By Moses Kamuiru.
Ludacris released his first single in two years on the 31st of March 2007, “Vitamin D” feat. Ty Dolla $ign, through an independent distributor called DistroKid. Fans could sign up in advance to receive a text message from Ludacris when the single came out—allowing the rapper to build a reliable database of direct-to-fan contacts for future communications and sales, like Ryan Leslie’s SuperPhone. So when a Forbes Hip-Hop Cash King boasting 24 million records sold and a social media following of 40 million chooses a four-person startup with no venture capital funding to distribute his music, you know a tectonic shift is happening under your feet.
Ludacris started his career as an independent artist. He saved up $20,000 over five years to finance his first album Incognegro, which was released in May 2000 through his label Disturbing Tha Peace Records. That same year, DTP began operating as a subsidiary of Universal Music Group’s Def Jam Recordings, but the important release of “Vitamin D”, most of DistroKid’s clients are unsigned, DIY artists, suggests that Ludacris has parted ways with the major distribution infrastructure, and returned to his indie roots. Rewind to February 2017, when prolific hip-hop artist DJ Jazzy Jeff, who first rose to fame alongside Will Smith as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, worked with over 30 collaborators to record his new album Chasing Goosebumps in just seven days. Jeff not only documented the entire recording process on Facebook Live but also decided to release the album independently through a distributor called Stem.
The principle of an indie distributor is neither new nor small. Some of the most significant players in the field, including CD Baby and Sony-owned The Orchard, were founded pre-Napster. DistroKid uploaded nearly 600 new albums daily and paid out $2 million to its artists last month, while competitor TuneCore pays its artists over $40 million in total every quarter. Frank Ocean and pop-rap duo Jack & Jack are just a few examples of independently distributed artists who have topped the iTunes album charts.
If indie distributors are so heavily invested in their artists’ careers and have proven business models, what good are legendary labels for? Money and resources—particularly for big-budget projects such as music videos, terrestrial radio placement and studio time. “At this point, artists themselves can handle everything else that a label has to offer, especially digital distribution,” said Kaplan. Ironically, some distributors are starting to act like the very names they were originally intended to replace. For instance, TuneCore just began offering cash advances to qualifying artists, to be repaid through future sales.
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Photo credits: Squibs.org