Chance the Rapper
These days, Chance the Rapper is a household name. The 24-year-old musician came from a modest background: he wrote his first mixtape during a 10-day high school suspension, and his first performances were in high school talent shows. Now, he has earned three Grammys, been featured on the Billboard top 200 chart, and has headlined major music festivals including Lollapalooza and Governors Ball. Over the past five years, Chance the Rapper has risen to major stardom in spite of – and perhaps due to – his refusal to get signed by a record label. His success without the help of a label makes Chance an outlier among musicians, and his independence may represent a major change in the course of the music industry.
The problem was not that labels had no interest in Chance. In fact, just four months after Chance released his first mixtape, Sylvia Rhone of Sony Music gave him an offer, but Chance politely declined. After he turned down Sony, labels began to court Chance: he met with representatives from major labels including Universal, DefJam, and Interscope. However, in the words of Chance’s manager, Pat Corcoran, “we reached an unspoken conclusion, that we don’t need the help of a major label.”
As an independent artist, Chance and his team encountered obstacles that would have been easier to surmount with the help of a label. For example, clearing albums to be sold – a process that involves time, money, and lawyers – presented a major challenge. When Acid Rap, Chance’s second mixtape, went on sale online, the team immediately had to take it down, as it contained copyrighted music samples. This led to a second problem – if they couldn’t legally sell their music, and were not receiving royalties from a label, how would Chance and his team make money? The team tackled this problem by creating a locally-produced merchandise line and focusing on live performances. Their big break came from Red Bull, who gave them a $20,000 check to buy a used RV. Within a year, Chance was on the road with Mac Miller, and performing in Europe with Eminem.
While Chance had to be a bit more resourceful without the help of a label, he managed to avoid some of the negative aspects that come with getting signed by a record label. Labels notoriously write exploitative contracts, and put pressure on artists to make music by a certain release date. They also have the power to take creative license from the artist, through actions ranging from choosing album art to completely writing songs for the musician. Even as an independent artist, Chance experienced the difficult nature of working with a record label. Before the release of Coloring Book on streaming platforms, the team had to attain permission to feature other artists in the album. This meant going to Defjam for permission to release tracks featuring Justin Bieber and Kanye West, both of whom are signed with Defjam. The record label pushed back: they didn’t want Chance’s album to divert the spotlight from their stars, who had both recently released albums. However, through persistence and maintaining a cooperative nature, manager Pat Corcoran managed to clear the album, and made it available to anyone with an Apple Music subscription. The album soon reached #8 on the Billboard top 200 list: the first streaming-only album to debut on Billboard.
Chance went on to win three Grammys in 2017: the awards for Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance, and Best Rap Album. He was the first musician to win a Grammy without selling his music. In fact, before Chance, it was not even possible for a non-signed artist to win an award: the Grammys used to only consider music distributed via label, retail, or internet sales for award nominations. 2017 was the first year the organization allowed for albums released on “applicable streaming services” to be considered.
The change in policy was due in part to the dramatic rise in streaming service usage over the past few years. In 2015, after the release of Apple Music – which became Spotify’s main competition – revenue from streaming services edged out revenue from downloaded and physical copies of music. This trend has continued: today, according to the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), revenue from streaming services accounts for 62% of the overall music industry revenue. Overall, streaming services continue to gain popularity, while digital downloads and physical copies of music continue to decline.
One could argue that the Grammys changed their nomination policy not only because of the rising popularity of streaming services, but because of the popularity of Chance himself. He has become such a well-known figure in the music world – few other artists have performed at an Obama Foundation Summit – that it would seem absurd for the Grammys to exclude him from consideration. By changing their rules to accept Chance, they opened up the doors for countless non-signed artists to receive the recognition they deserve.
Whether or not he directly influenced the Grammys, Chance can be considered a shining example of the modern musician. He has paved the way for the independent artist by showing the world that now, in an era where most people access music through streaming platforms, artists have the ability to succeed without a label. After winning his first Grammy, Chance held up the award and said, “this is for every indie artist, everybody who has been doing this mixtape stuff for a long time.” As it turns out, “this mixtape stuff” can now win Grammys - just ask Chance.