Pure Talent: 10 Musicians Who Found Success Without Major Labels

Pure Talent: 10 Musicians Who Found Success Without Major Labels


We’re all aware of the ‘head honchos’ in the Music Record Label Industry, with the likes of Interscope Geffen A&M, Capitol Music Group, Def Jam Recordings, Fame House, Universal Music Enterprises, and others. Before the era of online digital streaming, it was seen as the greatest feat for a musician to gain the recognition of a major record label and get signed. But as time progressed, musicians realized that a record deal wasn’t a golden ticket, and the promised rewards didn’t live up to the hype. Here is a list of renegades who made it without a record deal.

10 Russel “Russ” James Vitale

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First on the list is an intriguing young man with an inspiring come-up story who is believed to have “cracked the code” to independent artist success. Russel James Vitale, better known as Russ, is a New Jersey-born, Atlanta-raised musician who managed to rise in fame and earnings, all while living under his parent’s roof. In a 2018 interview with Forbes, Russ (26 at the time) explained how he made $15 million a year, all while having complete leverage over his music and owning the rights to his masters. At 28, he has amassed a fan base of 5 million followers and still has the bragging rights to his independence.

9 Nipsey Hussle

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Ermias Joseph Asgedom, popularly known as Nipsey Hussle, established himself as an independent artist who stressed the importance of having leverage and being self-made. Born and raised in Crenshaw, South Central Los Angeles, he made his entrance into the music industry in the mid-2000s. He was first signed to Epic Records but was later dropped and had his debut album, South Central State of Mind, indefinitely suspended. However, this did not deter him. He invested in studio equipment and produced his “Crenshaw” mixtape, which he sold for $100 per copy as part of his #ProudtoPay campaign. With the subsequent release of his debut album, “Victory Lap,” under his record label, “All Money In,” Nipsey partnered with Atlantic Records but maintained his independence as an artist.

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8 Frank Ocean

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Born Christopher Edwin Breaux, the singer, songwriter, and rapper adopted the name Frank Ocean after moving to Los Angeles. He first began as a ghostwriter and has penned songs for artists like John Legend and Beyoncé. From there, he joined a hip-hop group named “Odd Future” in 2009 and, in the same year, signed with Def Jam Records. Under Def Jam, he produced the critically acclaimed “Channel Orange” in 2012. He took a four-year hiatus before re-emerging in August 2016 with his last Def Jam project, “Endless.” Since his departure from Def Jam Records, he produced “Blonde” as an independent artist under his own record label, “Boys Don’t Cry.” Within one week of being independent, “Blonde” hit #1 on the Billboard 100, and Ocean pocketed $1 million in profits. He has since been an advocate for independent artists.

7  Joey Badass

Possibly one of the most underrated and underappreciated independent hip-hop artists, the Brooklyn-born Joey Bada$$, formally Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott, has secured a name for himself among hip-hop’s elite lyricist while still being an underground artist. He gained recognition after joining the hip-hop collective, “Pro Era,” with whom he released three mixtapes. Following that, he released his debut mixtape. “1999” in 2012, which was widely accepted by fans. Proficient in his work ethic, he released “Rejex” followed by “Summer Knights.” Then in 2015, his debut album, “B4.AD.A$$,” dropped, selling 56,000 copies in the first week and as labeled the #1 Independent album in the country. Continuing on his steady flow of music, he released his second studio album entitled “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$” under the umbrella of Pro Era Records and Cinematic Music Group, which made it to #5 on the US Billboard 200.

6 Jane Weaver

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The English Liverpool artist, Jane Louise Weaver, began her reign of songwriting and independent music artistry in the early 1990s with the band “Kill Laura” while she was still in college. For over 20 years, she has maneuvered through the alternative rock, electronica, and folk scene with resilience and untamed creativity. In 2002, she formed the “Misty Dixon” band and released the album “Iced to Move” in 2003. However, the band split in 2004, which birthed her solo career. As an independent singer/songwriter, she has produced several albums, her first being “Like An Aspen Leaf,” “Seven Day Smile,” “Cherlokalate,” and “The Fallen by Watchbird.” Her 2007 compilation album, “Bearded Ladies,” made quite a buzz in the folk music community. Her latest indie album, “Flock,” is set for release on November 6th, 2021.

5  Chance The Rapper

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There is no need for an introduction to this whimsically colorful character. The Chicago-native rapper, Chancellor Johnathan Bennett, more famously known as Chance The Rapper, has become the poster child for successful independent artists. His second mixtape, ‘Acid Rap,’ was a free download featuring artists like Twista and Gambino (Donald Glover). From there, his third free mixtape, ‘Coloring Book’ was released in 2016, featuring big names like Kanye West, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, and Justin Beiber. In the first week, the Apple Streams amounted to 57.3 million and was the first to receive a Grammy Award through streaming without a record deal. In 2019, he released his first debut album, “The Big Day,” which came in at No. 2 on the Billboard 200.

4  Childish Gambino (Donald Glover)

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Donald Glover isn’t your typical industry rapper, which is why he opted for the indie life when he first got started in the music industry. He got started as a disc jockey under the name “mcDJ” until he was hired at age 21 to write for the NBC comedy series 30 Rock, where he also made guest cameo appearances. During his time at 30 Rock, he released numerous independent albums, including “Sick Boi,” “Am I Just a Rapper,” “Am I Just a Rapper 2.” In 2016, he dropped the psychedelic funk track, “Redbone,” which received a Grammy Nomination. Then two years later, in 2018, he released the controversial rap song, “This is America,” which made it to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100. He attributes his success as an independent artist to self-awareness, authenticity, and having the right people on his team.

3 Flying Lotus

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Born Steven Ellison in Los Angeles, California, he began his career with the motivation of running a label and being an artist. Despite being discouraged from wearing both hats due to their demanding natures, he didn’t give up. The official debut release of his first album, “1983,” was in 2006 under the stage name Flying Lotus (or FlyLo). A few years later, he produced “Brainfeeder” out of his LA apartment. His sound is not easily categorized, as he enjoys experimenting with a collage of sounds, from electronica and hip-hop to house and jazz music. In collaboration with other successful indie instrumentalists like Thundercat, Ellison produced Cosmogramma in 2010, which ranked number three on the Dance/Electronic Albums chart as well as number 88 on the Billboard 100 chart.

2 Macklemore

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In 2013, Macklemore became a name buzzing with attention and promise. A Seattle native, Macklemore, or Benjamin Hammond Haggerty, and his business partner Ryan Lewis, released the Grammy Award-winning song, “Thrift Shop.” The song from their album, “The Heist,” went platinum and was recognized by Billboard magazine as the first rap song to top the Billboard Top 100 chart without the backing of a major record label. However, the claim to their success being completely a solo mission is misleading. Macklemore reportedly hired Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), a branch of the Warner Music Group, to help in distributing their album for optimum results. So although he was not signed to Warner Music Group, he did receive backing from their child company. Albeit, Macklemore’s ‘The Heist’ sold over 78,000 copies in the first week of release.

1 Hopsin

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He is one of the most easily identifiable hip-hop artists for one basic reason – white contact lenses. Hopsin, named Marcus Jamal Hopson at birth, the Los Angeles, California rapper, has been determined to reach his desired level of musical success. He was signed to Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records in 2007, which is ran by Eazy’s wife, Tomica Wright. The album he planned to release, ‘Gazing at the Moonlight,’ was actually recorded in 2004 and was meant to drop in 2009. However, due to lack of financial compensation and poor marketing, Hopsin fell out with Ruthless Records. Since then, he founded his own record label, Funk Volume, and released his second album, ‘Raw,’ independently. Then in 2013, he released his third album entitled ‘Knock Madness,’ which featured the single ‘Hop is Back,’ ranking 41st in the US Billboard Rap singles chart.

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Source: Vogue, Billboard

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