Going Indie: Hip Hop and the Independent Labels
by Kristien Wilkinson

For a struggling musician who dreams of making it big, securing a record deal with a major label is definitely one of the golden opportunities that shouldn't be passed up. The same thing could just as well be said for hip hop artists. What with flashy cars, heavy jewelry, and ostentatious displays of wealth constantly dominating the hip hop image, a multi-million dollar contract with a giant music company is just a logical and financially necessary part of the package. But recent trends have shown that being affiliated with a major record label isn't always as rewarding, both career and money-wise, and going independent doesn't always mean being obscure and penniless.

Back in the days when hip hop was still an emerging genre in the mainstream music industry, most artists were initially signed to independent record labels in the East Coast. Def Jam Recordings was one of the most notable labels at the time. Other active indie labels in the hip hop scene were Jive, Tommy Boy, No Limit, Cash Money, Rawkus, and Profile.

In the late 80s up to the mid-90s, the popularity of hip hop soared and it became evident that the genre could sell albums and was not just a negligible offshoot of block party music from the ghettos. Major record labels started noticing the trend and jumped in. BMG acquired a minority stake in Jive and eventually owned the label in 2002. Def Jam came under the ownership of Universal Music Group while other indie companies signed distribution deals with major record labels.

The corporate takeover of hip hop led to increased spending, from inordinate expenses for music videos to the luxurious pampering of big-time rappers. Huge amounts were spent on production, promotion, and distribution of albums. Of course, these came with the expectation that album sales would yield a fat return. The landscape changed with the advent of technology that enabled consumers to just download music from the internet or copy it from CDs. Records stores were closing down as CD sales continued to dip. With the decrease in album sales, there was barely enough to cover overhead costs of production. For the artist, this means smaller proceeds even if the album sold 200,000 copies or was a certified gold.

This is where the advantage of an independent label comes in. With an indie, the cost of making an album is lower so even if the copies sold are fewer than those of a major label, the profits are still much more decent. Consequently, the artists also earn more and they have more artistic control of their material.

This has led a number of rappers to leave their corporate nests and venture into the indie labels. East Coast rapper Fat Joe, for instance, personally handled the production, marketing, and distribution of his music under his own Terror Squad Entertainment. He signed a distribution deal with Virgin Records which grants him higher percentage of the profits and allows him to retain ownership of his master tapes.

Cormega is another rapper who went from major label to indie. He put up his own label, Legal Hustle Records, after being released from a contract with Def Jam. Just like Fat Joe, Cormega said that he earns more now as an independent rapper than when he was signed to a major label.

The renewed growth of independent labels is seen as a welcome avenue of diversification amidst the corporate hegemony of the music industry. It also provides an opportunity for artists who may otherwise go unnoticed by major labels. With the constant talk of the death of hip hop, this indie trend could very well be the music genre's hope for resurrection.

Kristien Wilkinson is an online writer and contributor to http://www.hiphop.net.