When Chicago rapper Noname first appeared on “Lost” off Chance the Rapper’s second mixtape, Acid Rap, little did she know that she would evolve to become one of the leading figures in the independent music movement 5 years later.
Asked about the rewards of independence, Noname told Billboard:
“We’re only pitched to aspire to be almost unnecessarily wealthy. But I have a middle-class, comfy lifestyle right now, based off just being independent and having an incredible touring history.”
While working on her oft-delayed debut mixtape, Telefone, Noname made the rounds for features, hopping on Mick Jenkins’ “The Truth,” collaborating with C-Sick and Taylor Bennett on “All Love” and appearing on Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiement’s Surf.
She also made an appearance on Chance’s groundbreaking 2016 mixtape, working with T-Pain, Kirk Franklin, Eryn Allen Kane on “Finish Line / Drown.” Shortly afterwards, she released the highly anticipated Telefone to critical acclaim.
Following the tape’s success, Noname embarked on tour, all the while declining to sign with a label, and using the proceeds from the tour to finance the production her debut studio album, Room 25.
Being an artist isn’t cheap. Just the money that a record label invests in marketing an artist alone can be staggering.
From studio costs to production hire to video equipment, there’s plenty of costs associated with being an artist. Usually a record label would absorb most of these costs, but as an independent artist, it’s all coming out of your pocket directly.
“Man, that shit is fucking expensive as hell. Someone has to arrange all the parts and then you have to then hire, like, 12 people, this big-ass orchestral thing.”
Here are a few lessons up-and-coming artists can learn from Noname’s independent grind.
Independence means 100% control over your career
When you’re signed to a major or even independent record label, you generally have departments and teams of people looking over different aspects of your career.
One department might manage your touring activities, one might look after uploading your music to streaming services and another one might oversee your digital marketing presence.
This type of manpower and resources might be attractive to an up-and-coming artist who only wants to focus on making music and let the label worry about other aspects of their career. But when you’re an independent artists, the buck stops with you. All decisions, no matter how small, go through you and get your final approval.
There are definitely pros and cons to this. The cons are: it means more work for you, it means you have to take time out of creating music to handle administrative duties, it means there’s a risk of burning yourself out.
However, it also means you have freedom and complete creative control over your craft, over your product and over your career. There’s no one who can dictate your choices, only you and perhaps your fanbase. This is something that’s attractive to Noname; freedom from major label systems and politics and control over the music she creates and puts out.
Some artists aren’t cut out to be independent. That’s not a knock of who they are as artists, but being independent means you have to balance the business and art.
“I’m trying to find the balance between feeling 100% free and independent and also making smart business decisions, which doesn’t always involve reinvesting all of my money back into my brand.”
Touring will be a major source of income
Streaming might have opened up a whole new level of income for the independent music industry but for a majority of artists, live gigs and tours are still going to form the bulk of their income.
“It’s really important to make sure that your live show is better than what you even sound like on record, because ultimately that’s going to be your bread and butter. As an indie artist, you’re not going to be able to sustain yourself on streams alone, because most likely you’re unknown, so no one is streaming your music.”
Consider the fact that Noname funded the creation of her debut studio album, Room 25, from the touring revenue off Telefone and you’ll see how important a role live shows plays in an independent artist’s career.
For up-and-coming artists, learning how to book live gigs and playing a great show will become a fundamental skill that will pay off dividends in their career. Compared to other artists, Noname might have a smaller fanbase or do less streaming numbers, but she can book a tour around the country and play to packed rooms consistently.
If you were an independent artist, which one would you think is more indicative of a strong fanbase?
“I don’t do the kinds of streams that other artists who have bigger fan bases do, but I’m able to pack out rooms that other people are not able to sell out. And I think that’s just a testament to how much I’ve focused on building out my show and really connecting one-on-one with my fans.”
Direct to consumer
The late, great Nipsey Hussle has been the poster child for the direct to consumer business model for independent artists.
With his innovative Crenshaw and Mailbox Money #Proud2Pay campaigns, Nipsey inspired an entire generation of independent artists to develop direct relationships with their fanbase, take control of their career and be accountable for the results.
Noname is an example independent who’s taking the direct-to-consumer business model and applying it to her career. Thanks to Spotify’s new direct upload feature, artists can bypass traditional distributors like Tunecore and Distrokid to upload their music on the platform, select release dates and edit metadata. Noname actually uploaded Room 25 using this method.
All these aspects of Noname’s career is all built around her desire to sustain independence. Creative freedom over her music, generating consistent revenue via touring and developing direct relationships with her fanbase empowers her to thrive as an independent artist.
Later down the line, if she decides to partner with a major label, she’ll be coming to the table with leverage and negotiation power thanks to all the work she’s done independently.
“Like, if I want to make an album and I want an orchestra, I’m gonna figure out how to do that. I don’t want to wait around for people to greenlight my creativity.”