Chance The Rapper is the world's first truly independent artist

His fourth mixtape, Coloring Book, makes him the first artist to get an album in the Billboard 200 charts based on streams alone – is he the future of music?

Chance the Rapper looks set to become the first artist to get an album in the Billboard 200 charts this week based on streams alone for Coloring Book, his third mixtape in four years (or fourth if you count last year’s Surf with Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment).

Streams have counted towards the US chart since the end of 2014. They also, from the start of this year, go towards the RIAA’s gold and platinum sales certificates, using a byzantine tabulation method whereby 1,500 cumulative streams (on an audio service like Spotify or Apple Music as well as YouTube) are treated as the equivalent of 10 track sales and, therefore, one album sale.

It is a mathematical system that is as controversial as it is confusing, but has contributed to the chart success this year of Rihanna’s Anti, Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo and Beyoncé’s Lemonade – all initially streamed exclusively on Tidal, the subscription service they have shares in; but these albums also had a download side which, arguably, did most of the heavy lifting in getting them high in the charts.

What is different and most remarkable about Coloring Book is that it is not available to download anywhere and is being done without the backing of a record company. Chance is rap music’s brightest polymath, autodidact and cottage industry all rolled into one. He is no fan of the “old” industry system and his achievements to date represent a crystallisation of all the grand theorising about disintermediation and the “death of the label” that have been kicking around since 1999 and Napster. There are hundreds of thousands of DIY acts out there and lots of platforms, like Bandcamp, TuneCore and SoundCloud, to help them get their music out, but success at scale has proved elusive to them without the help of a label.

“There’s no reason to [sign with a label],” Chance told Rolling Stone in 2013, making his mission of total independence clear. “It’s a dead industry […] What’s an album these days, anyways? ‘Cause I didn’t sell it, does that mean it’s not an official release?”

It’s not that labels haven’t sought to sign him. He claimed he had meetings with “nearly every major label” three years ago and memorably turned down an offer from Kendrick Lamar’s TDE label. He could have followed the path taken by Drake, who used mixtapes to build his profile and then signed to Universal. He also developed a tight promotional relationship with Apple, being the spotlight star at the launch of Apple Music last June as well as having the technology company bankroll his Hotline Bling video. He reciprocated this largesse by giving the company a two-week exclusive on his Views album at the end of April. Yet Chance, in sharp contrast, is ploughing an independent furrow, making most of his money on the hoof from branding deals and touring.

This century has been defined by an unspooling calamity for the record industry – a car crash it is only now crawling out of. Critics of the business have laughed up their sleeves at its floundering, saying it is unfit for purpose and woefully anachronistic. At various points they have held up what they perceived as clear evidence that record labels were a spent force and utterly unnecessary for artists.

Yet labels did not die in that time; they merely consolidated to ensure their survival. At the turn of the millennium, there were five major labels (Universal, Sony, Warner, BMG, EMI) and today there are just three (Universal, Sony, Warner). Record sales may be a fraction of what they were back then – the IFPI reports that the global recorded music market was worth $33.6bn in 2001 and just $15bn last year – but record companies have remained critical in what Joni Mitchell, when singing about her label head David Geffen in Free Man In Paris, described as “stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song”.

There have been many times in this period of upheaval where the label has been declared DOA. In 2008, Groove Armada left Sony BMG and signed a one-year deal with Bacardi and this was hailed as the moment when brands, with their shiny imagery and deep pockets, put the fusty old record labels to the sword. Except the partnership spluttered out amid mild apathy and options to extend the partnership after 12 months were not taken up.

A few years earlier, acts like Lily Allen and Arctic Monkeys were apparently breaking on the then exciting new social media platform MySpace. Except they didn’t and had label backing to push them into the charts (Regal/EMI for Allen, Domino for Arctic Monkeys). There was also the brief but preposterous moment when Sandi Thom, claiming she was video broadcasting to hundreds of thousands of people from her south London basement, was taken seriously until it was discovered her viewer numbers had been gamed. After a transitory chart career, she found herself shunted back to the margins.

Kings of the dial-up era: The Arctic Monkeys
Kings of the dial-up era: the Arctic Monkeys Photograph: Fabio De Paola/REX Shutterstock

For an equally fleeting moment, Starbucks was seen as a new type of record label and retailer in one, doing deals with acts including Carly Simon and, incredibly, Paul McCartney. Simon, however, sued the coffee chain and its Hear Music arm in 2009 over what she alleged were meagre sales – sitting as a stinging parable for how the new is not always better or smarter than the old.

There have been moments here and there where acts were seen to be breaking up the old model and marking what business analysts insist on calling a “paradigm shift”. Cazzette became the first act in 2008 to release an album exclusively via Spotify but failed to set the world on fire. Even a mega-act like Radiohead, the sombre pioneers of DIY releases, still had the hand rail of a record label (XL Recordings) from In Rainbows in 2007 onwards.

All of these were mere blips, but the momentum that Chance the Rapper has built, pretty much single-handedly, suggest all those grand claims for total artist autonomy made over the past 16 years could finally be coming good. None of this, however, is happening in a vacuum. It has taken the perfect storm of the right act arriving at the right time, social media becoming truly mainstream, significant changes to the chart rules to incorporate streams and the declining importance of both CDs and downloads to deliver something that could change those “paradigms”.

Because of this, record companies are not going to be dumped in a shallow grave just yet. Neither are the charts going to be awash with acts doing exactly what Chance has done. As with all true pioneers, he exists in his own orbit. Anyone looking at what he has done and trying to replicate it is doomed to spectacular failure for one very clear and important reason: they are not, and never will be, Chance the Rapper.


Eamonn Forde

The GuardianTramp

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