Last night Chance the Rapper made history by becoming the first artist to win a Grammy without being signed to a major record label (actually he won three and was nominated for seven, which is amazing even for the most established artists working with an agency for years). In fact, this was the first time Chance was eligible at all after the Recording Academy relaxed their rules to allow the nomination of artists without a recording agency and available only through streaming services. I’m certainly no expert on the entertainment industry but I do think this is one of many signals of permanent changes to this industry thanks to an increasingly digital world.
Even more interesting is the fact that Chance gives away his music for free and instead relies primarily on concert and merchandise revenues, his independent clothing line, as well as meager payments from streaming services. What began at first as a strategy to gain exposure to a wider audience became a strategic decision to maintain creative freedom.
“After I made my second mixtape and gave it away online, my plan was to sign with a label and figure out my music from there. But after meeting with the three major labels, I realized my strength was being able to offer my best work to people without any limit on it. My first two projects are on places where you can get music for free.” (Vanity Fair)
Now I’m not saying that since Chance did it recording agencies are going to disappear immediately and anyone can be famous thanks to the internet. It’s not accurate to point at one person who managed to become successful and use them as evidence that anyone can be successful if they work hard enough. To say as much would be to severely downplay the talent of the Chance and ignore the odds against any artist trying to make it. One could even argue that access to the internet is only a small step better than handing out mix-tapes on a street corner. While the internet allows an artist to reach more people around the globe, it also means there is more competition (after all, Myspace didn’t eliminate music agencies and at one point it seemed every band had a page). I still have to somehow decide to listen to a particular artist and the internet essentially provides an endless supply of mix-tapes. An artist needs to have (or make) the right connections, find creative ways to market their music, and eventually make money.
However, Chance has entered new territory after his wins last night and may be blazing a trail for others to follow. I think he may even end up changing the entire industry in a similar way as Netflix has changed Hollywood and the way consumers experience movies and television. A few big TV and movie studios used to have exclusive control and this often resulted in similar casting decisions and limited narratives since playing it safe was considered better for appealing to a broader audience. Similarly, cable companies dictated how that content would be delivered to our homes. Netflix is challenging these business models by offering seemingly endless (and even exclusive) content accessible on multiple devices. By using their data and algorithms to inform casting and content decisions, they are able to leverage their broader reach in the market and entirely change the game. Will Spotify, Tidal, or some newcomer create an avenue for artists to reach the masses in a similar way? I think change is coming and regardless of the form, it will function to allow more creativity for artists and a better product for consumers.