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unsigned artists are making more money than ever

July 10, 2019
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Many moons ago, in a distant time known as the 1990s, one of the biggest accomplishments for a musician was getting signed to a recording contract with a major record label. In those days — before the proliferation of bedroom productions, home studios, music streaming services, and direct-to-consumer marketing like social media  — the labels were basically the be-all, end-all for any artist truly trying to “get on.” The majors had marketing dollars, recording budgets, and access to radio play that could take a musician from busking on the streets to the Billboard charts. But as the digital era — and artists like Chance The Rapper — has shown us, musicians need not depend on major label deals for exposure or success nowadays. And though wild success stories like Chance’s are extremely rare, a new study shows that artists are gravitating toward independence like never before.

As Billboard reports, a new research survey conducted by the music distribution service and alternative record label Amuse alongside MIDIA Research, artists without record labels generated a staggering $643.1 million in 2018, up 35% from 2017. Unsigned artists are now the fastest-growing segment of the global recorded music business. The study, which surveyed 250 artists from around the world also found that artists increasingly think of a record labels as not essential to a successful music career, with less than 20% of unsigned artists surveyed considering signing to be important.

There is, however, some paradox associated with these findings. Though paths to independent well-being and alternatives to traditional recording contracts are plentiful, and royalties from streaming have become a viable source of revenue for unsigned artists, the broke-with-big-dreams struggle remains; most of the artists surveyed who make music, but don’t rely on that as their sole source of income. Of the unsigned respondents, nearly 75% say they earn less than $10,000 annually from their craft and supplement their income with day jobs or side hustles. With lower barriers to entry, come more artists and more competition for fans and public attention. That could be why one of MIDIA’s takeaways from the study was that unsigned artists placed a higher premium on respect and recognition than on immediate monetary gain: “Artists’ definition of success is very much culture first, then cash. They are looking for respect and recognition first and foremost. With this respect and recognition, they can become viable touring acts with the chance to earn loyal fan bases.”

Though technology has democratized the music biz for artists and though they’re earning more, it doesn’t mean that the game has all of a sudden become fair. It still behooves artists to have a good manager, booking agent and a back-up plan in the likely event that they don’t blow up overnight.