MUSIC: An independent artist in the recorded-music business today need not feel burdened with the hefty provisions and clauses in a multi-million major-label contract for a healthy career and business.

That sentiment was expressed by winners at this year’s much-lauded AIM Awards, the annual British independent music-industry shindig held in London and organised by the UK  trade body AIM (Association of Independent Music).

Taking place late September 2022 at the iconic Roundhouse venue in the inner London district of Camden, the AIM Awards (pictured in headline) had returned as a live in-person event after two years of being an online-only experience because of Covid-19 quarantine regulations.

And the pandemic did a lot to hurt the careers and businesses of independent artists, stated Lisa-Kaindé Diaz (pictured, below), who with her fraternal-twin sister Naomi form Ibeyi, the Paris-based multi-heritage jazz-fusion duo.

Lisa-Kaindé Diaz, one half of acclaimed French duo Ibeyi

She was in London to support Ibeyi’s AIM Awards nomination for Best Independent Video. She was also accompanying Champion, the British producer/dance-music DJ, who picked up the gong for Best Independent Remix for his rearrangement of an Ibeyi track (ft. Jorja Smith) called Lavender and Roses.

Signed to the UK independent-music group XL Recordings (Adele’s label), Ibeyi are the daughters of Cuban music legend Anga Diaz, a member of the groundbreaking Buena Vista Social Club ensemble. But, despite such top-notch music pedigree, even Ibeyi are exposed to the challenges of being independent creators today, Lisa-Kaindé admitted.

“It is not easy because we depend on having an audience who come to listen to our music, watch us perform live and click on social media,” she told MTF Online.

“And because of Covid during the past couple of years, everything has been even harder. Tours have been cancelled and venues have been less full. Meanwhile, there are millions of artists out there who all want to come out on top; it is complicated.”

Indie is major
According to MIDiA Research, independent labels corner a significant 33.9% of the global recorded-music market, compared to the 66.1% combined share belonging to the three multinational major labels: Universal Music Group (UMG), Sony Music Entertainment (SME) and Warner Music Group (WMG).

Independent artists, who hook up mostly with very small-to-medium sized labels or are DIY artist-entrepreneurs who use label services, were not backed by the majors’ deep pockets during the pandemic. Consequently, massive holes emerged in their purses as live gigs (their main revenue generator) came to a halt, meaning their key income source disappeared.

The return of the AIM Awards as a face-to-face event this year, after being replaced by virtual versions online during 2020 and 2021, confirmed live music was back. And the event was universally celebrated by artists whose independent spirit means music always comes first, while the money, although still important, is secondary.

“It is a privilege to be an independent artist,” Ibeyi’s Lisa-Kaindé continued. “We belong to the 1% that live from our music and it’s a dream worth fighting for, even if it is hard.”

But indie music as a steady career is also doable. At 27, she belongs to a generation of independent music makers who have grown up with access to free or affordable recording and marketing resources, from social-media networks to DIY label services.

These flexible pay-as-you-need digital tools and assets also enable independent artists to retain ownership of their works’ copyright. They provide a self-sufficient alternative to being shackled to restrictive record-label deals that turn out to be the artists’ only source of cash to pay for bread, butter and bills.

That DIY approach, hopefully, curtails the days when multi-million-dollar hitmakers still ended up broke because they had given away the copyright to their originally created master recordings in return for advance money that quickly ran out.

Lethal Bizzle at AIM Awards 2022

“I think now is probably the best time to be an independent artist,” declared Lethal Bizzle (pictured, above), the 38-year-old hit-making British rapper who won the AIM Awards’ Outstanding Contribution to Music accolade.

“There are so many free resources we can use, such as social media, which wasn’t around when I first started,” he continued.

“Now, you can create a social-media account and get responses directly from your fans to see what is working. Or you can do it yourself with the streaming platforms. With the touring and live shows, streaming services have made it a little bit easier to get a more sustainable income.”

Indie is a business
Additionally, Lethal Bizzle, who was born Maxwell Owusu Ansah, conducts his independent career like a business that is not totally dependent on music royalties, which in recent years have become more complex and controversial as unreliable income for Intellectual Property (IP) owners.

He has his own record label, Skint Gang Records; co-owns a lifestyle/fashion brand called Dench Lifestyle; and is also a TV personality who has appeared on numerous UK entertainment shows.

“I am from an era when royalties really didn’t exist. You signed a record deal and never thought about the royalties. My advice to aspiring artists would be to take advantage of every single resource that is available to you. ”

An independent music career supported by other revenue-generating enterprises is increasingly common among Lethal Bizzle’s peers.

Stormzy (born Michael Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr.), the now iconic UK rapper, grime-music legend, and winner of endless industry awards, is a thriving entrepreneur, philanthropist and a vocal opponent of racial injustice. He picked up the Diversity Champion crown at the AIM Awards.

He might be signed to 0207 Def Jam, a UK recording company launched by the major UMG but carries an independent vibe associated with rap and hip hop. But Stormzy (pictured, below), 29, is also a businessperson who co-owns a book-publishing company, #Merzy Books, in a joint venture with Penguin Random House, the world’s largest book publisher.

Stormzy, musician and entrepreneur

It is such go-getting achievements by independent music acts that prompt Lethal Bizzle to argue for even high-street retail banks to consider giving loans to up-and-coming independent artists.

“They are doing it in America because, at the end of the day, it is a business that you are running,” he said during an MTF Online interview after collecting his AIM award.

“If you’ve got projections based on what you’ve made, how much you’ve sold and how much you take, I feel that should be an option in this country too. Your music is a business that generates an income, and if you have a solid plan and have history, that should be enough to support your case to apply for a loan.”

Creator as entrepreneur
Times have moved on from the days when you had the luxury of being only creative while you forgot about your financial obligations and appointed someone else to handle the money. There are investors who want to fund independent artists and their IPs, now considered as good for the ROI (return on investment).

“There are companies out there that are basically behaving like banks who can help you own your music at the same time,” Lethal Bizzle added.

AIM is definitely one of those organisations that look after independent artists and can point you in the right direction. It is just about you doing your due diligence and finding what is right for you. And also making sure you are ready. Because you don’t want to run before you can walk.”

That drive to be flexible as you develop your future in the music profession is recommended by Jeshi (pictured, below), the 27-year-old emerging star rapper signed to UK independent label Because Music. He won the AIM Awards’ Best Independent Video for the verbally and visually dexterous track 3210 and was also nominated in the categories for Best Independent Track and One To Watch.

Jeshi at AIM Awards 2022

His advice to unsigned but emerging artists who want to retain their independence is to be prepared to take their time and make sacrifices.

“I did loads of awful jobs that I hated while doing this on the side and trying to make it all happen,” Jeshi said.

“I think that all the decisions you make with music should be based on the long term and not just what’s going to bring you a little bit of money today. Where a lot of young artists mess up is that they go and sign up with a major label because they have thrown a little bit of money in their face.”

He continued: “Someone puts £30,000 in your face and you think this could change your life and, actually, it doesn’t change your life. You go through a year and you’re back where you started. And you’re restricted with opportunities because you are stuck in this situation. So, I tell young people to just be patient. It’s not a sprint.”

Owning your destiny
Champion, the AIM Awards-winning producer, concurred: “Don’t leave your daytime job; be realistic. Have a plan. It does not have to be a very meticulous plan, but you must sustain yourself while going through the process of finding yourself as an artist. It is one thing starting a career; and it is another thing maintaining it.

Ultimately, being an independent artist, whether in fact or in spirit, is about owning and managing your destiny, declared Ibeyi’s Lisa-Kaindé Diaz: “It is about artist sovereignty – that is what I love about the independent world, no one will tell you how to sound. There is an understanding that if the label signs you, it is because they believe that the music you create is valuable. And they won’t ask you to change it.”

Creativity need not be a perfect process to be effective, she added: “As artists, we make mistakes and create songs that are mistakes. But they are mistakes we need to make. And sometimes they are happy mistakes. And actually, that is also how we make the best albums, by being able to find who we are through art.”

All images supplied by jaykaymediapix, apart from image of Stormzy, which was supplied by AIM Awards