Chance the Rapper’s third mixtape, Coloring Book, nails a creative trifecta for the Chicago MC, featuring guest appearances from Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir to Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, and Kirk Franklin. But major labels who’ve pursued the rap artist for almost the length of his four year independent career remain 0-for-3 in the game of Chance.
With every release, the music trades fill with stories of Chance the Rapper’s tango with big music and big money—a call from Lyor Cohen, an offer from Sony/BMG’s Peter Edge. And in each case, Chance doesn’t dance, concluding perhaps that major label salivation does not equal his salvation. Thank you, he says. I don’t need your help.
In 2016, nearly two decades into the digital music era, one would think that most other artists would conclude the same, and that record labels would be dead by now. And yet the majors live and artists still sign with them. Why do some deal and others deal themselves out?
To illustrate, here’s a story from back in the day: In the mid-1990s, while working in Los Angeles for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, I returned from a trip to the Bay Area with an armful of CDs from an independent local artist named E-40, regaling my boss with stories of his burgeoning following and growing sales. Rick loved the music and wanted to meet with him. I called Earl and arranged to fly him and his brother B-Legit down to L.A., rented a limo for the day, and brought him to lunch with Rick on Melrose. Rick was usually effective with artists, talking of music not money. But E-40 was a different kind of musician.
Chance doesn’t have to play anyone’s game but his own.
When Rick appealed to indie artists about coming aboard his major-label joint venture with Warner Bros., he spoke about the drudgery of starting Def Jam in his NYU dorm room: the slog of manufacturing records, billing distributors, collecting money. Better to have someone else do that for you and focus on the music. But E-40 seemed to like the business part. He didn’t find it antithetical to his artistry. He had a good partner, too: His uncle Saint Charles handled the bulk of the administrative work, and together they split the wholesale price of the CDs they sold. As a result, E-40 could make more money selling 100,000 of his own records than he could selling a million for someone like us. Earl was certainly happy to meet Rick Rubin, but just as happy to walk away from that table without doing a deal. Thank you, he said. I don’t need your help.
Just as some folks don’t have the stomach to play the game unless they’re playing with other people’s money, there are others who, like E-40, prefer to play with their own. His market was smaller, but fertile for growth: plenty of local stores willing to carry local product and local distributors who paid him on time. Yet within the year, Barry Weiss at Jive/BMG had convinced E-40 to do a major deal, mostly because he was willing to pay Earl more money than he’d ever make on his own staying local. “He paid him not to put out his own record,” explained legendary deal-maker Wendy Day.
E-40 essentially traded up for a smaller cut of a bigger market. It proved that Rick’s argument was essentially right, even though his money wasn’t: The major labels provided artists money to record, money to live on, and money to send them out on tour. They had the manpower for marketing, the expertise for package design and branding. They paid the promoters who then paid the radio stations who added the record, and paid to produce the videos. The provided the pressing, the sales, and the distribution.
But so much of that advantage has evaporated along with the brick-and-mortar world whence it came. In the digital age, there’s nothing to press. Distribution is virtual, too, and despite low streaming rates, the accounting is dependable. Video and audio production and graphic design can be done by anyone with a digital device. Social media democratized communication and websites have eliminated limits to coverage once constrained by page counts and column inches. The leverage that major labels still have on lockdown is relationships and budgets—the ability to get a song on the radio and pull media executives’ attention.
So when, in 2008, a new artist named Drake released a star-laden mixtape that yielded one of the first pop radio hits without the support of a major record label—or any record label—many industry watchers were shocked when he signed his recording career away to a subsidiary of a joint venture with a major label—essentially two levels down from the top line to which he could have signed, or not signed at all, given his radio play. It didn’t make sense, in terms of equity, nor in terms of the agita of dealing with Cash Money—likened by some to a slot machine that doesn’t pay out unless you get few lawyers with crowbars to crack it open. But Drake also understood that he had to dance at the prom with the person who brought him—Lil Wayne—and also that Young Money provided priceless promotional value for him. As Drake moves to the conclusion of that contractual obligation, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw some more independent-minded moves.
Chance the Rapper, being self-made, never had to make those kinds of calculations. He hasn’t had a radio hit and might never. He gives his music away and gets his dough from shows and sponsorships. He’s turned down major media corporations and Hollywood has come calling anyway. He keeps it moving and keeps the money. Whether he eventually makes a deal depends largely on his artistic temperament and entrepreneurial aspirations. If he enjoys the business, he can ride out for as long as the business remains enjoyable and profitable. He has a small, tight, talented team of professionals—new arrivals like manager Pat Corcoran and O.G.s like Cara Lewis—who make that ride easier. He doesn’t have to play anyone’s game but his own.
Chance’s game may already be changing. At the moment, Coloring Book, is only available on Apple Music, a kind of exclusivity that might seem anathema to many of Chance’s fans, and a nod to the power of newer major players in the business. But even so, Chance is hope for every emerging artist who sees the shame in a world where music is free but the artists who make it aren’t.