Five years ago, grime was dead. A wasteland of basic mixtapes and burnt out talent who’d disappeared from the charts as quickly as they’d turned up. Five years ago, Stormzy had just been expelled from sixth-form. Now he's dropped his first major project, Gang Signs & Prayer, a number one album, a number one debut album. By a grime MC from a deprived part of South London. If grime’s dead how is he here? How is he winning with a genre everybody and their mum had written off? All without a label.
It’s been raining #blackboyjoy of late hasn’t it? From the greatness that was the New Edition mini-series to the rightful and worthy success of Moonlight at the Oscars, black boys have been killing it and Stormzy has continued this trend – but with an inner London edge.
What makes Stormzy’s case so interesting is that much of his management, marketing and in-house team are made up of friends – the boys he grew up with and trusts. And like Stiff Chocolate said himself, “use the mandem”.
Together their two-year strategic plan to use Stormzy’s charismatic personality, social media and impeccable music have culminated in this; an unsigned grime act reaching the heady heights of the top of the charts and breaking records while he’s at it, without having to compromise his artistic integrity – something his signed predecessors unfortunately had to do. This was all by design. An exacting, meticulous and detailed set-up.
However, Stormzy isn’t the only independent act standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the big boys, musicians with far bigger budgets and machines behind them. Chicago-native Chance the Rapper has been doing an extraordinary job on his own and all the major labels want a large piece of the pie.
What both Stormzy and Chance have realised is that in this microwave, internet age, they don’t need labels, label budgets or publicity stunts, as Skepta once said over a rousing Birmingham 140bpm beat. Social media has given them the ability to have an instant connection with potential fans anywhere in the world at a simple click of a button, and also the means to gauge fan opinion and feedback. Who wouldn’t want to brand and sell themselves to the people that matter directly – grime kids, hip-hop fans, music lovers?
Record labels are becoming obsolete with independent artists having 31.3% of the music market share, forcing Universal Music into second place with 28.9%. In the first half of 2016, streaming revenue in the US grew by 57% to $1.6bn, and worldwide digital revenues overtook those of physical sales for the first time in music history. You don’t need a record label to have a seat at the table anymore.
Wearing your independence as a badge of honour and backing it up with good music is enough. Though Stormzy and Chance come from different sides of the pond and totally different walks of life, they have plenty in common. They interact with their fans on a daily basis. Fostering a friendship with those that listen to their music, which in turn creates an intoxicating need for them to see their favourite artist win. It’s about buying into the person behind the music these days, believing in them, propelling the them to greatness.
The 23-year-old artists have also cultivated strong ties with the music streaming gatekeepers including Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon, Soundcloud and more. That coalition has chiefly been with Apple Music, where Stormzy had a Beats 1 radio series aptly named the #MERKY show. While Chance’s third mixtape Coloring Book was eventually released as a streaming-only, fortnight exclusive on the streaming service. It then went on to be released to other streaming companies, and make history as the first ever album to debut on the Billboard 200 chart at number eight, based solely on streams. Damn, this #blackboyjoy keeps pouring.
These endorsement deals with big businesses like Apple, Adidas, Nike, Burberry and Kenzo x H&M, all without stiff, old white men in suits as the middlemen, mean they have a larger chunk of the millions at play. That’s thanks to the support and guidance of their hometown managers. Tobe Onwuka, who quit his job to help actualize the vision Stormzy had for himself, and Patrick Corcoran, a former party promoter who believed in Chance the Rapper from the very beginning.
Do up-and-coming rappers and grime artists feel the way to go is independent these days? With the triumphs their history-making peers have made?
V.Simmons, a British rapper who has written for JLS and Lethal Bizzle said it depends on the opportunities presented. “Going independent and doing it yourself makes more sense as there’s more reward but that depends on if you are getting the support the likes of Stormzy and Chance are getting from big brands.
“They are putting money behind them for a reason. These arrangements are still better than 360 deals though.
“It’s down to the individual, how business orientated they are and how much they value their art.”
Chance values his art and has studied the industry enough to make an informed opinions on the pyramid scheme that is a record company. “I don’t agree with the way labels are set up,” he stated to Zane Lowe in a Beats 1 interview. Stormzy, though having a different viewpoint, is intuitive enough to have discerned that major record labels do not “know what to do with black artists [in the UK].” And that has been seen with how they have handled the careers of acts who were literally about to blow like Chip, K Koke, and Tinchy Stryder, pushing them down a commercial route sonically and alienating their core fan base in the process.
Independent artist status aside, Stormzy, Chance, Macklemore and the like make great music first and foremost, and come across as smart, humble and capable people. You just want to invest in them, whether as a fan or as a brand. Major labels may be on their way out, but emotive music that makes you feel is not, and that’s what all artists should be focused on creating.