How artists like George Michael and Prince paved the way for the independent artist

In the last 10 years the music industry has seen a complete reinvention. While previously prevalent record labels were struggling to come up with new ideas, a new generation of artists took over – the ‘DIY’ era.

As music became available at the fingertips, new artists saw the online world as an opportunity and took it, with the help of YouTube, Twitter and SoundCloud. But while the internet was important in the transformation of the way we listen to music, it was artists such as George Michael who really demonstrated the independence that should be available for artists, and allowed the new generation to take all sorts of new opportunities.

The former Wham! man began this fight in 1992 when he made the decision that he no longer wanted his music and image to be controlled by his record label Sony. Michael made it very clear that this decision had nothing to do with money, stating publicly  that he had “more money than I know what to do with”. His fight was about creative freedom and control.

Michael lost his case with Sony in 1994, the verdict being that since he had renegotiated terms throughout his career the contract had to be considered fair. He argued, however, that this missed the point, (while the terms had been renegotiated he was a “professional slave”), and that he would appeal immediately.

Although in the end the appeal never reached the courts, Michael was able to cut ties with Sony in 1995 when his contract was sold to Virgin Records in return for a $40 million settlement. 

Prince is another artist well known for having a very volatile relationship with the music industry. 

Originally with Warner Bros., he shone the spotlight on their many issues by appearing publicly with ‘Slave’ written on the side of his face. Prince argued that his deal with Warner Bros. meant they had complete control over his name and music. As part of a long stream of protests against them, he famously changed his name to a unpronounceable symbol, leading him to be known by many as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”.

In 2015 Prince warned young artists away from signing record contracts, dubbing their control over an artist as ‘slavery’.  In joining music streaming service TIDAL he voiced his support of “artists trying to own things for themselves”.

His and Michael’s determination to free themselves from dictatorial record labels has subsequently paved the way for younger, upcoming artists to realise their ambition and generate their own music with less constraints.

Due to the emergence of streaming as the favoured way of accessing music, independent artists have rapidly been given more and more opportunities to make themselves heard. It has allowed artists to have their music distributed as well as having creative control over the content released, with no need for a record label.

One contemporary artist who has been particularly influential in advancing a more independent way of distributing music is Ed Sheeran. After starting his career busking and sleeping on friend’s sofas he has become a worldwide sensation and a household name.

In 2011 Sheeran collaborated with a group of respected Grime MCs and released the outcome on Twitter (at that time he had around 6000 followers). This gained recognition through the featured artists and made it into the singer-songwriter top ten, eventually paving the way for his international acclaim, and thereby demonstrating to the new generation of musicians the power independent artists could have.  

Now you can see young independent artists dominating the charts: Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book was one of 2016’s best reviewed albums and Frank Ocean’s Blonde, was number one on charts across the globe.

The influence of artists like George Michael and Prince, and the forward thinking and fearless attitudes of young creatives, their teams and fans alike have undoubtedly allowed for a new generation with the ability to exert real control over their music and their careers.

Image: Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons

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