State of Independence: 15 Artists Impacting the Indie Scene
Every indie artist, band and label is independent in its own way. The strategies for success are as varied as the styles of music, the executives and the attitudes -- these are the very states of independence. Labels and artists from Texas to Denver to Missouri to Los Angeles; genres from folk to metal to hip-hop to country to jazz are all serious about amazing music, engaging with fans and doing the most forward kind of business. Synchs, indie record stores and the resurgence of of heritage artists -- it's all a part of the indie universe. Everyone's paths are different -- but the goals are the same: figuring out ways to have the most people experience the most music.
SUB POP RECORDS - SEATTLE
One day last spring, Tyler Williams lost his cell phone on the streets of Seattle.
The drummer for folk band the Head and the Heart never expected to get it back, let alone within the prophetic series of events that followed.
Williams' bandmate Charity Thielen got a call that day from a stranger who found the phone. Thielen connected the two, and they arranged to meet at the man's office, around the corner from Seattle's Pike Place Market.
What seemed, at first, to be a chance encounter with a good Samaritan instantly became something more, when Williams found himself on the doorstep of Sub Pop Records.
"I had to hold back from saying, 'My band is recording an album right now, let me get you a demo!' " Williams recalls with a laugh. "I called Charity the second I left the building and said, 'This is an omen. My phone was just picked up by a Sub Pop employee.' "
He held his tongue at the time, but the drummer's Sub Pop premonition materialized several months later, when the Head and the Heart signed with the seminal Seattle label, after a veritable feeding frenzy in which both majors (Warner Bros. and RCA among them) and indies (like Glassnote) vied for their affections. Still, it's no accident that got the Head and the Heart where it is now, with 45,000 units sold (according to Nielsen SoundScan) and slots on national and international tours opening for the Decemberists, Iron & Wine and Death Cab for Cutie.
Nor is the sextet your average flash-in-the-pan buzz band. Though the group had every opportunity to blow up-by the end of 2011, it'll have played Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, Newport and Austin City Limits, not to mention the late-night trifecta of "Letterman," "Conan" and "Fallon"-the Head and the Heart prefer to play low- and mid-capacity venues. The band tours small towns and chats with fans on Twitter and at its merch table. The act concentrates on local, noncommercial radio stations and plays in-store sets to support independent record shops. The Head and the Heart is taking care to leave no stone unturned, and this grass-roots approach-coupled with a hotbed local scene and a universal appeal-has enabled the band to realize an uncompromising, independent career path that works-and works well. -Devon Maloney
GENTLEMAN OF THE ROAD - LONDON
GLASSNOTE RECORDS - NEW YORK
Mumford & Sons' "Sigh No More" is the third-best-selling album of 2011. The set-which has sold 935,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan-trails releases by top-seller Adele ("21") and runner-up Lady Gaga ("Born This Way"). Not bad for a British folk-rock four-piece that recorded "Sigh No More" and released it in the United Kingdom in October 2009 on its own label, Gentleman of the Road. After sweeping England, the Mumfords started to gain traction in America after licensing the album to U.S. label Glassnote Records, whose founder Daniel Glass was mesmerized by the act during a concert at New York's Mercury Lounge. In February, "Sigh" peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 following the band's performance alongside Bob Dylan on the Feb. 13 Grammy Awards telecast. The group received Grammy nods for best new artist and best rock song ("Little Lion Man"), but didn't win either award. Next time. -Mitchell Peters
DANGERBIRD RECORDS - LOS ANGELES
Fitz & the Tantrums may be riding high on the success of recent single "Moneygrabber," which this week is No. 15 on Billboard's Triple A chart, but the band's fortunes haven't always shined so bright. In fact, despite attracting steady praise and a couple of high-profile opening slots on tours with Maroon 5 and Flogging Molly, the Los Angeles soul band spent its early years steadily driving up more than $100,000 in debt covering its own travel expenses-and in desperate need of a break.
"We went into [South by Southwest] in 2010 as one of the shortlist of the buzz bands," says lead singer Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick, 39, who founded the band in 2008 with saxophonist James King. Other members include Noelle Scags (co-lead vocals), John Wicks (drums), Ethan Phillips (bass) and Jeremy Ruzumna (keyboards). "We played our show and in the back you could see every president from every record label, every A&R person, every who's who of whatever. They all watched and they all left. No one even said hello to me."
But then Los Angeles-based Dangerbird Records stepped in, and the band's fortunes changed. At that same SXSW, Dangerbird (home of Silversun Pickups), which already counted Fitz & the Tantrums as a client in its licensing division, invited the band to play its unique brand of retro soul at a benefit gig for its co-founder Jeff Castelaz's Pablove Foundation. Castelaz was floored by the band's high-energy live show and impressed by Fitzpatrick's hustle. He walked away feeling the band just needed a proper push.
"[They] had gone on a couple tours already," Castelaz recalls. "[The 2009 single "Winds of Change"] on YouTube was getting a lot of attention. But in order to scale that, you really need to have something that we call a record label, in its current configuration, to really collect and collate all of the information that one finds when they're trying to develop a band, then load it into a cannon and light it off."
In April 2010, Dangerbird signed the band to a label and publishing deal, and a month later, gave Fitz & the Tantrums' self-produced 2009 EP, "Songs for a Breakup Vol. 1," a proper release. The band's debut album, "Pickin' Up the Pieces," arrived in August on Dangerbird and by October, the group was playing on Daryl Hall's popular Internet jam-session program "Live From Daryl's House" and being name-dropped in a commercial for HTC's G2 smartphone. But what really pushed the act to the next level was something it couldn't do without being signed to a label-a single on terrestrial radio.
A label-supported, month-long cross-country promotional tour in January led triple A stations to begin playing "Moneygrabber" seemingly en masse. A slew of late-night performances on "Leno," "Letterman" and "Conan" all followed, and almost a year later, "Pickin' Up the Pieces" is selling roughly 2,000 copies per week, and has sold more than 63,000, according to Castelaz. This summer, the band will tour domestically until the end of July before a quick trip to Australia that'll wrap in time for the group to perform at Lollapalooza in August. The relentless touring schedule is necessary because while things are on the uptick, Fitz & the Tantrums understand that they're still an independent act.
"[Dangerbird is] a nimble company that is trying to survive in a recession economy," Fitzpatrick says. "So there are definitely pluses and minuses where we are still forced to do things in a very economical way. Which . . . fosters creativity and ingenuity, and ultimately is a good thing. But [money] is still a challenge." -Paul Cantor
ROLLING MOJO - ATLANTA
PURPOSE MUSIC GROUP - NEW YORK
Whether an artist is signed to an indie or major label, Anthony David says it all boils down to one thing: the staff.
"Look at the people working there," he says. "You can be on a major with a big budget or on an indie without deep pockets . . . it's all the same if you don't have everyone's backing. It's about being the principal artist wherever you are."
David is familiar with both sides. Back on the indie circuit after a stint with the majors, the Atlanta-based singer has returned to the R&B charts with the biggest single of his seven-year career. Midtempo groove "4evermore," featuring Algebra and Foreign Exchange member Phonte, soared to No. 2 on Billboard's Adult R&B chart and No. 18 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. It's the lead track from his third studio album and first under his Rolling Mojo imprint with Purpose Music Group/EOne.
Three years ago, David was signed to India.Arie's Universal Republic imprint Soulbird. The friends/co-writers picked up a 2009 Grammy Award nomination for their duet "Words," which peaked at No. 53 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. The song appeared on David's lone Soulbird/Universal Republic album, "Acey Duecy," which was a compilation of his two earlier indie releases on Brash Music: 2004's "3 Chords & the Truth" and 2006's "The Red Clay Chronicles."
"Brash was brand-new and had money, but didn't have a consistent network in terms of radio and other relationships," David says. "And at Universal, I didn't feel I had a team there to push me and my music forward. I asked to be released, and they did."
Signing with Purpose last year, David says he found an experienced team with stronger radio and marketing ties, not to mention the chance to establish his own imprint. "It's all about timing and the people on staff," he says. "My goal is to win-not just make noise." -Gail Mitchell
STRANGE MUSIC - LEE SUMMIT, MO.
"I hate talking about that number," says Aaron Dontez Yates, a frenetic man known to his legion of followers as Tech N9ne (@TECHN9NE). "Now all my family and friends are trying to get money from me." The usually intense Kansas City, Mo., native is being jovial, but the number he's referring to is quite serious. According to reports, his label, Strange Music (@StrangeMusicInc), which he launched in 1999 with partner/CEO Travis O'Guin (@StrangeMusicCEO), earned approximately $15 million in 2009 alone. It's an astronomical figure-considering they've done it without (virtually) any support from radio or TV.
Tech N9ne's 12th and latest album, "All 6's and 7's," released June 7, debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, moving 56,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Cue the proverbial phone calls from the majors looking to get in the Tech N9ne business. "Def Jam called today," the rapper says. "And it's great to hear that after my first-week sales everybody at Warner Music Group had to get pulled into a meeting and the boss asked them, 'I want to know why somebody like a Tech N9ne is selling more than our major artists? What the fuck are we not doing?' That's flattering to me."
Hyperbole? Maybe not. Especially as a co-sign from Lil Wayne (during a radio interview) seemingly came out of nowhere. Tech didn't waste any time. He promptly reached out to Wayne, who is featured on "All 6's" with the likes of Snoop Dogg, B.o.B and T-Pain. Then there's Strange Music's roster: Jay Rock, Brotha Lynch Hung, Krizz Kaliko and ¡Mayday!, among others-a profitable 12-act imprint to which Tech takes a hands-on approach.
"He's involved in bringing in all the acts we sign," O'Guin says from Strange Music's 18,000-square-foot offices in Lee Summit, Mo. He notes that the one-stop operation also includes a merchandising department, a screen-printing business and a vehicle-wrapping company. "From a creative standpoint, this is Tech's world," O'Guin adds. "Strange Music is all about cutting out the middleman. We truly believe in our movement and our ability to connect with fans in a way that got lost a long time ago in the majors system."
Success, though, seemed out of reach a decade ago. For starters, Tech N9ne is an African-American rapper with red spiky hair and wild-man face paint. His rabid fans, who proudly proclaim themselves "Technicians," are more likely to follow Insane Clown Posse than someone like Kanye West. But he got past label rejection by relentlessly grinding. Tech averages 250 shows per year (booked by Mark Reifsteck of Strange Music Artists Booking).
Indeed, Tech's come-up is no accident. But still, the veteran performer says there is one drawback. "I can't go to the movies by myself anymore . . . people won't let me relax," he says. "Isn't that crazy?" -Keith Murphy
BORSTAL BEAT RECORDS - LOS ANGELES
After spending a decade releasing its Irish punk full-lengths on SideOneDummy and (according to Nielsen SoundScan) racking up 1.9 million album sales, Flogging Molly decided to form its own imprint, Borstal Beat Records, for latest album "Speed of Darkness," released May 31 with distribution through Sony RED in North America.
Drummer George Schwindt admits that the move has led to more legwork from the band, but having a clearer voice in the marketing rollout for "Darkness" has been a blessing. Flogging Molly's desire to release a special edition of the album and focus on promoting one single resulted in "Darkness" being offered as a vinyl LP with a code for a free digital download, and first single "Don't Shut 'Em Down" clocking in at No. 39 on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart. "We now have more creative control," Schwindt says. "So if we wanted to spend the money on an alternative radio campaign, we could do that without being told 'no.' "
While initial sales for Flogging Molly's "Darkness" (39,000 copies sold in its first week) have almost mirrored those of 2008 album "Float" (48,000 first week), Schwindt believes the real impact of the self-release will result from the band's emphasis on international distribution. With a reputation as raucous road warriors, the veteran artists have seen their crowds grow during the group's current world tour by focusing on promoting the new album in Western Europe and Scandinavia.
"We're starting to see an impact at the live shows in particular-in Germany and in Sweden, we've had the biggest crowds we've ever played for," Schwindt says. As the group prepares to perform at Lollapalooza in August, and kick off a North American trek in September, the drummer says the group enjoys "going the DIY." -Jason Lipshutz
CENTURY MEDIA - LOS ANGELES
Death metal act Arch Enemy once released an album called "Wages of Sin." But for this Swedish five-piece going the independent route has proved anything but bad math. Formed in 1996 and led by singer Angela Gossow since 2000, the band has released eight studio albums, with all but its debut ("Black Earth") handled by Century Media-a Los Angeles-based indie that specializes in metal, hard rock and hardcore acts and has offices in the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia.
It lacks the financial muscle of a major, but Century has helped the heavy touring act generate more than 400,000 album sales in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Its most successful album, 2005's "Doomsday Machine," peaked at No. 12 on Billboard's Independent Albums chart and has sold 108,000 copies. The self-managed group's latest studio set, "Khaos Legions," debuted at No. 13 on Independent Albums and at No. 78 on the Billboard 200, following its June 7 domestic bow.
"Being your own master is very satisfying but also very challenging," Gossow says. "Indie labels don't have the buying power majors have . . . Being on a major label means more exposure and most likely more sold product. You have to work it 10 times as hard with an indie label."
On the plus side, being independent grants "maximum freedom in regards to our music, art, band presentation, where and when we tour," says Gossow, who believes that, in the long run, sidestepping the major-label setup is more sustainable. "Bands who know what they want and how to do it are better off signing to an indie label," she says. "If you're willing to work hard without the fast, big bucks-do what we do and walk the walk." -Richard Smirke
THIRD MAN RECORDS - NASHVILLE
On the June 23 episode of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," Stephen Colbert performed the song "Charlene II (I'm Over You)" with the Black Belles. The track, a follow-up to a 2006 bit that featured the stalker ode "Charlene (I'm Right Behind You)," was made available on 7-inch vinyl and at iTunes through Jack White's Third Man Records. The label had pitched the show on the collaboration to promote its motto, "Your Turntable's Not Dead," during the program's music week.
"We were looking for something to do television-wise that was a little bit out of the ordinary instead of doing the regular late-night-circuit-type thing," Third Man label manager Ben Swank says. The imprint, founded by White in 2001, is home to his various bands and acts like the Greenhornes, Conan O'Brien and rapper Black Milk. The label's headquarters also serve as a record store, live venue and rehearsal space.
On June 24, Colbert and the Belles performed "Charlene II" alongside White at a New York park, while Third Man's Rolling Record Store truck sold the 7-inch. The label isn't planning any future releases with Colbert, but Swank says, "[We do] a lot of one-single deals. If it does well and he wants to do it, we're open to anything." -Claire Lobenfeld
VP RECORDS - QUEENS, N.Y.
TAD'S RECORD - MIAMI
Sing-jay I-Octane (born Byiome Muir) ascended to dancehall reggae's upper echelon in July 2010 with his performance at Jamaica's Reggae Sumfest. Now heavily in demand on the North American and European reggae circuits, I-Octane's fusion of hauntingly sung vocals with rapid-fire rhymes, as heard on hits including "Bloodstain" and "Lose a Friend," reaffirm dancehall's significance as a vehicle for compelling commentaries and praising Jah, despite its infamous vulgarities and gangster imagery.
I-Octane has digitally released his singles on various Jamaica-based labels and licensed tracks to dancehall compilations released by reggae independents Tad's Record and VP. Currently unsigned, he's considering offers regarding the intended October release of his debut album, "Crying to the Nation."
"I have invested heavily in the I-Octane brand, financing videos, publicity, even managing myself, so it's a great accomplishment reaching this far on my own," I-Octane says. "I won't sign a deal just to get an advance. Promotion is more important because it brings more shows, tours and a wider fan base." -Patricia Meschino
AVERAGE JOE'S ENTERTAINMENT - NASHVILLE
For most indie acts-the goal is to sign with a major. But that was never Corey Smith's approach.
"The goal was never... even to go after mainstream media," Jefferson, Ga., native Smith says. "The goal was always to make a living doing something I was passionate about." Smith has done just that. He released six albums on his own before signing with Average Joe's, which issued his seventh album, "The Broken Record," on June 21. It debuts this week at No. 17 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. He's sold 900,000 digital singles and 200,000 albums during the course of his previous releases and, according to Cass Scripps (Smith's booking agent at Buddy Lee Attractions), he has grossed more than $6 million in touring in the last five years-$2 million in 2010 alone.
He performed for the first time at the Country Music Assn. Music Festival in June. He'll appear on "Fox & Friends" July 10 and perform at New York's Mercury Lounge July 11. "I guess you could say I'm the most popular guy no one has ever heard of," he says with a laugh. "It's nice to finally get a little recognition."
His new single, "Twenty-One," is gaining momentum at country radio and the video is airing on CMT and other outlets. "Sincere art is infectious," Smith says. "It's like a good meal. When you have a good meal or a good experience with music, you want to tell your friends about it. That's where it starts. I've been blessed that my music resonates with people."
Smith encourages file sharing as a way to expand his fan base. "Especially my earlier albums-because they were made at such a low cost," he says. "I paid the albums off within the first few weeks in most cases, so I didn't have a problem with file sharing and people burning the CDs. It sort of took the place of radio. Sites like Myspace and Facebook were a huge help-and near-constant touring."
He says signing with Average Joe's was a natural move. "The record was already done and [they said], 'Wow, you've made a really good record. We think we can sell it,' " he recalls. "That's not the way most labels work. Most labels A&R the album and have a lot of say in making it. That's not Average Joe's. They understand that an artist's uniqueness is the most important thing." -Deborah Evans Price
GLASSNOTE - NEW YORK
When Givers were discovered at last year's Austin City Limits Festival, they were given one condition before Glassnote Records president Daniel Glass would agree to release the Lafayette, La., quintet's self-financed LP, "In Light": It had to be remixed. The band-five multi-instrumentalists lead by Tiffany Lamson and guitarist Taylor Guarisco-deliberated whether it had the patience and desire to do the studio work, but, according to Lamson, the group soon signed the deal after "we made sure [Glassnote] had the same passion and family values that we did."
Ben Allen (Gnarls Barkley, Animal Collective) took on the project, and "In Light" debuted at No. 12 on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart in the June 25 issue.
"Our initial campaign is to get people out to see them live," says Glass, who employed a similar strategy to break Mumford & Sons. "They do a very physically exhausting, passionate show. We brought them to Non-Comm in Delaware where [radio programmers] from stations like WXPN and WFUV could see them. It's about getting airplay, but also word-of-mouth."
Prior to the album's release, Givers secured bookings on "Last Call With Carson Daly" and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" based on the band's live show, a high-energy brand of beat-driven rock with echoes of artists they admire-Talking Heads, Arcade Fire and Dirty Projectors. Performance informs the songwriting process as well. Half of the songs on "In Light" sprang from one jam session that was captured on a hand-held recorder.
"Some songs came from the purest form of a jam you can imagine from five or six different people," says Guarisco, who, along with Lamson, writes all the lyrics. "We got back to it a month later, extracted the core DNA and basically took it into the lab and slowly nursed and nourished it as a group. The other half were ideas conceived by Tif or me. We'd bring in the core of a song and fully finish it by letting [the other members] go where they want to go with it." -Phil Gallo
Kenneth Whalum III
THE BROOKLYN CREATIVE - BROOKLYN, N.Y.
When saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III decided to release his own album, "To Those Who Believe," in December 2010, the Memphis-bred, New York-based jazzman-who moonlights as a backup musician for such artists as Jay-Z, Maxwell and Ludacris-saw no point in going through a label to support his cause. "First of all, it's jazz-nobody's making money," Whalum says. "So I put my own money behind it, paid all the guys and put it out by myself."
The end result, according to Whalum? "It's the best thing I could've ever done."
The success of Whalum's album only supports his declaration. "To Those Who Believe" debuted at No. 24 on Billboard's Jazz Albums chart and spent three weeks atop iTunes' jazz tally-rare accomplishments for many working jazz musicians, be they independent or signed to a label.
Through online distribution service TuneCore, shipping copies of the album himself to mom-and-pop record stores like Spin Street Music in Memphis and selling copies at his own shows, Whalum says that between December and April he sold more than 6,000 copies. Not a large number, but when one considers Whalum receives $7 of every album sold through his TuneCore deal, going rogue seems worth the risk.
"In my case it helped because I got all the money," Whalum says. "I went into it knowing jazz records don't really sell like that, so I kind of rolled the dice."
Though Whalum says the lack of a label makes it difficult for him to book shows on his own and other business dealings, he has amassed such a stellar reputation that if he can't book his own headlining show, he'll go on the road with other headliners like Jay-Z.
"It's no skin off my back," Whalum says about playing with others versus playing his own music. "Labels tend to hold [what they can do for you] over your head and I hate that. I've sort of built up an animosity toward anybody who thinks that way." -Jozen Cummings
PRETTY LIGHTS MUSIC - DENVER
Derek Vincent Smith, aka Pretty Lights, has mastered a beautiful and illusory indie trick: how to monetize free music.
Since 2006, the electronic music producer/performer has released three albums and three EPs on his own Pretty Lights Music, all of which are available for free download on his website. Fans are grabbing them at a steady pace of about 15,000 per week, according to his manager Randy Reed of Red Light. The grass-roots interest has helped develop Pretty Lights into a touring powerhouse, doubling venue capacities in every city he plays on every leg. His fall tour will include concert venues with capacities up to 5,000.
At 6 feet 9 inches, Smith often finds himself traveling to gigs in roomier business class, striking up conversations with seatmates who hadn't been exposed to his music. He found that even after telling them his music was available for free on his site, they wanted to know if they could get it on iTunes. "I still can't wrap my head around who these people are," Reed says with a laugh, "but I guess they see it as a convenience factor."
So Smith started selling his hip-hop and soul-inflected wares on iTunes, in the track-by-track format the platform demands. (On his site, only full-album downloads are available.) Reed reports that he's averaging 20,000 downloads per month, resulting in a six-figure annual income for the artist, even after Apple and TuneCore take their cuts. "We never advertise to his fan base through Facebook, Twitter, anywhere that we sell his music on iTunes," Reed says. "But people type in his name and just expect to find it."
Similarly, special boxed sets-sold only from the merch booth on his tour stops and his site-filled a strong fan demand for keepsake physical product, and supply a nice revenue stream. Smith has signed four other acts to Pretty Lights Music-Gramatik, Paper Diamond, Break Science and Michal Menert-all of which are using the same hybrid free/pay model.
"We're not touting it as the model for everyone, and it's not a replacement for the heyday of the record industry," Reed says. "But it's working incredibly well for him and the artists on his label." -Kerri Mason
GOOD I MUSIC - ZAPATA, TEXAS
Many indie acts take that route because they don't have an alternative. But norteño fusion band Intocable did so after failing to sign a deal with EMI Latin, its label of 14 years. In 2010, the group tested the waters by releasing a covers album through Sony Music Latin distribution. But in March it released "2011," an album of previously unreleased material on its own label, Good I Music (distributed by Texas-based Dasma Distribution). On its release date, the set was priced at $8, less than any other previous Intocable album, and-in an effort to reach its regional Mexican fan base, which favors physical releases-wasn't available digitally until two weeks later.
The set bowed at No. 2 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart (it's now No. 19), while the single "Prometi" is No. 1 on Regional Mexican Airplay and No. 4 on Hot Latin Songs. "We knew the future was going independent," bandleader Ricky Muñoz says. Although the EMI relationship was solid, it had run its course, he adds. "It wasn't fun anymore . . . I'm all about vibes and being [in] a good-vibe environment."
Intocable build its own studio, then hired its own engineers, press and radio promotion teams. The band's track record and relationships allowed it to strike strategic alliances at retail, including Walmart, which supported "2011" with in-store appearances and a "Soundcheck" special. And going indie, Muñoz says, allowed for quicker movement-and harder work. "We now have one commitment: Intocable," he says. "We put away all the middle people. We can dictate everything we want to do-and it feels good." -Leila Cobo