Murs “Make It Work For Ya” & Lloyd Banks “On My Own” (Originally Published July/August 2010)

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It isn’t for everyone, but with an increasing number of rappers getting lost in the major-label system, for some, independent is the way to go.

Written By: Ben Detrick

It’s no secret anymore that music sales have been on the decline. Even as digital singles surge in popularity, album
sales continue to plummet (in 2009, LP purchases dipped another 12.7 percent). The traditional symbiosis—labels
profit from album sales, while artists get rich off royalties and shows—has been disrupted. MCs, executives and every self-appointed expert on the Web all whimper the same slogan: Nobody sells records anymore.

Enter the independent label. Due to the democratizing effects of technology, the narrowing distance between artists and fans, the benefits of artistic control, and the upending of the industry, the present could be the time for MCs to consider indie careers. As opposed to major labels—a classification that includes imprints or boutique labels funded or owned by Sony Music, Universal Music Group, EMI Group or Warner Music Group—an indie traditionally operates without big corporate backing (although the actual manufacturing and distribution of records is often handled by an outside company).

While artists on independent labels sacrifice powerful marketing and promotions budgets, A&R representatives and top-notch music production, they gain more control of their careers, ownership of their masters and, usually, a substantial cut from sales. In the past, indie artists would press up vinyl singles or sell cassettes from their trunk. Now they plug in the laptop. Anyone with a computer can produce beats, with a MySpace account can upload songs, with a Flip cam can make videos, and with a Twitter account can communicate with the public. The cost-efficiency is unbeatable. “I’m already [at] 400,000 units sold, [with a song] I recorded in my home,” says Lloyd Banks. “It feels good to do it the old-fashioned way. It’s like selling out the trunk—just through the Internet.”

The G-Unit lieutenant released two albums with G-Unit/Interscope—his platinum-plus solo album The Hunger for More, in 2004, and 2006’s Rotten Apple, which sold only 350,000 copies. In 2009, The Punch Line King confirmed that he had parted ways with parent company Interscope Records. He’s since gone indie himself, as a G-Unit
Records artist, and is enjoying one of the biggest hits of his career with “Beamer, Benz or Bentley,” a darkly hypnotic single featuring Dipset flame-spitter Juelz Santana. The 400,000 units the hit sold digitally is 50,000 more than his last album did. “When you on a major, it depends on how many people are on the label,” says Banks. “You could be [either] a name in the computer or a priority, because you’re only as hot as your last record.”

Once independent artists have established a following, the cagey ones can exploit their popularity to create revenue streams. With low overhead costs and minimal infrastructure, rappers can reap profits from album sales, performances, licensing agreements and merchandising themselves. From video games to commercials, there are plenty of ways for a savvy MC to squeeze money out of a song. “We’re starting to see that we can book our own shows, put out our own projects and reach directly to the fans,” says Naledge of Kidz in the Hall, an indie hip-hop group that started on Rawkus Records in 2006 and currently resides on indie powerhouse Duck Down Records. “You can cut out the middleman altogether, and that’s scaring labels, and promoters and a lot of people.”

If going independent is a sensible way for new artists to capture the spotlight, it also seems like a logical shortcut for veterans who have previously had the firepower of a major’s promotion behind them. This option makes most sense for those who have seen their stardom wane but still have a core fanbase and good business sense. Ice Cube is currently more famed for his Hollywood run than for his later-in-life musical career, but he’s had success putting out his last three albums on Lench Mob Records, his indie label.

Laugh Now, Cry Later embarrassed a lot of majors,” says Cube of his 2006 LP, which was certified gold. “It embarrassed a lot of people who make it their business to sell records—in a bad economy, in a bad time. We sold that record with six people: an aggressive team with a plan. And we didn’t spend a whole lot of money. To me, that’s the way to go.”

In addition to racking up iTunes, ringtone and other online sales, smaller labels are able to get physical product into stores, for people who still purchase records the old-fashioned way. “The major labels that exist have a long history of experience, established relationships, and there’s some muscle there. But beyond that, we have the ability to get product in the same stores,” says DJ Next, the founder and CEO of Amalgam Digital, a Boston-based label that has put out albums from Joe Budden, Saigon and Curren$y.

Still, artists must be realistic about the drop-off. Joe Budden’s 2009 album, Padded Room, on Amalgam, moved 30,000 units, while his self-titled debut, released on Def Jam Recordings in 2003, sold approximately 430,000 copies. Is the sales decline based on less fans or lack of overall sales, or the usually lower sales on an indie label? Hard to say.

Just as selling albums without a major-label machine can be difficult, it can also be a challenge for indie artists to crack into national radio rotation. Despite legal efforts to curtail payola, majors still have the resources to get their artists spins. Clear Channel, which owns and operates 900 radio stations across the USA, is suspiciously opaque about the process by which songs are selected for airplay (through a public relations representative, the company refused to speak with XXL).

Of course, life on an indie label has downsides. For starters, rappers should temper their expectations for stardom, platinum plaques and million-dollar advances. But for those willing to exert the effort, going indie can be a viable way to sustain a career and bank account. “When you’re in this business, you gotta be a scrapper and a hustler,” says Freeway, who released his latest album, The Stimulus Package, last February with producer Jake One on Minnesota indie RhymeSayers Entertainment, after starting his career by putting out two LPs on the major Roc-A-Fella Records. “I’m feeding my family, and I’m comfortable. I’m willing to put that work in.”

What the business is?