London's independent musicians are transforming the industry

Eleanor Halls

Eleanor Halls looks at the ways in which DIY culture is causing a headache for traditional major record labels

01 November 2018 13:41

A wave of new genres from London’s most underprivileged areas has brought a DIY culture to the city. How will major labels adapt?

On October 4, Dave, the 20-year-old, Ivor Novello-winning rapper from Streatham, self-released his self-produced single ‘Funky Friday’ (featuring Fredo) for streaming and digital download. It debuted at number one in the UK Singles Chart on October 12, knocking pop-dance track ‘Promises’ by Sam Smith and Calvin Harris off the top spot and becoming the first song by a British rapper to peak at number one in the UK Singles Chart since Tinie Tempah’s ‘Not Letting Go’ (featuring Jess Glynne) in 2015. Except, whereas ‘Not Letting Go’ was commercially friendly pop that would find its home on countless dance floors and released via major label Warner, ‘Funky Friday’ is UK rap with no dedicated chorus, released via a tiny, independent record label Neighbourhood Records. The significance of Dave’s success for independent artists championing authentic, homegrown sounds – grime, drill and afroswing – from some of London’s poorest urban areas cannot be overstated.

The moment also crowns a feverish new mood that’s been building for years: a desire for authenticity; the celebration of DIY culture and pride attached to being genuinely ‘self made’. Last February, we saw Stormzy go to number one in the official charts with his debut BRIT-winning album Gang Signs And Prayer, released on his own label #MerkyRecords. Then in May, J Hus released his BRIT-nominated album Common Sense as an unsigned artist, with the single ‘Did You See’ charting in the top ten. Skepta ditched Universal to release his Mercury-winning album Konnichiwa on his own label Boy Better Know and Wiley split from Warner to release both Godfather albums on his imprint CTA. The stamp of independence has now become so coveted that signed artists are keeping their record deals secret. Some major labels are even telling them to keep it quiet.

‘Being independent is the new cool. I’m connected to a lot of people who have been signed and who have not been able to tell anyone,’ says 25-year-old Tobi Sunmola, a Nigerian-born, independent, alternative hip-hop artist who distributes via Ditto: the world’s largest independent music distributor set up in 2007 by two brothers from Birmingham. Ditto now has 20 offices worldwide and works with over 200,000 artists – from Chance the Rapper and Ed Sheeran to Stormzy and Dave – who pay only £20 annually for unlimited distribution across every major platform while keeping 80 percent of the royalties. Sunmola began working with Ditto after realising his many meetings with various major labels were pointless. ‘I was just following a process; what I thought was the norm,’ he says. ‘But then I realised they couldn’t do any more for me than I could do for myself. With social media, you don’t even need a middle man anymore. And labels aren’t innovators like they used to be. They just follow what’s popping on Instagram.’ Case in point: Island Records recently signed KSI, a former YouTube vlogger with a gigantic following (who announced earlier this year that he would go independent after fulfilling his contract), as well as Michael Dappah, a comedian who went viral after releasing a pastiche single ‘Mans Not Hot’ last October.

Yet, while screaming ‘sellout!’ to some, majors are still appealing to many, so Ditto’s Artist Ambassador Joe Mason spends much of his time debunking their draw. ‘The problem is that many of these urban artists are underprivileged teenagers who have never had money before. They see the big advance and they just sign without thinking about it,’ says Mason, who also criticises how slow major labels are in an era in which we expect on-demand everything, attention spans are fleeting and social media can make a song go viral overnight. ‘Major labels are so traditional. It often takes them three weeks minimum to get a song live on the digital stores because it has to get signed off by so many people. A musician might tease a release on social media and get a really good response, but not be able to release it for weeks, by which point the hype has gone. With Ditto, it’s out within 48 hours,’ says Mason. (Dave released ‘Funky Friday’ only two days after teasing it on Instagram, which helped it tally up 700,000 views within 24 hours on YouTube.) ‘I’ve also encountered so many people working at majors who don’t understand or listen to urban music; who may not know the difference between UK rap and grime,’ continues Mason, using rapper Fredo’s album as an example. ‘When Fredo’s album came out earlier this year, it was put out as a pop release on iTunes. But it’s hip hop music, so it’s going out in the wrong category, which means its getting the wrong listeners.’

An important point independent artists need to consider is the growing power of streaming sites such as Spotify, whose premium subscribers have increased from 57 million to 87 million in the last year alone. P Money, a veteran grime MC also using Ditto for distribution, attributes streaming to the recent breakout of so much fresh talent in London. ‘Before streaming, buying a song for 79p could be a lot to spend on a single you may not know and might not like. Whereas now with a Spotify account, someone may have spent £9.99 for the month to hear the new Drake album, but because they’ve already spent that now, they can listen to anyone. They’ll click on a link and then support that person because he’s alright and he’s from their area. They want to help that one person make it out.’ It’s often musicians from inner city London, in which communities are notoriously tight knit, who rally an extraordinarily loyal amount of support on social media. Stormzy, J Hus and Dave all put out heartfelt and personal pleas for streams and downloads, with Dave telling fans seeing ‘Funky Friday’ go to number one would be ‘life changing’. Many comments below his post congratulate him for ‘helping the culture’ and ‘changing the game’.

The financial impact of streaming for independent artists is also significant, especially in the UK market. ‘A stream here is worth twice as much as in Spain. And Spotify playlists – which you can pitch yourself without a distributor – are undoubtedly driving the music culture at the moment,’ adds Mason, before launching into two specific examples. The first: the rapper T Mulla’s song ‘Dolla Pound Cake’, which, through Ditto’s support, was added to the biggest Spotify playlist in the UK: Hot Hits UK. Yet a day after releasing the song, T Mulla signed to Virgin. ‘I won’t say the amount, but within six months that song had already earned back the label’s advance, and then his continuing percentage split would be in the label’s favour whereas the maximum Ditto ever takes is 20 percent of the streaming royalties,’ says Mason. The second: rapper Hardy Caprio’s song ‘Unsigned’. With just over 33 million streams, ‘Unsigned’ – its title promoting his status as an independent artist  – is the most popular song on the 22-year-old Croydon rapper’s Spotify profile by miles. And yet, if you scroll down to see who owns the song, it’s Virgin EMI – he signed days after releasing the song, and the label demanded the rights to his back catalogue to ensure his advance was paid back in time. ‘It’s completely unfair, because the label doesn’t even work your old songs. They’ll do the most minimal admin but still get the money for it. And artists might not appreciate how much their back catalogue will bring them in later life. With a million Spotify streams worth three and a half grand [and eight and a half grand on Apple Music], ‘Unsigned’ will have made him over a £115,000 from Spotify alone,’ says Mason. ‘We’ve even got the Silver Plaque for Unsigned in our office. It’s so ironic.’

Continued below.

When Corey Johnson was part of a notorious gang called ‘28s’ in Nineties Brixton where he grew up, and dealing drugs for the whole postcode, he faced certain occupational hazards. Specifically: his knee cap and shoulder were chopped off by a machete when he was a teenager. He was told by doctors he would never walk again. ‘So I got up and discharged myself the next day, and taught myself how to walk,’ says the 40-year-old, smoking a blunt outside his independent label Defenders Entertainment on Juno Way in Surrey Quays, just down the road from a DHL depot, acres of railway arches and industrial wasteland. ‘I was a stubborn little motherfucker.’

This remarkable sense of determination has turned Johnson’s life around, as well as the lives of many young musicians he has supported since. As the founder and MD of Defenders – the longest-running independent label in London – Johnson has boosted the careers of almost every UK independent artist known today, from drill rappers Harlem Spartans and Headie One to the now globally-acclaimed rapper and singer Stefflon Don. Tinie Tempah’s iconic grime tracks ‘Wifie’ and ‘Hood Economics’ were even recorded here mid-Noughties, before he signed to Parlophone, a subsidiary of Warner. ‘All of London’s new sounds come from here,’ says Johnson, who uses Ditto Music as a distributor.

But Defenders is more than just a label. It’s become a melting pot for musicians all over London, who, in different circumstances, wouldn’t be able to work under the same roof. ‘Even Operation Trident know that gangs from North, East, South and West come to Defenders,’ says Johnson. ‘They knocked on my door, and I have young kids doing work experience here during the day, so it wasn’t the picture they were expecting. But on the baitest days we have two SAS security on duty.’ Have they ever been needed? ‘There have been very, very close incidents,’ admits Johnson, ‘but ultimately everybody has a lot of love for this place. No one wants to be the one to spoil it for everybody. And because so many people are trying to shut what these artists are doing down [In June, West London drill group 101 was stopped from recording music without approval from the authorities] when they’re given the right opportunity most of them will just focus on the work.’ Johnson calls the space a ‘Switzerland’ for rappers, and, considering the current hysteria surrounding drill music, which has been blamed for inciting gang violence and contributing to the city’s violence epidemic, this safe space feels necessary. ‘That’s why I’m about to franchise Defenders,’ says Johnson. ‘We need more places like this where young people can meet, get the creative skills they need and meet the right people in the industry. Artists need information and access. You can’t just throw money at them. They need a network.’

Johnson’s biggest issue with major labels is their lack of concern of artist development. ‘Right now I think the industry is setting up a lot of kids who are going to have mental health issues, because they’re building them with high expectations of a certain lifestyle that most of them can’t maintain,’ says Johnson. ‘Most of these artists are never going to find another banger. So the pressure that they’re under from major labels to find that next song is intense. The longer they wait the more the likes go down, the invites go down, the girls in their DMs go down, the income goes down. I’m seeing it happen right now. And young men don’t talk about this – they’d rather come to me with a problem out on the road rather than a mental health issue.’ For independent artists, there is no such pressure – Dave’s Funky Friday was his first musical release in six months – and independent labels are partners, not bosses.

As Johnson enters his office and cracks open a bottle of stout with his teeth, before playing some unreleased ‘afrodrill’ which he says will be London’s next big sound, he reflects on the future of major labels. ‘As more and more artists become independent and use independent labels, all majors can do is distribution and high-risk investment in singles and projects. Because knowledge is changing. The music business is being understood now. People know their rights. The internet has made everything more accessible.’ He shrugs. ‘Major labels are lost.’