Streaming platforms, distro services, independent label services and social media have made it possible for artists to produce their own material, start their own labels and reach a global audience from the comfort of their homes.
Here are 5 artists who “made it” on their own terms.
In November 2020, Stormzy was the first artist to sign with the new, UK-based 0207 Def Jam label. However, before this point, Stormzy was an independent artist who operated his own label #Merkly (a joint venture with Atlantic).
Stormzy emerged as a promising act in the UK’s underground music scene when he released Wicked Skengman – a series that featured freestyles over classic grime beats.
He went on to release his debut EP Dreams Disease in 2014 and won Best Grime Act at the 2014 MOBO Awards. He was also the first unsigned rapper to appear on Later… with Jools Holland.
In 2017, his debut Gang Signs & Prayer was the first grime album to reach the top spot of the UK charts. His sophomore album, Heavy is the Hand (2019), topped the charts and was certified gold by January 2020.
Chance the Rapper
Chance The Rapper is, hands down, the poster boy of music independence.
After releasing his debut mixtape, 10 day, in 2012, he started gaining a dedicated following and achieved mainstream success with his second mixtape, Acid Rap (2013).
His third mixtape, Coloring Book (2016), was the first streaming-only album to win a Grammy. He’s known for refusing a record deal with Kanye West’s GOOD Music and taking the independent route for his 2019 debut studio album, The Big Day.
This four-piece indie-rock band is steadily gaining mainstream popularity…while still remaining true to their independent roots.
Black Honey’s self-titled debut reached number 33 on the UK charts, despite not having any major label support. Their sophomore album, Written and Directed (2021), secured the number 7 spot on the UK Official Albums Chart and the number 1 spot on the Independent Artists chart.
The Chicagoan rapper, poet and record producer Noname rose to mainstream popularity after being featured on Chance the Rapper’s track Lost. She released her debut mixtape, Telefone, in 2016 and went on to release a full-length, Room 25, in 2018.
In an interview with Billboard, Noname talked about what independence means to her: “It means being the No. 1 decision-maker in every regard when it comes to anything that I were to release artistically, brand-wise. I want to have sole ownership over all of my work…I want freedom away from a structure, a musical structure, a system that has been put in place that historically has not really honored black artists the way they should be.”
English singer, songwriter and guitarist Jane Weaver ditched big labels and started her own label, Bird – an offshoot of Twisted Nerve Records and the Finders Keepers reissue label.
In addition to releasing her own material, the label supports contemporary female folk artists and Weaver’s contemporaries.
In a Guardian op-ed, Weaver describes why she opted out of the label system, “I’ve always wanted to do what I’ve wanted to do and you can’t really do that unless you’re independent. As an independent female artist, you have to work as much as you can with as many different people as you can.
We can arm ourselves with knowledge about the way things work. We can put something on YouTube and it becomes popular. We can access a huge mixture of diverse music. There is a price, of course. It took me a while to finish The Silver Globe because of financial restrictions, but being independent allowed me to make that album, to experiment and to make it work.”