An independent artist’s journey through the digital age

How do unsigned musicians making genuine music stack up to big record labels?

While artists or bands with no financial backing often feel the pressure to pursue a record deal, they still have many opportunities to market themselves. In a universe of expanding media outlets, we should try to embrace artists who strive to make it on their own.

The intention isn’t to put down signed artists, but it’s worth being aware of the difficulties that come with working for a corporation. Record labels play a huge role in commercializing music by setting standards and placing expectations on their signees.

That being said, remaining independent in an oversaturated industry must be difficult, but it’s not as impossible as it was in the past.

There are many more supportive media outlets for the arts these days, and new opportunities for fan interaction. Free streaming services like SoundCloud gave new rap artists like Lil Yachty and Fetty Wap a significant platform in the mid-2010s. Recently, TikTok has also become an avenue for artists to gain, or regain, traction due to its sound-based algorithms.

The modern indie artist

In the past, being an independent artist simply meant you hadn’t been signed yet. Today, indie artists are appreciated for genuine music, uninfluenced by “corporate interests.” Indie is also considered a genre today, often tagged as a niche and unique take on other music categories. Being a self-sufficient indie artist often comes down to how well one can integrate into the music scene and engage their audience.

Indie artists can usually hold their audience’s attention given the right amount of involvement. Membership platform services like Patreon have been a new outlet for independent creators to nurture a fanbase, in an attempt to build more fruitful and healthy fan relationships. 

With Patreon, creators can manage a tier of incentives that give subscribers access to more music, merch exclusives, and artist interaction. Cautious Clay, Jacob Collier, and Ben Folds are some of the more notable musicians on the platform, giving fans access to livestream mixing sessions and unreleased tracks. Patreon is just the beginning of services supporting artists, as Twitch, YouTube, and other media platforms have also helped tear down barriers for fan engagement.

Marketplaces like Bandcamp and Hello Merch are other avenues for audiences to support musicians. With COVID-19 lockdowns preventing in-store purchases, physical record sales dropped by 27.6 per cent in 2020. Since merchandise is often the number one way to support artists, these online sites have kept physical as well as digital sales alive.

With these new online outlets helping support artists, there is less reliance on music labels to sell physical copies in record stores. Along with this, there are more opportunities to support artists via donations which are easily more lucrative than streaming sales.  


As it stands, most indie artists do not receive sponsorships without help from bigger music labels. Even if an independent artist is offered a deal, it can be tricky to negotiate how much control the company has over the music. Much like record labels, brands can subtly influence the music they sponsor. One example is Bob Dylan’s strange advertisement with Victoria’s Secret where he essentially stares at models while singing about being sick of love. 

A musician’s image can be at risk when they give up their artistic values for a bigger corporation. The worry is that the artist must align their image with the company, and in doing so sacrifice their identity. Rappers are often guilty of name-dropping luxury brands, making the audience wonder whether the song is anything more than promotional.

Many artists still use blatant advertising in their content. For instance, Jennifer Lopez’s “Papi” features up to six different products in her music video, including alcohol, jewellery, and cars. There’s also Lil Pump’s excessive brand-repping in “Gucci Gang,” or the infamous Beats by Dre product placements that appeared in numerous music videos throughout the 2010s. 

Some brands, like Yamaha and Fender, aren’t as bad to have in your corner, though. Rather than promoting something that feels distant from an artist’s image, music companies can positively influence the musicians they sponsor. Sending free music equipment, performance opportunities, and financial support are just a few examples of how brands can be an awesome resource for musicians. 

So are sponsorships a bad thing? 

In the end, artists deserve to be paid. If they are approached by a possible sponsor, they should ensure the deal is made on their terms. And although today’s music can feel overly commercial at times, many of today’s creators promote brands without compromising the value of their art. 

Record Labels – David vs. Goliath

The trouble with record labels has always been associated with the pressure for artists to release music. This often leads to conflict caused by the ironclad contracts which bind the artists. 

One of the most notable examples is Frank Ocean, who left Def Jam Recordings with the release of his visual album, Endless, just before independently releasing his platinum-certified  Blonde. Another example is Prince, who famously changed his name to a symbol in order to exit his contract with Warner Bros. 

Many record labels these days have been purchased as sub-labels for the big three record corporations: Universal, Warner, and Sony. For example, RCA Records, Columbia Records, and Epic Records are all funded by Sony Music. Any record label existing outside of these conglomerates is considered an indie label.

Indie labels are great because they form close relationships with their musicians, give larger royalty percentages, and generally allow more artistic freedom. In these labels we also find a smaller cohort of artists and a tendency to gravitate towards specific genres and styles. 

The Los Angeles-based record label Brainfeeder, for example, features artists who fall under similar subgenres like jazz, funk, and soul. Domino Recording Company, on the other hand, leans toward an alternative, psych rock sound. Musicians of these niche labels can use this opportunity to tour together, collaborate, and cultivate a larger fanbase.

But with limited marketing campaigns, competition within the label, and fighting to maintain relevance among bigger corporations, artists may opt to take their career into their own hands. Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper, for example, have succeeded in reaching audiences without the backing of any label, allowing for music creation with more artistic freedom and fewer time constraints. 

Streaming Services

Arguably, nothing has impacted music culture more directly than streaming services over the last decade. What started as free applications like Napster and Rhapsody quickly grew into subscription outlets like Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube Music.

Today, streaming accounts act as a personalized headquarters of sorts; a place where listeners can find the latest releases, featured artists, and tailored playlists. These services curate the scope of music for users, and therefore have a big role to play in giving independent artists a platform. Music curators like Pigeons & Planes and TuneIn are also platforms which can promote upcoming artists through playlists and radio stations.

Each streaming platform finds different ways to curate music and offers different opportunities for indie artists. Apple Music excels at giving musicians the opportunity to curate their favourite music as radio hosts and through featured playlists. Spotify uses its algorithms to specifically tailor new music to users, especially in their Discover Weekly section. TIDAL grew in popularity by featuring exclusive music that would not be immediately released on other platforms.

Without significant exposure on these music hubs, it can be very difficult to make a living from streaming services alone. For example, if an independent artist receives 100,000 streams for a single, that means roughly $318 on Spotify or $800 on Apple Music in music royalties. Considering the amount of listens and production costs for the music, that’s pretty low. So, the main hope for upcoming artists on these apps is to reach an audience.

In the digital age, there are many options in which indie artists can market themselves, but what is most important for artists is to cultivate a following. Various music sites now give artists the chance to engage with fans, sell exciting merch, and of course share their music. 

Online presence is only the starting point though. From there, artists can use concerts and tours to supplement their projects, to truly engage with their fanbase, and use these alternative market opportunities to be able to live making music.

Graphic by Lily Cowper


‘les liens’ explores relationships and queerness through entangled knitwork

Thierry Huard’s newest project is an expansive exposition on identity and the limitations of relationships 

Entering les liens feels like stumbling upon a labyrinth of knitted sweaters and yarn. The MAI’s transformed art gallery is draped in cotton strings from wall to ceiling. Warm lighting and ambient soundscapes make for a space of introspection and comfort. It’s as if the threads function as safety netting from the exterior world.

As described by the exhibit’s creator, Thierry Huard, the intention behind the exhibit is to portray “A queer and kaleidoscopic vision of friendship, of one’s relationship to the self and to others.”

The walkthrough is organized into 10 sections, each offering a new perspective of Huard’s artwork. Cushions are scattered on the floor, inviting visitors to sit and rest while contemplating concepts around relationships and identity.Multiple screens accompany the strings, showing footage of Huard and his colleague, Nate Yaffe, as they explore what is and isn’t possible while entangled in threads. They stretch together, wrestle, and suspend in time as they hold each other.

Yaffe fits into the themes of the exhibit as an experimental dancer who specializes in relational and queer-centred choreography.

While watching these individuals, I imagine they are attempting to break free from the tangled and restricting nature of heterosexual norms. Queer individuals are often tasked with unraveling these loose threads as they adjust to a world that feels new and undefined.

After recently entering my first queer relationship, I felt worried in the beginning I would have to adjust to new expectations. Eventually, I realized it was the total opposite, and found an openness and acceptance where I can be myself. I think that sentiment is what this exhibit is about.

Further to the back of the gallery hang two knitted silhouettes; their upper bodies are incomplete with loose, hanging threads. In fact, many of the handknit structures are unfinished, a testament to the continuous exploration of one’s queer identity.

The most magical part of the labyrinth is the hanging tent. Within the tent is a sleeping bag, drawings, and written prompts. While laying on the bedding with a friend, we asked each other questions like, “What would you want to be your superpower?” and “Do you believe everyone has a purpose in life? If so, what do you believe your purpose is?”

The tent has cutouts of strange symbols in it, and after further exploration, these symbols could be found everywhere – sewn into the tent, on the walls, and projected onto the floor. These hieroglyphic monograms speak a language which could only be deciphered by the two characters of the exhibit. 

Upon reading the gallery plan, it became clear that these symbols all represented themes of love, such as deep trust, self-forgiveness, and universal love.

The acrylic drawings at the gallery’s exit show two unfinished faces which seem to stare at each other through knitted bandages. Although these faces are incomplete, their gestures clearly show their affection for each other. 

Huard’s immersive experience brings forward a warm feeling. The same feeling as a loving embrace or a comfy armchair. The resulting ambience allows viewers to open their mind in peaceful reflection.


Visuals courtesy Curtis Savage



A healthy diet of pop and art music

Music is often criticized for being too mainstream, or straight-up weird, but an individual’s favourite music usually boils down to its uniqueness or simplicity

Today’s musicians juggle an oversaturated market, leading them to question how they can stand out among the herd. With Apple Music and Spotify playlists updated weekly, musicians clash as they struggle to reach for the top of the list.

Artists who can incorporate popular and inventive elements in their music offer new, palatable experiences to the average listener. When a new track sparks discussion, whether it is outlandish or watered-down, it often still plays a pivotal role in the progression of music culture.

Here are some ways artists can navigate the vast landscape of the pop industry.


The popular and the experimental

Experimental music is a genre in itself, but if we look at Fiona Apple, for example, we find an artist who is innovative within the popular scene. Fringe music, another label for this category, may be too inaccessible and isn’t a realistic approach for budding musicians hoping to make a living off of their music.


We can take a look at Hallin’s spheres to better understand the spectrum of modern music. Named after Daniel C. Hallin, this communications theory is defined by Oxford Reference as a negotiation between three concepts of journalistic objectivity. In this diagram, the centre circle refers to the consensus of public opinion, the middle circle follows ideas of legitimate controversy, and the outermost circle describes fringe society.

If we repurpose this diagram, we can look at how music can be received by an audience. That is: music in the mainstream, music that tests what a listener can enjoy, and music that is disliked or misunderstood by a large audience.

When music is labelled as artistic, it is usually because it strives to add something that has not existed before, or improving on something performed in the past. In contrast, the popular artist is hoping to gain recognition for a widely accepted sound.

Art music may be an appropriate way to label it, then. 

Lady Gaga, for example, who has ruled over the popular scene for the last decade, recently dropped a reimagined look at her 2020 album Chromatica. One year later, Dawn of Chromatica takes the core structure of her popular dance hits, and reinvents it with help from extraordinary talents like Dorian Electra, Mura Masa, Rina Sawayama and many other experimental artists.

This eclectic album redux broadens Gaga’s audience and takes a real turn towards the eccentric. For Lady Gaga, her embrace of the weird isn’t abnormal, but it gives us the chance to explore Chromatica’s “what if” moments.

So, in my definition, art music represents a form that leads away from wide recognition in the hopes of finding new and refreshing avenues for a song, style, and genre.

Music stuck somewhere in the middle

Between charting music and music far outside the mainstream exists the middle, where we find music that aims to entertain the listener and also test their limits.

Within the genre of pop, we find new approaches from artists like Billie Eilish, who makes pop music stylized by her dark, carefree personality, and Hubert Lenoir, who brings a free-spirited, offbeat energy to his pop music.

The rise of music curation in streaming services has also created new opportunities for musicians to stand out, even in an oversaturated market. 

Due to numerous specialized playlists and radio stations, listeners can find more and more unique music experiences. This wide-ranging curation tends to favour popularity but highlights emerging artists or bands as well. Under streaming services, there is a renewed desire to find obscure music that does something novel.

It’s worth noting that music evolves, and so does its audience. What may be received at first as fringe music can become accepted over time. Playboi Carti’s discography, strangely enough, shows this within a short timeframe. His singles and albums have often been received as underwhelming at first listen, but increase in popularity over the following weeks.

Virality plays a role in music progression too, as one single can establish a new music style and become a highly sought-after product. One example is Justin Bieber’s remix of “Despacito,” which brought forth a wave of reggaeton music to North America. Recently it has become equally important for record labels and streaming services to care about both experimental and popular music.


The scope of music

Upon observation, art and pop music function as a dichotomy. Together, they add balance to music culture with a centralized approach that places the audience first. You couldn’t have smash hits from Doja Cat without Nicki Minaj paving the way, and there also wouldn’t be an Anderson .Paak without pretty much any R&B or funk artist ever.

Releases that are too accessible can quickly start to feel commercial, as if it were a product. Oftentimes, artists are hired to make promotional music for a movie, which usually leads to safer music that panders to an audience. One example is the soundtrack for Suicide Squad, which featured a diverse range of artists but led to music with small thrills and inconsequential impact.

Music that is too experimental is susceptible to gatekeeping and can distance and confuse a fanbase. The reason why a fanbase becomes confused arises when an artist chooses to reinvent itself to the point of a loss of identity. For example, after nearly 15 years of transformations, Ye’s last three albums have left many longtime fans feeling left behind.

More generally, pop cannot continue existing without innovation, however minimal, and too much attention to experimentation can unravel a demographic. Therefore, both streams of thought cannot live without the other.

In the end, consider what you would like from your own music favourites. Do you want your music to be at the cutting edge of the industry? Would you like it to continue perfecting sounds you have grown to love?

Regardless, music pushes forward and it’s interesting to remember what your favourite artists contributed to the ongoing evolution of music.

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