After splitting with her original record label in October, Megan Thee Stallion is entering a new era: A source at Warner Music Group confirmed to Billboard that the artist has signed a distribution agreement with the company that includes services from a select global team.
For years, Megan Thee Stallion was embroiled in a legal battle over the deal she signed early in her career with 1501 Certified Entertainment, which released her music in partnership with 300 Entertainment. (300 was acquired by Warner Music Group in 2021.) In October, the rapper and 1501 “reached a confidential settlement to resolve their legal differences,” making Megan Thee Stallion — who is managed by Roc Nation — a free agent. “I’m so excited to be doing something for the first time independent since it was just me and my mama,” she said during an Instagram Live session.
Artists prize distribution deals because they typically get to retain ownership of their recordings. At the same time, Megan Thee Stallion will still benefit from WMG’s global infrastructure, marketing muscle and longstanding relationships at radio and television. Her team will include some staffers from 300 Entertainment as well as others across the company. (A rep for Megan Thee Stallion did not respond to requests for comment.)
These types of distribution agreements within major label systems have become more common in the modern music industry once artists gain a certain amount of leverage. Some young acts that have fast-climbing viral hits are even able to negotiate similarly favorable agreements right at the start of their careers, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
There is a potential downside to these arrangements: Because labels stand to earn less revenue from distribution deals, they may be less incentivized to throw their full weight behind these artists. Still, this is a dream scenario for many artists because it inverts the traditional music industry power dynamic.
Historically, artists handed their recordings over to a label in perpetuity in exchange for an advance and the chance to become a household name. Now it’s possible to have the best of both worlds. “That’s an amazing position to be in, to keep your copyright and still be famous,” says Tab Nkhereanye, a senior vp of A&R at BMG. (BMG has long offered artists licensing deals; in these agreements, ownership of recordings typically reverts back to an artist after a set period, conditional upon recouping the costs of the deal.)
As a result of these shifts in the industry, though, the term “independent” has become so roomy as to be nearly meaningless. It now stretches from an act self-releasing homemade recordings on TuneCore for a handful of fans all the way to Bad Bunny, who fills stadiums and tops charts around the world while enjoying lavish funding from The Orchard, which is owned by Sony Music. Most basketball players probably wouldn’t group together Giannis Antetokounmpo and a decent guy in a local pickup game, but that’s sort of what happens on a daily basis in the music industry. Adding to the confusion — “indie” is now often used to describe a specific style of rock music, regardless of whether it’s released by a major or independent label.
In many cases, “I don’t know that [independent] is really an applicable phrase anymore,” says Lulu Pantin, founder of Loop Legal. “The big distinction is self-funding versus receiving funding from an outside source.” “Now it seems like you’re either an unsigned artist or an independent artist,” adds Todd Rubenstein, founder of Todd Rubenstein Law.
Artists once required a hefty amount of financial support to record, manufacture, distribute, and market their music. Signing with a major record company meant acts had more resources at their disposal, while remaining independent signified a scrappier, bootstrapping approach, usually with a select group of labels — 4AD, for example, or Secretly Canadian. “Releasing on XL at one point was the height of independence,” says Ben Blackburn, who manages girl in red.
The initial outlay required to get a successful artist project off the ground plummeted with the rise of production programs accessible on laptops, digital distribution companies, streaming services, and social media platforms. Artists had a “newfound ability to compete on the same level without [the major labels], and in doing so, the ability to claim more control and literal ownership,” says Nabil Ayers, president of Beggars Group US.
“With digital distribution, artists weren’t going to keep doing perpetuity deals on the master side for five albums and an 18 point royalty,” adds Nick Stern, a longtime artist manager. “It was just a matter of time.”
In the second half of the 2010s, especially during the SoundCloud rap era, it became more common to hear about major labels chasing artists who were already amassing streams by the million. This meant that record companies had to give up a lot for the privilege of being associated with the artists, rather than the other way around.
Today many rising artists and their managers are intent on giving away as little as possible. This means that the major labels have all beefed up their distribution-and-services offerings, making attractive deals like the one obtained by Megan Thee Stallion more prevalent. “All of these major players with power and money decided to head into the [distribution] fray,” says Blackburn.
Sony Music has had the most success with the distribution-and-services model: It runs these deals through The Orchard, which enjoyed a bigger current market share in 2023 than any frontline label other than Republic and Interscope. The Orchard is hardly a loner, though; every major label group has at least one, if not more, distribution companies. (Warner has the Alternative Distribution Alliance, though Megan’s deal doesn’t run through ADA, according to a source with knowledge of the arrangement.)
“There are a lot of options out there for people to find those kinds of deals now that there weren’t even two years ago, and certainly weren’t five years ago when we started,” says J. Erving, a manager and founder of the artist services and distribution company Human Resources (which was acquired by Sony Music in 2020). “Initially a lot of artist managers and executives thought that type of deal was subpar in terms of your ability to have success. Now it’s something that’s sought after.”
A side effect of this new desirability, though, is “there really is no clear delineation of what it means to be truly independent,” Pantin says. “Independence now is a flexible term,” Blackburn adds. “It’s also a commodified term.”
This means the music industry would probably benefit from developing a new vocabulary to distinguish between artists with wildly different levels of financial support. “The record industry is currently lumped into two sectors: the majors and the independents, or ‘the rest,’” Ayers says. “‘The rest’ is actually a very disparate group of interests that don’t belong in a single bucket. We need a better way to describe the growing number of entities out there.”
Rubenstein agrees: “A deal with a major — or major independent label — is different than using a larger distributor that provides limited services, which is different than being your own ‘label’ and just loading your music up via DistroKid and jumping on TikTok,” he notes.
For now, as Blackburn puts it, “independence in the eye of the beholder.”