In 2024, more and more musicians are opting to self-release their music. We investigate why artists are choosing to employ the DIY approach to publishing music, as well as why industry trends and norms are rapidly altering, leaving the once-safeguarded concept that labels rule the music business behind.

Dance music has always been home to nuanced imprints that have released music on their own terms, whether it was through white labels, limited presses, cassette runs, or obscure & undisclosed releases. Certain labels, however, have dominated the scene, leaving indelible impressions on artists careers. Releasing on illustrious imprints influenced who was popular and which DJs would play their music and while the value of these labels is rooted in tastemaking and cultural prestige, their overhanging importance may be fading.

Outside of dance music artists such as Kanye West, Megan Thee Stallion, Chance The Rapper, AJ Tracey, RAYE, Halsey and more have been releasing music independently. In Halsey’s case, the label refused to release her music without a “viral TikTok moment”. While this seems like a world away from club music, these expectations will soon trickle into dance music culture, as certain pivotal figures within become synonymous with their ability to make tracks viral.

Chance the Rapper made history at the 2017 Grammy Awards as the first artist to win a Grammy for a streaming-only album.

Although labels’ expectations have shifted and their market strategies are now geared toward 30-second TikTok clips rather than radio plays, the bright side is that the burden of determining who makes it and who doesn’t has shifted, ruffling the keystones that previously piloted the music industry.

Whilst there are still certain fundamental guidelines for making your content or art, trend, the responsibility to get your artistry widely recognised by the masses mostly rests within the palm of the artist’s hands (a phone) and this empowerment will shape how the music industry evolves for future generations.

Social media’s influence continues to be a source of disarray in electronic music, as trends & algorithms spiral out of control & somewhat shadow creativity. However, it has shown to be an exceptionally successful tool for exporting music. The chokehold of social media and streaming platforms on artists can be rooted within their algorithms, which micromanage our taste and influence as they govern where & when we look at content.

Although it appears that social media’s hands are permanently wrapped around our content-hungry throats, there is some solace in the fact that, for better or worse, social media has propelled a number of artists into the spotlight without the need for major labels to bulldoze the ‘next big thing’ down our vulnerable little consciousness’s. The way we consume music has fundamentally altered, and social media has been the driving force behind this cultural transition, which trades chart places for trending sounds and record deals for employing influencers.

This DIY approach to releasing music has freed up both labels and artists to quickly turn around projects, leaving a paper trail of releases that is reflective of the artist’s vision at that present moment. This brisk style of sharing music acts as an opposition to lengthy waiting times with physical releases and allows artists to wear their hearts on their sleeves as they can easily craft an idea in the morning & have it out in the world by the evening.

Vinyl pressing delays have been spanning over a year turnaround, ultimately compromising the artist’s immediate vision, as sounds mutate and quality improves during this time, producers can be left with a body of work that doesn’t echo their existing expressive needs. Artists that choose to solely release music in a physical medium can suffer in this fast-paced theatre of music consumption, as a release that may have taken the guts of a year to hit the shops may also have the same shelf life as a digital release that took a fraction of the time to see the light of day.

Vinyl sales soared due to Adele’s 2021 album ’30’, prompting an increase in delays.

The battle between artistic fulfilment and the success rate is a fine line that should be somewhat differentiated, as holding your music to a certain worth is imperative for creative gratification, but this can also stunt musical growth due to the sluggish wait times associated with formative labels and pressing plants. Although a number of choice labels choose to release quite frequently, this too can be a danger as artists can lost in the midst of successive releases on the imprint. This is where grass-roots labels flourish, as they can offer a person-specific release plan and schedule that is centred around the artist, without compromising their fundamental ethos.

Ireland has been a front-runner in the unconstrained releasing of high-quality & measurable club music, as artists such as KETTAMA, Tommy Holohan, Shee, Mark Blair and more have been championing this bohemian style of music releasing. While many of these artists have since gone on to release with established labels, their careers are still very much rooted within the art of independence and continue to use this approach as a more engaged and panoramic attitude to connecting with fans. Self-releasing allows artists to build an identity around their music and grants listeners the opportunity to buy into their world of creativity which fundamentally separates them from the ensemble of artists trying to flog their music in the traditional fashion.

The digital age of music consumption has largely reduced music to a numbers game, with streaming data shaping perceptions of who or what is popular. The relationship between a label’s identity and its ability to provide these much-needed streaming hits appears to be a little hazy, as self-released tracks frequently outperform tracks released through established imprints, resulting in more relative engagement for artists with a more self-sufficient and straightforward approach.

Take cassö, RAYE, and D-Block Europe‘s huge single, Prada, which was the second most played track on Soundcloud in 2023 with 23.4 million streams. In May 2023, cassö’s TikTok upload of an unauthorized remix of “Ferrari Horses” went viral, gaining significant attention. The single was then formally released months later, however, the excitement began with the artist making and distributing the track on his own, quickly achieving cult status due to social media hype and with no backing.

Music royalties in today’s music industry may not always reflect the success of an album, EP, or track. Although physical music sales continue to climb, they will never approach the heights of previous years, and it is clear that artists will rarely utilize music sales as a concrete source of cash. With more music being published than ever before, it is practically impossible for any musician who is not in the upper echelons of the music industry to make a decent salary since the primary streaming platforms’ business structures favour stars over everyone else. This begs the question: if the market’s structure is stacked against emerging artists, why would they want to share their pennies with labels?

Another emerging trend is the utilization of 360 agreements, which can be expected to leek its way into dance music as club music continues to rise. 360 deals are exclusive contracts between a label and an artist, these contracts see a recording label receive a proportion of the artist’s music sales as well as revenue from other activities such as concerts, merchandise, television appearances, and publishing. All of this is done with the goal of recouping their investment in launching a new artist’s career. As the hurdles to entrance into the music industry continue to fall, these outdated and restrictive arrangements seem increasingly odd and exorbitant, especially given that musicians can practically handle it all themselves.

The continual rise of Bandcamp has made self-releasing easier than ever before as the platform provides a direct-to-consumer marketplace for artists and labels to sell physical LPs, merch, and digital downloads. Its straight-to-the-point interface and ethos have made it perfectly viable for artists to make a living off the site while just selling their music. The space has carved out a radical home for artists who choose to do things their way, and for producers who may want to earn money without gigging, seems sensible? It is.

Labels have traditionally been the most effective means to get your music heard by a larger audience, and in the perspective of many DJs, the greatest way to get your music into the hands of the proper selectors and yes, this is still true, to some extent. Many DJs readily share their email addresses with producers in order to submit music, and many others check their SoundCloud messages on a regular basis; while this may be time-consuming for artists, it reduces the need for distributors, particularly with digital releases.

The ability to tailor your artistic journey to your artistic vision is rooted in the ideology of releasing musically independently; it also helps to shape a practical life outside of your creative goals, as release schedules are tailored directly to your needs and life, leaving space to make the most of your music releases and schedules without crippling your life outside of music.

It’s clear that distributing music through labels has advantages. It certainly helps introduce artists to larger audiences while also saving costs on promotion, artwork, and mastering, but all of these benefits can also be attributed to releasing independently, and the once-fabled benefits of releasing with a label are fading as artists take matters into their own hands. It can be painstakingly difficult to communicate a certain artistic notion to others, as an independent, you won’t have to worry about anybody else’s perspective or vision getting in the way. Releasing music is easier than ever, and doing it your way has never been simpler.

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