For Visionary Black Artists Selling Their Music Online, Every Day is Independents’ Day



Originally published on Friday, June 08, 2007
By Bobbi Booker, Special to

R&B singer Eric Roberson has had over 137,000 profile views, and over 5,000 visitors have listened to or downloaded the several tunes he posts at the site from his CD, “Left.” As vocalist N’dambi prepares for her third album release, over 8,600 guests have listened to her song, “If We Were Alone.” You might not be able to score eight-time ASCAP winner Gordon Chambers at your local record store, yet he is a heralded star on And while the soulful sounds of Lady Alma have been in the air for years, hearing her on the air is quite another matter.

All of the above independent artists are bonafide stars in their own right, often selling out venues as they tour the nation or world. Their success stems from their affiliation with online music distribution, which has given independent artists new prospects for production, marketing and circulation on a global level, in an instantaneous fashion.

“When people hear of Lady Alma and a lot of other artists who have created a buzz nationally and internationally, the first thing they do is go to the Internet and find more history and music on these people. And if you’ve got music for sale online, that’s the fastest way people can get a hold of the music,” according to Tony Allen, Alma’s former manager. “It’s faster selling online, as far as reaching out to the masses internationally. People all over the world can buy your music, and you don’t have to worry about going to a retail store in Berlin trying to meet a storeowner and educate him on the artist. The community is right there on the Web.”

AP VideoThroughout the history of recorded music, independent artists were at a disadvantage to their mainstream music colleagues, who could count on financial and commercial backing from record labels that were often affiliated with large conglomerates that controlled many subsidiary record companies. Today, the Internet has opened up new distribution channels for digital music, and this has leveled the playing field for music artists and performers. The rise of new media technologies, such as digital music and the Internet, has created new opportunities for independent musicians to self-produce and distribute their work on a global scale, both easily and affordably.A decade ago, James Collins, founder of the popular Baltimore-based band, Fertile Ground, created his own label, Blackout Studios, surrounded himself with like-minded musicians and began releasing his own music. To date, Blackout Studios has independently sold 300,000 units.”Each release that we have produced or marketed has a different strategy and doesn’t really follow a blueprint,” said Collins. “We don’t necessarily pump records to a formula. For instance, Fertile Ground, the biggest seller that we have, is a band that stays on the road. The records really support the tour, as opposed to modern black music that creates the inverse — where people only tour to support their new record. Fertile Ground really lives onstage; they have records that capture that light, and that is one of the strongest ways. The band sells about 60 percent of those records touring the 75 to 80 dates they do per year.”The form of Internet promotion inspired Collins, he says. In 1999, The Roots’ co-founder and drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson established Okayplayer as the official website for the innovative Philadelphia-based hip-hop band. Okayplayer has since evolved into an influential online community that not only nurtures its artists and encourages fan interaction, but also hosts an independent record label and sponsors a series of concert tours. Collins also credits his label’s success to online independent retailers, such as Dusty Grooves and CDBaby, which offer artists 75 percent of sales on a consignment basis, as well as additional promotion.”Everyone and anyone can do it,” said CDBaby spokesperson Sean Croughon from its Portland, Oregon headquarters. “The world’s changed a lot. It used to be that you used have to jump through the hoops of a few people in order to have your music made available. Before that, there were tons of tiny little labels all over the country that would put out records, but that was destroyed in the 50s and 60s, and now we are kind of returning to that. Everyone can be their own label.”

Online music distribution has given independent artists new prospects for production, marketing and circulation. The Internet has allowed individuals the ability to call their own shots by bypassing “the middleman,” taking control from both record companies and management. Technology has eased the chore of music production and CD duplication. Additionally, online record stores help artists tailor their tunes for music download entities like iTunes and Rhapsody.

“So now, those independent artists can be on the Web site alongside all other major label artists,” explained Croughon. “You can find music from any part of the world online, whether it’s through CDBaby, iTunes or any of the hundreds of independent record labels that sell online. It’s great. It’s just a golden age.”

New York hip-hop artist Count Coolout (born James Minor) recalls the initial street buzz that propelled his 1980 hit, “Rhythm Rap Rock.” Minor, now a music marketing consultant, runs his business online via JaThom Records.

“In the old days, (the major labels) didn’t want to touch us because we weren’t what they considered to be music at one point. A lot of guys were selling on independent labels,” said Minor. “It might be the neighborhood number man, the dealer who lent the money to actually make a label to put a record out. When the labels started to see how this music was being sold, they decided to start signing us and start giving distribution deals as well. Now, it’s come full circle.”

Today, major labels are even more reluctant to accept unsolicited material, forcing potential acts to rely on high-end intermediaries such as entertainment lawyers. Those artists who are signed are often submitted to a formulaic process that leads to similarity in the tunes that do receive airplay.

“What happens today, as opposed to yesteryear when I first started out, is there was no Internet. Back then, if the ‘net existed, there probably never would have been a brother on a major label,” explained Minor. “Today’s artists are selling the CDs from the Internet. They’re on the underground, but they’re still getting fame. The money coming from the ‘net may not be as great as if they were on a major label, but how much of that major money do they keep?”

On average, an artist signed to a major label deals gets about 8 percent of the wholesale selling price of the CD single (about $5) or CD album (approximately $7-$8 each). Depending on the deal the artist signed, they could receive mere pennies on a chart-topping hit song. It was this kind of formula that led to the financial downfall of such artists such as TLC and spurred other artists like Prince to trendsetting online music dominance.

“If a major outfit sells 100,000 CDs, it’s considered a total flop. If an independent person or label sells 10,000 CDs, they’re breaking out the champagne,” says Minor. “Do the math: 10,000 at $10 a pop is $100,000. So the majors, being who they are and doing business the way they’ve been taught to do it, have pushed themselves to the side. And people are just going forward.”


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