Chance the Visionary: How Chance the Rapper is Tearing Up the Record Label Playbook

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Image via Kevin Winter and Getty Images

Rapper, Grammy winner and philanthropist Chance the Rapper (born Chancellor Johnathan Bennett) formally announced his past relationship with Apple Music from his official Twitter feed on Friday afternoon (March 17).  Chance the Rapper’s unique relationship with Apple Music, as well as his announcement blurs the line between major record label deals and remaining independent.

Chance the Rapper needs you to know that he’s an independent artist. In fact, it’s now a part of the jubilant MC’s brand. Although the rapper eagerly rhymed on his “Good Ass Intro” of the 2013 Acid Rap mixtape “Better bet I’d take that deal, gotta watch out for my motherGet a watch with all that glitters, come in clutters, different colors,” Chance has spent a tremendous amount of time convincing fans that he no longer has any use for passe record labels ever since. After the success of the Acid Rap tape, rumors were rampant about which label Chance would sign with and for how much. The barber shop debate ended when it was obvious that the wordsmith had no intention of following the demo + mixtape + record label signing formula. He followed up Acid Rap with an artsy studio album entitled Surf which was credited to Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment, then an odd one-off with eccentric rapper Lil’ B named Free (Based Freestyles Mixtape). Again, neither of the highly-acclaimed projects were released on any major label.

All of these shrewd artistic moves signaled Chance’s distaste with corporate, buttoned-up, mass-producing record labels. However, Chance’s true feelings and intentions became abundantly clear after the aforementioned Coloring Book dropped, which included the Grammy award-winning opprobrium against major record labels entitled “No Problem” (featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz). The chipmunk soul sampling song was far too uptempo and lighthearted to be considered menacing, but slyly included the lyrics threatening that “If one more label try to stop me, It’s gon’ be some dreadhead n**** in ya lobby,“. The implication was clear, Chance sees record labels as a roadblock rather than a crutch. The fact that Chance as an indie artist collaborated with major artists on his album (including Kanye West, Future, Kirk Franklin and more) seemed to be a small miracle and many wondered how he pulled off this magic trick. On Friday afternoon (March 17th) it seems that Chance gave the public a little insight on how this may have occurred.

“I never felt the need to correct folks on my relationship with @apple but now that more people have tried to discredit my independence, I wanna clear things up,” Chance tweeted.  “@apple gave me half a mil and a commercial to post Coloring Book exclusively on applemusic for 2 weeks. That was the extent of my deal, after 2 weeks it was on SoundCloud for free. I needed the money and they’re all good people over there. I feel like if I didn’t clear it up people would keep trying to discredit all the work we did to make Coloring Book what it became. I think artist can gain a lot from the streaming wars as long as they remain in control of their own product.” Chance revealed. However, Chance made sure to encourage others who wish to go forward on a purely independent path musically by adding; “I just wanna remain transparent. Folks out there without a deal need to know they’re doing everything right just keep at it. If you come across opportunities to work with good people, pick up cash and keep your integrity I say Do It.” 

Albeit naive, lots of staunch Chance fans were taken aback by his announcement, yet supportive. Detractors rushed to tell the apologists “I told you so” via social media. However, the writing was always on the wall. Apple Music aired professional and slick-looking commercials on national television (during the NBA playoffs no less) advertising the Coloring Book project. Additionally, free mixtape sites such as Datpiff were unequivocally told to remove Coloring Book from their sites on the release date. The details of the Apple Music relationship and Chance’s relationship remained foggy until recently. Yet clearly, casual music fans tend to look at matters concerning artists and record labels as good and bad, truth and lie, or black and white. In the business of music, recording artists, entertainment insiders, and attorneys know that there’s more to releasing an album than getting in the studio with some friends and rapping over a beat.

There are several complex and expensive inner workings that take place prior to an album’s release. Let’s save the overwhelming variety of contracts an artist can sign for another article.  Putting that aside, first and foremost, studio time must be paid for. Naturally, if an artist is independent they pay for their own studio time. Of course, major record labels foot the bill for the studio time if an artist is signed to them. As such, many indie artists have learned how to operate popular music production software programs such as “garageband” and it’s not uncommon to see a make-shift studio in a popular artists closet.  While this may seem self-evident, many do not realize just how expensive, yet crucial a good studio is to the overall sound of an album. According to Recording Connection, “Booking time in a good professional studio can cost anywhere from $50 to $500 dollars an hour. Keep in mind you usually get what you pay for when it comes to recording studios. Most studios do include an audio engineer as part of their hourly rate.”  The money for studio time is usually taken out of an artists advance which considerably dwindles the money an artist can pocket themselves.

Similarly, record labels typically pay for the guest artists and producers who are featured on an album, and Coloring Book has several. Naturally, the more popular the artist the more expensive the feature. While a featured artist’s asking price varies from project to project, one can assume that a duet with multi-platinum acts such as Justin Bieber will cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, a record label must give permission for that artist to even appear on another project, especially if the project is on a different record label. Chance expresses his exasperation with this process on “Finish Line/Drown” from the album, rhyming “I’ve been getting blocked just trying to make songs with friendsLabels told me to my face that they own my friends“. It should be noted that the laundry list of payments made to guest features on Coloring Book has not been announced. As the quote states, Chance has often specified that these featured artists are his “friends” that he simply wants to do music with. So even if Chance got a free feature, most independent artists do not have the friendships and luxury that he has. Most often, business-minded artists will regard their feature as a business collaboration, regardless if they respect the artist or like their music.

Finally, after an album is mastered and distributed it must be advertised and marketed. Whether an artist is indie or on a major label, they want to reach as many fans as possible. In order to do so, that artist must announce the album’s forthcoming. This is where major record labels seem to be losing their foothold on artists. Nowadays, artists have the ability to reach out directly to the public via social media such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. This makes traditional record label advertising tactics such as street teams and radio press runs seem archaic. However, more expensive endeavors, such as the prior mentioned television commercials, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Therefore, Chance’s connection with Apple Music can be viewed as a partnership of convenience rather than a backhanded deception to his fan base. Chance was most likely able to get lots of expensive items and features paid for by signing a half a million dollar deal.  Plus, it only tied Chance to Apple Music for two weeks. In a bonafide record deal, signing with the label often means being at the mercy of A&R’s, managers, shareholders and think groups that can dictate the artistic direction of the music. Sometimes this makes an artist have to compromise their music and even their integrity in order to sell records. After all, major record labels are “major” because of their mass influence and wealth. The music business is a business in every sense of the word.

Indisputably, Chance’s rise to fame and prominence is a special case. Although he has rapped about drugs in the past, even going as far as naming his 2013 mixtape after the psychedelic drug Acid, his feel-good underpinnings are a clear and stark contrast from a lot of today’s codeine-fueled rap. Much like his idol Kanye in the early 00’s, Chance serves as a relatable, socially conscious, cool nerd who can still rap as good (if not better) than the best lyric-driven MCs, yet he doesn’t turn off the gangster rappers. Chance may display his “Aw shucks I’m just happy to be here” public persona.  However, there is an astute businessman under his now famous number 3 baseball cap. The kid who once relished the moment he would sign a record deal in order to buy his mom a shiny watch now has a family of his own. With the independent blueprint Chance has laid down for future generations, which includes his daughter, he may have to change his name to Chance the Visionary.

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