To sign or not to sign? That is the career-defining question.
For most of our lifetimes, the answer was obvious: artists sign to a label. Until the early 2010s, social media was not a feasible self-promotion tool, the breadth of information by way of YouTube tutorials and Reddit forums that we see today did not exist and streaming platforms like Spotify lived only in the imaginations of their now-billionaire founders. As a result, gatekeeping was at an all-time high and autonomy practically out of reach.
But today, things are quite different. MIDiA Research found that independent labels and artists over-performed in the music market in 2020, collectively growing at 27%. According to the research company, market share statistics “significantly underplay the revenue contribution of independents,” sparking a 2021 study by MIDiA that measures market shares on an ownership basis, rather than a distribution basis. Per their findings, the market share of independent acts jumps up by 9.2%, to 43.1% — in other words, an additional $2.1 billion.
See latest videos, charts and news
See latest videos, charts and news
Artists like Mexican indie phenom turned popstar Carla Morrison decided early on to embark on the independent path, citing reasons like ownership and creative control as the motivating forces behind their decision. Morrison broke into the music scene at 18, playing small shows at cafes in Baja California, before the indie route was considered “cool.” Today, the Grammy-nominated singer remains independent with no plans to switch her approach: “I decided to not give in and find my own path by myself, even though it was going to be harder,” she says.
Billboard spoke with eight rising and established independent artists across genres, including Joyce Wrice, Ayleen Valentine and Siena Liggins, about their indie journeys, advice for aspiring artists and the major ways they fund their careers, without the label advance.
Carla Morrison, 36
“When I started thinking about [being an artist] as a full time job, I never really thought, ‘I have to make money to be able to keep doing this,'” says Morrison. “But something that was very clear to me was that as a woman, it was going to be harder.” Morrison, a now-beloved and far-reaching singer with two Latin Grammys under her belt, recalls receiving pushback to receive even $100 for a show in her early days singing throughout Baja California. “Little by little, I started to see that this industry is pretty hostile and that it’s not easy to find a manager [you] trust to take the lead,” she recalls.
By 2010, Morrison says she found her team and was able to sustain herself “not in a luxurious way, but I could pay rent and have my little apartment.” A few years after that, the singer recalls being wined and dined by labels, and receiving bigger and more consistent checks for her music. Today, Morrison remains indie thanks, in part to advice from fellow Mexican singer-songwriter Natalia LaFourcade: “She said, ‘If you’re independent, that’s a great route. Because it’s so hard when they don’t believe in you.”
Why being indie is great: In the sense of making money, it’s been the best decision I’ve made. It’s allowed me to really take my time to make my music, to take rest time — I don’t feel like I work for anyone. I work for myself. Also, owning my masters, writing my own songs. When I was living in Paris, I was getting royalty checks and they were paying my rent. And it was like, “Wow, I’m so glad I wrote the songs myself.”
Why it’s hard: Feeling neglected because you’re not on a big-name label. Also this connotation of indie artists — it almost feels like you’re like trying to be an artist, but you’re not, because you’re indie. I f–king hate that. When I was living in Arizona, my friends in bands were all indie. And we all thought we were cool, because it’s cool to be indie. But when I moved to Mexico, being indie wasn’t cool.
One way I make money: YouTube lyric videos. My audience in Mexico gravitate towards YouTube a lot. Those lyric videos passively have paid my rent. When we did it for one album, we went ahead and did it for everything.
One piece of advice: Spend money. As the money comes in, it also has to go out. Invest in your wardrobe, your mental health, in everything you need. I feel like there are a lot of indie artists who are scared of spending. If you elevate your artistry, everything is gonna elevate.
Starting off in commercial songwriting at NYU, Michigan-made pop singer Siena Liggins stepped into the world of independent artistry with her 2018 single, “Flowerbomb,” alongside distribution partner Stem. Since then, the singer has played concerts and festivals across the U.S. and Europe, sharing stages with the likes of Lizzo, Doja Cat and King Princess. She released her debut album, Ms. Out Tonight, just last year. Most recently, her album cut “Blush” was licensed for comedian Nikki Glaser’s HBO special, “Good Clean Filth.”
Why being indie is great: At every level, I’m involved. I have full autonomy over my career, who joins my team, who doesn’t. Over the last four years, I’ve learned so much about how to be an artist — if I would have gotten a major label deal straight out of the gate, I might not have had so much insight into how things work.
Why it’s hard: The same exact thing. I am a whole team in one person. I have to manage myself, my relationships, my calendar, bank account, taxes, all of that stuff on my own. Unless I can recruit people to help me with it, and then that becomes something to manage as well. It truly is being an entrepreneur, which is something that I don’t know if I necessarily cared that much about [being] when I was thinking about becoming an artist.
One way I make money: Syncs and licensing. They usually come in checks that can sustain me over months at a time. They’re really good looks for publicity. And I feel really good about paying the stakeholders in my music. The producers get paid off of it, contributing songwriters get paid. Syncs can be anywhere from a few thousand up to $100,000. I’ve gotten syncs for ads on TikTok or Instagram that are a couple thousand, and we’re splitting that amongst five people and the sync service. I’ve walked away with like $70 before. It just has been a way to legitimize myself as an artist and say, “This is a functioning running business, not just a hobby.”
Breaking into the Christian music scene by way of his collective, indie tribe, Dylan Phillips has seen both the label and indie sides of artistry. Signed to Capitol Music Group for a year in the late ’10s, the rapper known as nobigdyl soon returned to the independent life, which he says made more sense for him. Today, the Tennessee-raised rapper brings in over half a million monthly listeners on Spotify, with his accessible faith-inspired rhymes. During his childhood, Phillips was a part of the downloading generation, grabbing cracked versions of music making softwares and recording vocals on $10 microphones from Walmart (“To be honest, we probably stole them,” he admits with a chuckle). “Most people were just downloading songs or movies, we were downloading software like Fruity Loops,” says the California-born rapper.
Eventually, Phillips entered every side from production to management — until he finally fell into the role best suited for him, thanks to encouragement from rapper Derek Minor. “He was like, ‘I don’t know anybody who makes it without a push or without cutting the safety net,'” he says. “I did three mixtapes that year and that snowballed. That’s when it started to be my full-time job.”
What was it like being on a label versus being indie? I did feel like my wings were clipped at the label, because I can’t make the exact creative decisions that I want, and you’re trying to mold me into this thing that has worked for the label before — and on top of that, I’m not making money, because you own the streams of income. I made less the year that I was on label than I did the year before when I was indie. And the project that I did on the label did four times better than the one I did indie. That’s why a lot of artists get depressed. We’re artists, and now our art has been changed, and we’re not even making money.
What’s a challenge of being indie? Me and my friends, we all worked a nine to five, and then at night, you’re making music. Then you have to get by on less than the average person, because you actually have two jobs, and one of your jobs takes financial investment from the other one. That’s hard, especially in this economy of attention and all the noise that’s on the internet. How do you break through that noise with stuff that’s funded from your little nine to five?
What was the solution? The answer for us was community instead of competition. Instead of trying to get my song to be louder, what if we’re all working together to our different strengths? That actually took us to the net. That’s how we got people to listen to our music. That’s how my album was top 10 hip-hop on iTunes in 2017. Nobody knew who I was before that, but we pooled our resources and the fans responded to that.
One way I make money: Brand partnerships. I’ve had Reebok deals, direct Instagram deals, DistroKid deals, and I’m an independent artist who most people in the world don’t even know — like, why is Reebok paying me to shoot stuff? Brands respond to authenticity — but more than anything, they respond to your numbers, and your numbers come from regular people responding to your authenticity. I had the Reebok deal; now, when other brands approach, I’m gonna leverage that deal: “Well, this one was this much, so you got to come up to this level.” Last year we made like $30,000 from my brand partnerships.
Shaé Universe, 27
The independent and self-managed U.K.-based singer got her start with 30 second Twitter covers, “That’s how I discovered that I had the type of voice that has an audience,” she says. Thanks to her virality, Shaé was spotted by big-name artists, leading to opportunities that expanded the songwriter beyond social media apps. With her 2020 single, “You Lose,” the soulful singer brought in a new “R&Drill” sound that was met with praise, giving way to a spot on the BET Soul Train Awards’ Soul Cypher, and recently, a billboard in Times Square following the independent release of her debut EP Unorthodox, in April.
“It’s been very rewarding in the sense that I’ve been very hands on with everyone, there’s been no middle men,” Shae says. “I have formed all the relationships myself.” Most recently, the singer was in the studio with global Afrobeats star, Wizkid and headlined her first sold out show.
How do you juggle all these roles? Honestly, sometimes I do think a little part of me must be crazy. I would advise for independent artists to have the experience of managing themselves for a period of time, but I wouldn’t advise anybody to do it for as long as I’ve been doing it, because it is truly very hard. And especially when things start to get a bit busier… it all kind of becomes too much. Now, like, as we’re speaking, I’m currently in a trial period with a manager. So I think it’s getting to that stage where I’m gonna have to start delegating and handing things off to other people.
What’s an important quality for an independent artist to have? Discipline. As an independent artist, you have to be disciplined with your money with your time. If you’re [thinking that] you work your nine to five or whatever, and then you just blow that money on, you know, holidays, or whatever it is that you want… yeah, that’s fine, you can do that. But guess what: You’re not going to have any money left over to invest in your actual art. So that’s one sacrifice that I’ve had to make — like, wait a little bit longer to do all the vacations and all these kinds of things, and actually invest my money on the things that I want to see grow and bloom.
One way I make money: In the U.K., PRS and PPL are two things that as a musical artist, you have to register yourself for. There are a lot of artists that don’t even know about this and haven’t registered themselves. But in turn, they’re not getting paid the money that they deserve. PRS and PPL both collect money for different things — one is for every time that your song gets played, like on a radio or in a shop. And the other one is streaming services, all those streams rack up. Probably quarterly I bring in around a few thousand [pounds from PRS and PPL].
Austin Burke, 28
“I moved to Nashville to get a record deal,” says Burke. “We’ve been taught, it’s been ingrained in us, that it’s what’s supposed to happen. But I’m trying to be one of the first independent artists in country music to be a big star.” During the years spent in Nashville, the fifth-generation Arizonian singer’s stance on signing to a label shifted, as did his vision for himself as an artist. “I’m trying to show that people listen to country music all over, it’s not just in the South,” he explains. “I’m trying to reach those people and make them feel like I’m singing about them, too.”
While he’s unsure if the country scene is ready for a massive independent artist, Burke continues churning out widely successful music, utilizing platforms like Instagram and TikTok alongside his wife as a means of promotion. “It’s this constant mental game as an artist, ‘Do I need a label? Do I not need a label?’ I still don’t know the answer,” he admits. “But it’s definitely possible to take your career as far as you want as an independent artist nowadays.”
Why being indie is great: Definitely the little victories. Often, it’s the little things that add up to a big success. So like, getting on a certain playlist — because you know you’re beating out not only the labels, but you’re beating out everybody. That, to me is huge. When I get put on a playlist, it’s the most amazing thing.
Why it’s hard: Respect is hard to get as an as an independent artist. Writers don’t want to write with you, because they don’t think [there’s] money. I don’t have the political pull that a lot of artists on labels have. I feel like an underdog, which is good — but there also comes a point where I’m like, “Damn, if I was with this label, I could be on this tour.” But I have to really earn everything that happens.
One way I make money:Touring and streaming, because I own 100% of that. So when I’m touring, I’m not giving the label 50% of my show, and same thing with streaming.
Joyce Wrice, 29
“I was really into the LA rap scene, and Jhené [Aiko] at the time,” says Wrice. “Nipsey Hussle, Dom Kennedy, they were all promoting being independent.” At the time, Wrice was a blossoming singer, deciding where to go with her talent. “I was starting to hear horror stories about artists whose projects were getting shelved because they’re using the labels and money to create these these albums. So of course, the label has to approve it,” she says. With that knowledge in hand, Wrice says she was “paranoid” about enduring the same fate, and decided to take the indie route.
“I’m like, ‘Okay, I want to start making my own music. Let me go my own route of finding a studio, booking engineer, working with writers that are open,'” she explains. “If that meant I have to work two jobs to fund this, I’d rather do that than go to a label.”
Was it ever tempting to sign a record deal? [At first] no one wanted to sign me, so I didn’t have a choice. Even when I did Overgrown, there was a particular label that we took a meeting [with], but they ghosted me. Luckily, I had a distribution label that was interested, even during a pandemic. And that’s really what allowed me to advance independently.
Was that hard for you? There were moments where I was very discouraged, where I’m like, “I would love the leverage of being on a label, to be honest, [with] Spotify playlists, or to work with certain people, because they have those connections.” So it was disappointing, sometimes depressing. But I’m also lucky to have a good community of artists, where we really help and support each other. I’m very spiritual and I’ve always reminded myself of my purpose, my capabilities and divine timing.
The first time you realized music could pay the bills: During the pandemic. In 2019, my manager and I were like, “This is the last year I’m working a restaurant.” That was also the year where I needed to trust that [music] is what I’m supposed to be doing. Because I always hesitated or would overthink. And then this pandemic hits in 2020. I’m forced to quarantine and then signed a distribution deal [with The Orchard]. I also signed to an agency in 2020 and booked a pretty big commercial. That’s when I was like, “OK, I think I think we can quit the restaurant.”
One way I make money: Brand collaborations. Commercials. Jingles. Disney approached me about [The Proud Family] and I’m like, “This could be cool to continue doing.” I’ve done voiceovers. I really liked doing those. Then merch is always great. I love making merch and putting out physical copies of my music.
Ayleen Valentine, 19
The Miami-raised singer-songwriter began as a jazz and classical instrumentalist, specializing in saxophone, piano and guitar. When she began recording original music, Valentine soon realized working with producers was expensive and not the sound she wanted, “I was like shit, I need to learn how to produce.” After receiving a scholarship to Berkeley School of Music, Valentine followed her mother’s advice of attending college, but it was short-lived. She dropped out after two years of studying production and from there, took on a handful of odd jobs including hostessing, working at an arcade and babysitting.
Finally, the Peruvian-American singer-songwriter took the ultimate leap. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna go and chase my dreams or whatever,'” Valentine says.
Would you sign to a label? It has to be a partnership deal. I do not want to be a slave. I don’t want to be stuck. Luckily, I have a really good manager and a really good lawyer that won’t put me into a s–tty deal.
Why being indie is great: Sessions. Labels force people into sessions. They’re like, “The more sessions, the better.” And I hate sessions. I like making everything by myself. So a label [needs to be] really understanding of that.
Why it’s hard: Not having enough money. I want to make merch — I have a bunch of designs for, like, hoodie ideas and shirt ideas. And I can’t do them because they’re kind of expensive. Or making sick videos — I always have to like, scrap for money to make the idea sort of come to life. Also, the stability. Because every month, you know, I can make relatively good money — but sometimes it’s not like that, especially if I haven’t been releasing [new music].
One way I make money: Mixing and producing for people. You could charge a flat rate mixing a song, which is a few hundred, or you could do sessions where you charge per hour. Doing lessons. Sometimes people hit me up and they’re like, “Hey, can you teach me how to produce?” And I’m like, “F–k it. Sure.” Also, being sampled. I sent a song to a producer and then it started getting sent around and it reached [Powfu]. He made this song that went viral on TikTok, sampling my song [without crediting me]. I got an advance with that, so I started saving up to move. You could get $2,000 to $10,000. It depends on how big the artist is that samples you, but sometimes it’s just a few hundred dollars. It also depends how nice you want to be.
Growing up in Brampton, Ont., the first-generation Canadian feared the risk of full-time artistry. “Trust me, I was always very skeptical that it was gonna reach a point where I could be in any way secure,” Hunnah says. “It was gradual, and I was motivated because I just loved doing it. I loved writing I loved telling stories, so I was like, ‘Okay, let me just hold on to this feeling and see where I can go with that.'”
Soon after, she signed a publishing deal with Concord, which served as a vehicle to Los Angeles, where the budding singer-songwriter’s career began to flourish. Placements on shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The Bold Type and All-American brought financial stability and validation, allowing Hunnah to stay the indie course. “I try to be as open as possible because I think about how much information I did not have,” she says. “I didn’t know what a publishing deal was. I didn’t know at all how it would be feasible to do this.”
One way you’ve funded your career: I’m Canadian, and I really wanted to go to L.A. I needed a visa, I didn’t have any money to pay the $5,000. For me, it made sense to sign a publishing deal. I think you have to weigh the pros and cons of everything. I needed a visa, I needed stability. That trade-off makes sense. For other artists, it might not make sense. Publishing deals feel like completely different from label deals, because they really don’t have control over what I release. They can provide their input and their suggestions, but they can’t prevent me from releasing anything. Wait out finding a publishing deal until you have a big single, or something that gives you more leverage.
A piece of advice for other indie artists: It’s gonna be hard. The thing that was helpful for me is talking to other artists. I try to be someone who is completely open and transparent, even if I’m meeting newer artists. If you’re Canadian, apply to grants — there are so many grants. That’s part of how I fund things as well. And work with people in your community. I think Issa Rae said that once: Network across your level instead of networking up.