit it displayed a “moderation” page. Given how clogged up my MT mod comments were I’m guessing it slipped by under the radar.

    Also, apparently yesterday the NBA officially endorsed “Wing$” for a promo slot:

    https://twitter.com/nba/status/297148680258084864

    this is a song that includes these lyrics:

    “But see I look inside the mirror and think Phil Knight tricked us all

    Will I stand for change or stay in my box

    These Nikes help me define me, but I’m trying to take mine off”

  6. This is most definitely true for books as well. With the success of my self-published, self-promoted first book, I’m not seeing reasons to approach a traditional publisher for my second.

    I released Discardia: More Life, Less Stuff in fall 2011 and it has now paid back its costs (the biggest one being hiring a professional editor) and started to turn a profit.

    Russ, I disagree re: promoters being required to get a book seen. It just takes a commitment to connecting with your readers wherever they are online and a little moxie (e.g., offering the public library a free multi-branch speaking series to get a city talking about your book). Despite my turning my attention from promotion to research and writing for my next project, the Discardia book is still selling 3 copies a day on word of mouth alone.

    Further, I’ll note that from what I’ve heard I make about 150% per copy more than most authors earn from traditional publisher royalties.

    Yes, it’s hard work and you need to enjoy and get good at all aspects (not just writing, but production management, pricing, and promotion). Still, I find it very rewarding and, if I can keep turning out excellent, long-lived books, holds the potential to pay me a comfortable wage.

  7. Russ: Totally disagree. Up until recently, publishing books on your own was dismissed as “vanity” publishing, the realm of kooks printing their own material at Kinko’s. Book publishers held a distribution monopoly with major booksellers, so finding books by indie authors was challenging. But a combination of Amazon and digital distribution like the Kindle made that moot, leading the mass closure of bookstores as people got their books online.

    And regarding videogames, if you’re only looking at multimillion-dollar budget AAA games, you’re really limiting your view of the gaming industry.

    The indie gaming movement is thriving in a way it never has before. Minecraft is one of the bestselling games of all time, indie devs are building careers on top of Steam, XBLA, and iOS. Super Meat Boy, Fez, World of Goo, Limbo… These are all blockbusters from *tiny* studios, usually just a couple of people.

    And, of course, Kickstarter’s been transformational in how games are getting funded. Over $80M funneled to over 1,000 games, 12 of them last year raising over $1M completely on their own.

    The same thing’s happening with film. Independent filmmakers are releasing films on iTunes, DRM-free downloads, or new platforms like VHX, and people are buying. Theatrical releases have never been more unimportant, unless you’re a giant film studio.

    And more broadly, what’s changed is that these creators are in direct contact with their fans in a way that’s only happened with outliers in the past.

  8. I thought it was obvious that I was referring to the role of publishers generally, and not implying that there were videogames in the 18th century. *headslap*

  9. I really don’t see King James I negotiating agreements with the troubadours for summer gigs around the noble villages of Canterbury…

    So I guess he means “hundreds of years” of kingdom’s authorized trading monopolies, like the chartered Companys, starting back in the XV century.

    Read “Life Inc. How Corporatism Conquered the World, and How We Can Take It Back” by Douglas Rushkoff and you’ll find out amazing clues on how some crooks made this world becoming as fu*ked up as it is now.

  10. FWIW: your comment that she had to negotiate to get her masters back sounds incredulous; my understanding is that the masters are nearly *always* owned by the label, not the artist.

  11. Not always, but most of the time. And yeah, I’m totally incredulous. I expect the fundamental right to own your own work will be at the root of the battle I’m talking about. It’s fine for labels to negotiate exclusivity for a period of time in exchange for services, but owning copyright for the work or the master recordings themselves? Forget it.

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