I was considering giving this piece more of a clickbait title – like say a BET.com or Complex would (no shade…ok, maybe a little), e.g. ‘BREAKING: Stormzy Signs Major Record Deal?’ – but I decided against it as I’d prefer for traction to this blog to be more organic than manipulated. Plus, I get no advertising cheques (“they don’t want me to go viral #MajorKeyAlert”). And anyway, judging by how he has called out LBC and NME in the past, I get the feeling that Stormzy is not too fond of his name and image being misrepresented in the media.
So I thought I’d instead go for more of a straightforward and honest title, though if the theory I am about to present holds up to be true it still might piss him off a little. But hey, I called this blog ‘Mister Marmite‘ for a reason (I don’t even like Marmite myself, by the way).
Most people that are reading this article are probably already aware that British Grime MC Stormzy is an Independent Artist (or at least I assume they would be, otherwise you might not find this piece very interesting). To get a full understanding of what being Independent actually means, and the variations thereof, you can check out this article I published last week (when you have time). But in short, it basically means he is not signed to a Major Record Company and is spearheading his own career with no “major backing”.
The Come Up / People’s Champ
Over the past 3 years, Stormzy has achieved an unprecedented level of success and, in the words of Crazy Titch, has undeniably been one of the staples that has “taken Grime from a second-rate genre, to a first-rate genre”. In 2015, the South London Rapper sold out 2 separate UK Headline Venue Tours (with the first date selling out in under 5 minutes). During the same year, he landed himself his own show on Apple‘s Beats 1 Radio and scored an acting gig in Brotherhood (a part of the Kidulthood Franchise). Mr. ‘Wicked Skengman‘ then closed out that year by landing his first UK Top 10 Single, with “Shut Up” (which has now reach BPI Gold Certification) – beating out X Factor Winner Louisa
Johnson‘s Debut Single on it’s release week in the process. Fast forward to 2017, he now has a #1 Debut Album in the bag with ‘Gang Signs & Prayer‘ (the best Grime Album since Dizzee Rascal‘s ‘Boy In Da Corner‘, in my not-so-humble opinion), 9 UK Top 40 Songs (including 2 Top 10s), another sold out UK Headline Venue Tour, 3 MOBO Awards, a BET Award, and has performed on some of the most prominent stages in the world (including the BRITs and Coachella). And he has done all of this, without any Label assistance…or has he?
As a result of following Stormzy‘s journey rather closely since I first ‘discovered’ him at the Sunday Show in 2014, there are a number of things I have paid close attention to (especially post-Album release). I think my perspective has been a little different from most, due to my work within the Music Industry – which sometimes causes me to look at certain things from a slightly analytical standpoint. There’s a ‘string of events’ (if I can call it that) that I have picked up on, as it relates to Stormzy‘s strategy and positioning which leads me to believe that he is in fact now signed to Major Record Company Warner Music Group (Atlantic Records to be specific) in a deal that has been kept secret from the Public. Of course, most are probably thinking “if he is signed, why would it be a secret”? Well, I think I’ve finally gathered enough evidence to answer that and more. So before you brand this as some ‘conspiring fan theory’, take a quick read of what I believe are 5 very good reasons why the Independent Underdog / People’s Champion MC otherwise known as Stormzy, might not be as ‘independent’ as we think.
The first point I should probably make in order to make all the other points more compelling and sensical, is addressing the reason why (if true) Stormzy’s signing to Warner Music Group has been kept under the radar. One word: Mindies.
Blowing The Whistle? (Reason #1)
We all love an Underdog, don’t we? Well, minus Trump Supporters. Most of us tend to be more inspired by (and therefore more supportive of) self-made successes than we are those who had major assistance along the way, and that same attitude is now extending to the world of Music. With the rise of successful Independent Artists that have been able to utilise today’s ‘direct-to-fan’ landscape, e.g. Chance The Rapper, you will notice one of the most celebrated aspects of their Artistry (by both Fans and Media) is the very fact they are Independent. Labels see this. Labels know this. Thus, Labels are tapping into this.
There are multiple types of Record Deals, all of which I cannot go into here, but for the purpose of this article there are two in particular deal types that are not common knowledge to most, that I would like to focus on: ‘Private EP Deals’ and ‘Mindie Deals’. Both of these types of deals involve a Label doing business with an Artist but intentionally appearing to have absolutely no connection with them publicly, and both have different purposes for doing so.
The first one is a ‘Private EP Deal‘. This type of deal is basically a ‘test run’. In most cases, this occurs when a Label is significantly interested in working with an upcoming Artist, but does not want to take the risk of entering into an official agreement with them just yet. Instead, they will sign a simple ‘first refusal deal’ with them and minimally & discreetly use their resources to ‘help’ the Artist release a Single/s or an EP. This ‘help’ may involve things like teaming them up with Producers, getting them a few notable media placements and interviews, etc. If the EP turns out to be what they deem a success, the Label will then have the option of signing said Artist to a full record deal (per the first refusal agreement), or discontinue doing business with them altogether. The main purpose of these deals is to ‘test the waters’ in a way that protects the Label’s reputation in the event that the EP or Project fails to succeed, and also to minimise or eliminate the financial investment they would have been obligated to adhere to by entering into an official contract with the Artist from the get-go.
The second type of ‘secret record deal’ is increasingly being referred to as a ‘Mindie Deal’, which is where it gets a little more interesting. As mentioned above: Everybody loves an Underdog, and Labels are now tapping into this. So, in order for some of the rising Independent Artists to not lose that ‘Underdog’ appeal, along comes this still-relatively-unknown but rising trend in the Industry called ‘Mindies’. The term, first coined by Former Editor of DJBooth.net Nathan Slavik, is used to describe an Artist that initially rose to fame Independently, but has since secretly signed to a Major Label but still claiming their Independence, in order to not lose that indie ‘marketing spin’. Cutting through the ranks is not easy these days, so the stronger your USP, the better. And being successfully ‘Independent’ is certainly one that carries weight in today’s market (particularly in Urban Music). Be honest though, you think this is all some conspiracy, don’t you? Some random mysterious guy on a free WordPress Blog. I mean, how credible is that? To tell the truth, I wouldn’t buy it either. This is why I provide you all these blue text links as sources so you can verify
my crazy talk, like this this one here for example (also shown below); a video of Def Jam Records Artist Logic (pictured right) in an interview with Peter Rosenberg on HOT 97 Radio confirming that he was in a Mindie Deal a year before he announced he had signed with a Major Label, and had in fact released a Mixtape during that period – whilst Fans believed he was still Independent at that time (watch from 15:35 – 16:10).
I get the feeling that you’re starting to believe me on this particular point now, but if you desire even further proof check out this Rap Freestyle by Columbia Records/Sony Music Artist Russ (also posted below) who, as you will hear, was less than impressed when he discovered these kind of deals were going around and decided to call it out.
Logic confirms Mindie Deals (15:35 – 16:10):
Russ raps about Mindie Deals on track ‘Exposed‘:
Ok so now you’ve seen and heard from the “Horses” themselves exactly how and why this ‘potential secret’ can be very much a possibility, let’s get to the other observations that linked this all together for me.
Deal without a Deal, with a Deal (Reason #2)
In a recent interview I read with Stormzy‘s Manager and Friend, 25 year old Tobe Anwuka, I noticed what I thought were some interesting revelations. Some of which I already knew, some of which was new information. The interview was conducted by Former Music Week Contributor Rhian Jones, for Music Business Worldwide, discussing Tobe‘s journey managing Stormzy so far. In the build up to the interview, Rhian mentions that Stormzy had signed a distribution deal with Alternative Distribution Alliance (otherwise known as ADA) for his Album. ADA is one of many ‘Label Services’ companies that offer marketing, distribution and licensing to Independent Artists and Labels. Why is this relevant to mention? Well, ADA is owned by Warner Music Group. However, signing with a ‘Label Services’ company is extremely different from signing with an actual Label, and actually solidifies the fact that you are an Independent Artist. So that information alone is nowhere near enough to make a case for this theory.
However in that same sentence, it was also mentioned that Stormzy had signed a Publishing Deal with Warner/Chappell; the Publishing Division of Warner Music Group. So not only was his marketing and distribution handled by a Warner-owned brand, but his Publishing is too. By the way, if you’re not quite sure how the Music Biz works, a Publishing Deal is NOT a Record Deal (haven’t got time to explain the difference here).
So again, this is still not enough. Many other Independent Artists could (and probably do) have the exact same ‘set-up’. However here is where I started to pay closer attention to what could be going on here. Later in the piece Jones states that Stormzy was introduced
to Fraser T. Smith (who went on to Executive-produce his Debut Album ‘Gang Signs & Prayer‘), by longtime Atlantic Records/Warner Music A&R Exec Alec Boateng (aka Twin B). Not the mixing engineer, not a co-writer or co-producer of 1 or 2 tracks on the Album, but the person who sonically oversaw the entire record, producing or co-producing on every song on the project (bar one) – thereby becoming a critical component of the project’s success. Now of course I am not suggesting that Alec (the A&R) could have not simply made this introduction with no strings attached, but let’s not forget he also has a job to do – a job which heavily relies and involves him exclusively doing for the Artists on his Roster what he done for Stormzy; teaming them up with the right creatives. Yet Stormzy is supposedly not on Warner‘s Roster – interesting to say the least. And when you count our other 2 points listed above, it’s easy to assume what might have been the real reason behind this ‘introduction’. Whilst I love working in the Music Industry, it is not exactly notorious for helping people for absolutely nothing. So I may very well be wrong, but I imagine there must have been some form of a beneficial exchange here (whether it be direct or indirect, imminent or long-term). Granted, Manager Tobe did say in the interview that “he (Alec) has no agenda“, but if what I am suggesting is true then he would have had to say that. I know, you’re still not convinced – just hold on, there’s more.
Present, Position, Promote (Reason #3)
In February of this year, Stormzy performed on what has arguably been the biggest stage of his career so far. Midway through his performance of, what was then the #1 Song in the UK (and US), ‘Shape of You’ at the 2017 BRIT Awards, Ed Sheeran brought out Stormzy who performed a Guest Rap on a never-before-heard Remix Version of the Song. The track was subsequently released on iTunes a day later. This duo performance, which undeniably raised Stormzy‘s profile and audience to yet another height, was televised live before 5.4million UK Viewers alone, just 2 days before Stormzy‘s Debut Album Release. Sheeran’s Album, Divide, was slated for released just one week later, which seemed to appear as if a Label purposely did not want two of their own Acts going head-to-head. Thus, ensuring Stormzy‘s Album was released first to give a better shot at #1 (which it achieved), as Ed Sheeran‘s albums tend to sell in staggering numbers and have a rather lengthy #1 reign. So taking the risk of waiting for that ‘reign’ to end before releasing Stormzy‘s Album would not have aboded well for what laid ahead for the MC in 2017. Particularly considering that there was a headline tour already in place to support the Album. Releasing the Album when they did seemed like a perfect move.
Additional side note: Every year after the BRIT Awards, a number of After Parties are held. All 3 Major Labels (Universal, Sony and Warner) host their own, as well as the BRITs themselves, amongst a few other Independently-hosted events. Guess which one Stormzy chose to attend this year? – See image (right). Yes, this could have been due to his partnerships with ADA and his Warner/Chappell Publishing Deal, but I suspect more.
How does this point support this theory, you ask.
One of the longest-running marketing tactics Record Labels have used in promoting New Artists or raising their Profiles is by teaming them up with more established and accomplished Artists who are signed to the same Label. Mainly because it’s an incredibly easy, effective (and most importantly a) free strategy. When The Jackson 5 first signed to Motown Records, Diana Ross & The Supremes were at the height of their career. And whilst The Jacksons were gaining some traction, there was still a large number of people that did not know who they were, but for sure knew who Diana Ross was. Thus, Motown Founder Berry Gordy used Diana to introduce The
Jacksons to the market by creating a story that suggested Ms. Ross discovered the group (even though she didn’t). They even titled the first Jackson 5 Album as ‘Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5‘. The strategy was successful and helped the Album to top the Billboard R&B Albums Chart for nine weeks running. A similar strategy was used when Destiny’s Child signed to Columbia Records in 1997, with Wyclef Jean helping to introduce them to the market, who was coming off of massive success with his group The Fugees. Jive Records (now RCA) also used this method to help with Jawan Harris‘ strategy by teaming him up with fellow Jive Artist Chris Brown. The list goes on.
Taking that all into the account, as well as what was outlined two paragraphs above, this is probably the perfect place to remind or inform you that Ed Sheeran, a more established and accomplished Artist than Stormzy (for now), is signed to Warner Music. Could this have been a little ‘Ed Sheeran Presents Stormzy‘ moment? Of course, their partnership could be completely organic and nothing to with Warner. But again, patching this up with everything else mentioned so far, can you honestly say that it is not a possibility?
Let’s also not forget Stormzy‘s Red Carpet interview at the ELLE Style Awards (shown below), in which he claimed it would be “incredible to do a song with Ed Sheeran, one day”, suggesting that nothing was already in the works and that it is somewhat of a “futuristic idea”. Less than 10 days later, he appears on stage with Ed at the BRITs in a collaboration that was released as a Single thereafter. Could that all have come together in 10 days? Possibly, but incredibly unlikely – as both of their Album campaigns would have been completely set it stone and ready to rollout by then, without much room for ‘edits’. It’s more likely Stormz was indirectly building up the anticipation for a surprise he knew was to come – all part of both their strategies (or Warner‘s). Then, there was also the joint interview they did with Noisey – which is another strategy Labels use (i.e. putting multiple of their Artists in the same interview, for mutually beneficial purposes).
Subliminal Suggests (Reason #4)
Another, but more minute, point is Stormzy‘s attitude towards Major Labels. Whilst he has been critical of them (once stating “major labels don’t know what to do with Black Artists”), the ‘Big For Your Boots‘ Rapper is not as anti-Labels as you might think. In a BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge Cover Performance of Kanye West‘s ‘Ultralight Beam’, Stormzy rapped “If I ever sign a deal, just know I did it right“, showing us he is very much open to the idea of a Label Deal. Might he have been preparing us for an official announcement of something that is already set it stone? Who knows?!
Position, Present, Promote II (Reason #5)
The final thing that caught my eye was just a few days ago. I had been pondering on the idea that Stormzy had a ‘secret’ contract with Warner for some time, but I sort of just let it sit in my mind and continued to observe. However, it was when I made this last (small, but still significant) observation that lead me to write this piece. As I was browsing Facebook on Saturday, I saw Billboard post a link to the New Single from one of the most successful Rock Bands of the 21st Century, Linkin Park. Surprisingly to many, the track “Good Goodbye” – the second single from their upcoming Album “One More Light“, features GOOD Music Rapper Pusha T and the main man himself, Sir Stormzy. In light of what has already been laid out in this argument (particularly with Labels teaming their Artists up with Artists on the same Label to help market them), letting you know that Linkin Park are also signed to Warner Music should be enough to help you understand why I’ve used this collaboration as another piece of ‘potential evidence’.
It can easily be argued that Stormzy‘s collaborations with Ed Sheeran and Linkin Park have by far been the two biggest of his career yet, and both of those Acts “just happen” to be Warner Artists.
All in all, it seems Warner has definitely played a significant role in the rollout of Stormzy‘s Album, and the subsequent campaign – a much bigger role than most Record Companies would play for Artists that are not signed to them. Whilst these Labels may be in it for the love of Music, they’ve also got lights to keep on and haven’t got much time for doing business ‘just to be nice’, if you know what I mean. However, in the unlikely event that I am totally off-base with this theory and Stormzy is not in any type of agreement with Warner (apart from the ADA and Publishing Deals), they have certainly placed themselves in the best position to snatch him up should he decide to eventually sign with anyone, to which I must applaud. I mean, the Kid is hot commodity and clearly knows what he is doing on a level that you don’t see in many Artists these days.
If a deal is in place, it was probably signed during his nine-month hiatus from 2016-17 and is likely to solely be a Label/Licensing Deal and not a Recording Contract. This will mean Stormzy will still have the freedom to retain control of his Master Recordings and sign & develop Artists via his own Label #Merky Records, while letting Warner handle Marketing and Distribution directly (which they are technically and probably already doing, using ADA as a smokescreen). So either way, it is very likely ‘Big Mike’ still has a strong level of ‘Independence’ and is very much continuing to successfully spearhead his own Ship. To understand how this all make sense, again, you can take a peep at this piece I published last week – particular the first few paragraphs where I take a shot at breaking down the different types of Independent Artists.
Oh and remember, if this does turn out to be true…you read it here first!