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Ashanti To Frank Ocean: 9 Artists Who Claimed Their (Label) Independence
Building a successful music career isn't easy. It takes some magical combination of tireless sharpening of one's craft, key business relationships and more than a little good fortune to create - and monetize - any kind of artistic revolution, big or small.
Fortunately, there are more paths than ever to share music with the world, running the spectrum from DIY lemonade stand bootstrapping to new emerging models of artist development to artists applying their sweat and smarts to leverage never-before-seen major label deals. And while major labels remain one of the most effective ways for an artist to reach an audience, they are far from the only option for artists with something to say. All in all, there are as many paths to success as there are great artists.
In honor of our nation's Independence Day, we put together a list of nine artists who claimed their label independence and took the tricky business of music into their own hands.
The label life isn't for everyone, especially for artists with an independent spirit like Frank Ocean. The GRAMMY-winning singer/songwriter took strong initiative in bringing to life his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra and his breakthrough debut studio album, 2012's GRAMMY-winning Channel Orange. Following the success of these projects, in one of the most publicized declarations of independence, Ocean then dropped the 2016 visual album Endless to fulfill his major label obligations and quickly followed with Blonde, which he released through his own label, Boys Don't Cry, exclusively online. Blonde sold more than 275,000 million copies in its first week, proving that Ocean is a fierce spirit in complete control of his destiny. — Renée Fabian
From the beginning, singer/songwriter and industry pioneer Ani DiFranco has been fearless as folk and heavy on chutzpah, opting to form her own independent label, the now-legendary Righteous Babe Records, instead of kowtowing to the confines of a major label deal. Her 1996 song "Napoleon" from Dilate encapsulated the industry's rapacious insatiability. When asked about what impact her legacy with Righteous Babe will have on future independent artists, DiFranco said "I think the age of the musical artist as indentured servant to a big record company is over, and I think I have something to do with that, which I'm proud of. … And I think that people will carry [that spirit] forward and reinvent [independence] in so many new ways that I will never even dream of." — Nate Hertweck
Known more commonly as Cuco, Omar Banos is an independent up-and-coming artist. If you've never heard of him, the 20-year-old Chicano from Hawthorne, Calif. — a city just south of Los Angeles — is gaining fans for his romantic lyrics in both English and Spanish. His synthesized dream pop melodies in songs like "Lover Is A Day" and "Sunnyside" have attracted thousands of followers online, thousands of streams and a performance at Coachella this year, despite not belonging to a label. Since going viral in 2016 for his cover of Santo & Johnny's guitar instrumental "Sleep Walk," he has released two self-produced albums and his latest EP, Chiquito or "little one," in May. Where will all this success take Cuco? The artist told Billboard that he will remain independent for now. — Jennifer Velez
In the late '90s and early '00s, Mýa scored such major label hits as "It's All About Me," "Case Of The Ex" and the her smash collaboration with Christina Aguilera, Pink and Lil' Kim, "Lady Marmalade." But when she broke ties with her label after 2008's Sugar & Spice, she was determined to blaze her own trail. The GRAMMY-winning singer/songwriter started her own independent label, Planet 9, and has released three EPs, a mixtape and three new albums since, including TKO (The Knock Out), which dropped earlier this year. With a focus on maintaining artistic control and going directly to her fans, Mýa has inspired a generation of artists to take control their own success. — N.H.
The uncompromising Aloe Blacc uniquely blends R&B with hip-hop over a wide stylistic range, including a collaboration with the late EDM artist Avicii. Blacc also is known for standing up for what he believes in. The singer/songwriter sat alongside Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow to defend copyright modernization during GRAMMY Week this year, before the New York field hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. Blacc's creative fulfillment took him to indie label Stones Throw Records for his first two albums, 2006's Shine Through and 2010's Good Things. Although Blacc moved on to working with Interscope for his 2013 album Lift Your Spirit, whichreceived a nomination for Best R&B Album at the 57th GRAMMY Awards, it was his success on an indie that put him in the driver's seat. — Philip Merrill
GRAMMY-winning R&B singer/songwriter Ashanti made a smart business move when she established her own record label, Written Entertainment with eOne Music back in 2011. After her previous record deal had reportedly "run its course," her independence allowed her to exert complete creative control in her career and has led to some stunning music. Most notably, Ashanti released her first independent record in 2014, BraveHeart, which included collaborations with French Montana, Jeremih and Rick Ross. The album debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200. Though she's been pretty quiet musically since, in November 2017, Ashanti released "Say Less" with Ty Dolla $ign, and rumors abound that a new album could be coming soon. — R.F.
St. Vincent's body of work started as a sensation and has stayed at that level with unabashedly personal artistic statements. Like many an indie, the small label route was where it began, with Britain's 4AD, connected with Beggars Group and formerly Beggars Banquet. And though her 2012 collaboration Love This Giant with David Byrne was the last of her AD4 albums, she has carried on her independent spirit to her next, self-titled album, which won Best Alternative Music Album at the 57th GRAMMY Awards. — P.M.
It's hard to imagine reaching the kind of success Hanson found out of the gate with their 1997 smash hits "MMMBop" and "Where's The Love" from the Middle Of Nowhere album they came from. But what goes up must come down, and when the band couldn't do the impossible and match the wild success of their freshman hits on their sophomore effort, the industry turned cold to the trio of brothers from Tulsa, Okla. Unbroken and undeterred, the brothers Hanson returned to the grindstone in 2001, writing more than 80 songs for their third album, Underneath. When none of the majors would get behind the project, Hanson released the album on their own label, 3CG Records, in 2004 and even scored a No. 2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Penny & Me." Most importantly, they retained the most loyal of their fanbase and regained control of their musical destiny instead of giving up when they were told the age-old, "I don't hear a single." — N.H.
Chance The Rapper
When you think of independent artists, Chance The Rapper is probably one of the first artists that comes to mind. Arguably the most well-known artist of the moment not to use a label as a pathway to commercial success in the music industry, Chance continues to declare musical independence. To him, independence is a realistic way to reach success; it just takes some patience. "I just wanna remain transparent. Folks out there without a deal need to know they're doing everything right just keep at it," he tweeted out after some push back on the authenticity of his independence. Before he released his 2016 album, Coloring Book, exclusively through Apple, his music was available online for free. During the 59th GRAMMY Awards, the first year streaming-only works were added in consideration for awards consideration, the rapper made history by winning three GRAMMYs, including Best New Artist. — J.V.