Music

Declarations of Independence: 23 Top Indie Artists’ Secrets to Success

For plenty of music’s most compelling artists, going independent doesn’t mean going small — it means reaping the myriad benefits of forgoing the major label route. Across genres, staying independent can ensure an artist has greater ownership over both their creativity and their intellectual property; the ability to pivot or react quickly when a song unexpectedly takes off; and the freedom to put together a team that truly has their best interests at heart. Of course, there are the more intangible upsides to staying indie too — above all, the feeling that when success happens, it’s truly earned.

Here, Billboard surveys some of the most compelling indie artists making music (and chart inroads) now about the challenges and benefits they’ve seen to independence and the advice they’d offer anyone considering it.

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “Take mindful steps to get to know and understand your artist identity so that you can become something unique and genuine — whether it’s through vision boards, writing diaries or practicing adjacent forms of artistry to help you flesh out your identity as a musician. It has been instrumental to me in making sure I don’t lose my way.” —Paris Paloma (Nettwerk)

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “You control the narrative, so don’t settle, and be bold. An artist working independently has the ability to reach their fans directly with no barriers to entry and to create their own culture. [Independence] also provides a comfortable space for an artist to discover who they are and run their business with full oversight of the costs. It’s incredibly important for anyone getting into this business to understand how it works, what you’re signing into and how your money is being spent.” —Josh Sanger, manager, Paris Paloma

Paris Paloma
Paris Paloma

“Freedom is the most important asset an artist can have, in many more ways than just artistic. If you’re serious about being independent and you know how to work it, it’s way better than signing with an established label. For example, I own my own publishing company. I own my touring company. The capability of reacting and not being on a part-semester plan or a year plan is priceless. The capacity of reaction is one of the biggest assets of being independent.” ­—Pepe Aguilar (Equinox Records, Machín Records)

One of the most challenging parts of being independent is…: “Being able to make connections with global artists who are represented by major labels for collaborations.” —Cris MJ (Stars Music Chile/Rimas Entertainment)

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “[Take] responsibility as an artist, and form a good team that can support you in making the right decisions.” —Sergio Javier Ampuero Vergara, manager, Cris MJ

“If you’re grinding to get to your highest point of success and you started by yourself, it means more when you make it. The celebration when you make it is different because you get to say that you gave all of yourself to your dream, no matter who believed or didn’t.” —Lay Bankz (Artist Partner Group)

Lay Bankz
Lay Bankz

One of the most challenging parts of being independent is…: “[When you’re] doing the same thing every day with what feels like no motion, and spending money. No one knows you, no one is there to help you, or believing in you — it’s just God, you, and your dreams.” —Kenney Blake, manager, Lay Bankz

“Being an independent artist means having total control over both your art and your business. This requires being an entrepreneur, taking all the risks and having no one to blame but yourself and your team. Make sure you have a good team. You can still yell at the label when you are the label, but you will be yelling in the mirror.

That said, where there is great risk there is great reward. The potential upside is tremendous when you own your own masters and publishing. Don’t let anyone ever convince you ‘independent’ is synonymous with ‘small’ or ‘broke.’ ” —Andrew McInnes, CEO, TMWRK Management; manager, Sturgill Simpson (High Top Mountain)

“We have been able to have full control of our music without having to encounter a lot of politics and red tape that other artists do. It has given us the ability to do what we love most in the way we feel is best, and it even allowed us the freedom to experiment with different sounds on our newest album, Jugando A Que No Pasa Nada.” —Grupo Frontera (Grupo Frontera)

Why is being independent important to you?: “It gives us the power of decision-making and accountability without relying on third parties. This autonomy allows us to act swiftly and adapt to changes in the market or consumer behavior. As a team we can identify shifts in consumption patterns and work towards addressing them on the same day, without needing to wait for approval or direction from a label. This freedom to maneuver quickly and make decisions on our own terms enables us to stay agile, innovative, and true to the artist vision.” —Lucas Barbosa, manager, Grupo Frontera

Grupo Frontera
Grupo Frontera

“Independence, to me, is having autonomy and ownership of your art. This makes me feel a closer connection to my audience because they know that what comes from me is from me.” —Laufey (AWAL)

Why is being independent important to you?: “So I can own my music and I can control my whole world more easily. Being able to work and keep my music in my possession [means] I can have everything in the future. That’s why I work with UnitedMasters.” —FloyyMenor (UnitedMasters)

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “Establish and maintain a clear budget. By implementing a detailed budgeting system early on, I was able to allocate funds effectively, ensuring that I always had enough money set aside for crucial aspects of my career. By tracking income and expenses diligently, artists can make informed decisions about where to invest their resources, ultimately leading to greater financial stability and long-term success.” —310babii (High IQ/EMPIRE)

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “Always ask ‘Why?’ The music business will make you pay for what you don’t know, and it’s your choice on how you choose to learn. If you do not educate yourself on what’s important for the longevity of your career and choose short-term gratification, you will end up paying for it in the long run.” —Jentry Salvatore, manager, 310babii 

310Babii
310babii

“An indie artist has to have the understanding and knowledge to grasp that investing in their own career is crucial, whether in marketing, in making better content, in doing big tours and shows. An indie artist is one who makes decisions and pays for them from his own pocket.” —Fede Lauria, manager, Bizarrap (Dale Play Records)

The biggest benefit of being independent is…: “Maintaining creative control over the strategies and music that I create. [My song] ‘Daylight’ [had an] original release date scheduled for June, but I knew we had to get it out as soon as possible based on all the engagement we were building around it on socials. I called my manager and just told him we needed to get the song out, and the team made it happen. I think if I were signed to a [major] label, I wouldn’t have been able to make a last-minute change like that and the song wouldn’t have had as big of an impact.” —David Kushner (Miserable Man Music)

“I learned how to play in public. Taught myself how to play guitar and sing and write songs standing on street corners. If I were you, I wouldn’t sign any contracts, ever, if you don’t have to. Because it ain’t to your advantage. Unless they’re giving you a whole bunch of money — and even then, try and get the cash with a handshake. Let me put it to you like this: If you don’t know who the sucker in the deal is, it’s you.

Asking why being independent’s important is really beside the point. I didn’t set out to be independent. I was always seen as so confusing and so different that the people I was dying to do business with didn’t want me. The woman that discovered us, when she started realizing that I was going to be difficult to handle or tame, one afternoon in frustration, she threw her hands down on her desk and looked across at me and said, ‘Goddamn it, Charley Crockett. It’s a Coke and Pepsi world, and you are going to have to dance.’ She said my problem was that I just wanted to be Woody Guthrie and this was my one golden opportunity. Well, the only thing she was right about is I did want to be Woody Guthrie. Where we disagreed is, I don’t think you have one shot. You just have to keep rolling the dice.

At a certain point, I felt like I was out in the wilderness. And when you get far enough out there, the air is real good. You learn how to survive in it, and you just keep going. Don’t ever turn around.” —Charley Crockett (Son of Davy/Thirty Tigers)

Charley Crockett
Charley Crockett

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “You have to be persistent in selling your musical vision to find your fans and reach the masses. Being creative and trusting your instincts as an artist can help to level the playing field. And most importantly, don’t take no for an answer.” —Ken Levitan, Vector Management; manager, Charley Crockett

The biggest benefit of being independent is…: “I can work closely with my team and lead my projects, making sure my goals come to reality. At the end of the day, as the artist and mind of my project, that makes it easier for all to be on the same page.” —Junior H (Rancho Humilde)

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “Trust the process.” —Key Glock (Paper Route/EMPIRE)

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “Trust yourself, be authentic and see your artistic vision through. Continue to create the music that speaks to you that will resonate with your core audience, and don’t compromise for quick commercial success.” —Shaboozey (EMPIRE)

The biggest benefit of being independent is…: “Having the flexibility to move at your own pace. For example, if we want to release a record, we control that internally and can capitalize on any traction instantaneously — rather than having to get approvals from multiple parties. We live in a world where the consumer attention span is shorter than it’s ever been, so being able to strike while the iron is hot is ever so crucial to the success of an artist’s rollout.” —Abas Pauti, manager, Shaboozey 

Shaboozey
Shaboozey

“It’s so important for an artist to be able to say yes or no without manipulation or punishment. I believe creative freedom is priceless. Art is beautiful. It is honest, it is therapy, it is healing, it is personal, and it is often disrupted and tainted by business minds and models looking to make a quick coin. While the independent route is not without its own risks [like] self-financing, I am truly grateful to be able to be in control of my life and my art.” —RAYE (Human Re Sources)

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “Being independent doesn’t mean working alone! It’s an old saying, but it takes a village and it really does. Your team is everything. I firmly believe getting that right is essential for success.” Paul Keen, manager, RAYE

“Being an independent artist is one of the most empowering positions to be in. Independent artists feel the weight of responsibility for the future of their careers, which I think oftentimes leads to an increase in grit and work ethic.

I think I’ve realized the power and value of a team that’s aligned with the artist’s vision. A small but effective team around an independent artist and the right strategic partnerships can make a huge difference.” —JVKE (AWAL)

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “Right now, artist culture is very anti-major label. The seed of this is obviously that traditional label deals have been very exploitative. However, I’m noticing that, among young artists, this culture is breeding a fear of engaging with anyone who might be able to help scale their projects. I was speaking with a really talented artist the other day and they were telling me how they’re drowning simply trying to keep up with content creation and writing new songs. Yet, five minutes earlier, they were telling me how they never respond to any music pros that hit them up on socials, because it’s stupid for an artist to have a manager or label partner and give away money when they can do it all on their own. I had to stop them and point out the contradiction.

The great news is, the sort of predatory deals that sparked this label conversation in the first place aren’t all that’s on the table anymore. There are companies out there that allow artists to retain ownership of their music and maintain creative control, while still offering help with all the tasks artists don’t have the time for or network to facilitate, and they’ll do it for a very justifiable portion of the profit that is fractions of what artists had to give away in the past.

If you just want to write songs in your bedroom and hopefully pay the bills, then you might be able to swing it on your own. If you want to go big, building the right team is the best investment an artist can make. There are no billion-dollar businesses that are run by one person alone.” —Ethan Curtis, Plush Management; manager, JVKE

JVKE
JVKE

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “A personal connection with your team is paramount. As the industry continues to shift, having a team that you trust and can envision being in your life for the next two, five, 10, 15 years is crucial. Katie Crutchfield has always had a very specific vision for Waxahatchee. While it has certainly evolved over the years, having a group of a few core, trusted team members around her has been key to keeping Katie’s goals focused and achievable.” —Reynold Jaffe, Another Management Company; manager, Waxahatchee (Anti-)

The biggest benefit of being independent is…: “Being in control of your intellectual property, how you monetize it, release it and promote it. At the end of the day, you then own all of your own IP, to sell or continue working as you’d like to, on your own terms.” —Dean Wilson, manager, deadmau5 (mau5trap)

“For Djo, the most important aspect of releasing music is to allow for people to discover the songs and who is behind them on their own. By staying independent, he is under no pressure to rush his campaigns.” —Nick Stern, manager, Djo (AWAL)

Why is being independent important to you?: “Because being a musician means being a part of the music industry, it begins to entangle creativity and business — which can be incredibly difficult and painful for artists. Being independent, we are able to maintain creative control over the vast majority of what we do, and it’s something I would never consider giving up.” —Khruangbin’s Laura Lee Ochoa (Dead Oceans)

Laura Lee Ochoa
Laura Lee Ochoa

The biggest benefit of being independent is…: “As an independent manager who represents independent artists, we are afforded autonomy both creatively and strategically since there is less pressure to hit markers of supposed success that are often informed by financial obligation versus artistry. The music must come first, in its most pure and passionate form. If you bet on yourself, you’re sure to win.” —Dawn White, You and Me, Inc.; manager, Khruangbin

The advice I’d offer any indie artist is…: “Surround yourself with a team that you trust and you know will put your career and the integrity of your music first. I couldn’t do anything I do without my team, from my label to management and beyond. From American Idol to moving to Nashville to being thrown headfirst into the unknown world of the music industry, I’m so grateful I had all of them there to guide me, my music and my career from the very beginning.” —Chayce Beckham (Wheelhouse/BBR Music Group)

The biggest benefit of being independent is…: “I loved being involved [at BBR Music Group] with a small group of passionate people who woke up every day with an ‘us against the world’ attitude. While they have had great successes with Jason Aldean, Jelly Roll and Lainey Wilson, that same passion and drive remains.” —Clarence Spalding, manager, Jason Aldean 

Who is “indie”?: The artists featured in this story meet the guidelines of Billboard’s Top Independent Albums chart, which includes labels distributed independently or through the indie division of a major-label group as well as labels that are independently owned and control their masters but are distributed directly through Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment or Warner Music Group.

This story will appear in the June 8, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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