“I deleted everything. I wanna be normal…I wanna wake up in 2013.”
In December 2015, a bright-eyed Philadelphia rapper named Lil Uzi Vert signed a life-changing contract with Atlantic Records. Three years, millions of dollars, and one platinum album later, he quit the music industry, citing issues with his label as the catalyst.
As an aspiring musician, it’s disconcerting seeing even the most successful artists fall victim to predatory record labels. If artists who bring in millions of dollars for their label still get taken advantage of and suppressed creatively, lesser-known signees likely drown — getting silenced and deprioritized for fresher faces in unrelated genres.
Unfortunately, this is common practice for most major labels that represent artists from a broad spectrum of genres. While smaller independent labels like Brainfeeder (Flying Lotus, Thundercat) or Jagjaguwar (Bon Iver, Angel Olsen) lack the resources of their larger counterparts, they preside over more specialized rosters of talent — making them better equipped to incubate and promote artists effectively within their niche. For more prominent labels like Atlantic, profitability is the primary factor in signing talent — leading to disjointed rosters of artists from opposite sides of the musical landscape (basically trap to country).
Although musical diversity at a label isn’t inherently negative, Atlantic has consistently proven itself incapable of handling such a wide variety of artists, having faced public disputes with Lil Uzi Vert, Lupe Fiasco, Weird Al Yankovic, and countless others over the last 10 years alone. Considering the frustrations voiced by Lil Uzi Vert during his final Instagram live stream about being unable to consistently release music, the 24 year old “XO Tour Lif3” rapper likely couldn’t stomach another year of contractual exploitation, mismanagement, and creative restrictions from Atlantic Records.
Uzi’s experience with Atlantic proves that regardless of resources and funding available, an artist will suffer if their label restricts them creatively or can’t properly market their specific sound and aesthetic to the correct audience. Because major labels hold such a disproportionate amount of money and influence in the industry, signed artists are stripped of all agency — totally at the mercy of the label’s decisions.
While it’s encouraging to see artists like Chance the Rapper break the mold and achieve success independently, he exists as an outlier in an industry that’s 80% controlled by three companies: Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment. On the surface, Chance’s success appears to indicate a paradigm-shift towards increased power and independence for artists in the internet age, but with profitability plummeting to new lows in the streaming era, sustaining an independent career remains almost impossibly difficult.
Consequently, UMG, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment have been able to tighten their stranglehold on the music industry — each growing considerably since the rise of the internet in the late 90’s. Even with free platforms like Soundcloud becoming available for artists to freely post and promote music, independent success in the music industry is an uphill battle against borderline-monopolistic labels looking to exploit and discard as many artists as possible.
Unless the consolidation of power to major labels ends and independent artists/labels gain a reasonable share of the market, Lil Uzi Vert will just be another name added to the long list of artists whose careers were stunted by controlling label executives.