Amid all the headlines that came out of the 2021 Grammy Awards, one that should have been bigger is what a huge night it was for independent labels and artists: For the first time, more than half of the winners were independent artists — i.e. artists affiliated with labels that are at least 51% independently owned — up from 38% last year, according to the American Association of Independent Music.
And while Beyonce topped the winners’ list with four trophies, two of those wins came from her feature on a song by the next-biggest winner and the artist who may have come away with the most headlines from the show: Megan Thee Stallion, who won Best New Artist and two other trophies (and was a Variety cover star last summer).
Megan is with 300 Entertainment, an eight-year-old company cofounded by artist manager and former head of Def Jam Records Kevin Liles, with Lyor Cohen (now head of YouTube Music), Todd Moscowitz (now head of Alamo Music) and Roger Gold (now manager of Camila Cabello). Liles, now the company’s sole CEO, and his team navigated a tough legal situation to bring Megan to 300 early last year — and now, they’re seeing the results of that work.
“We’re competing with companies that are five times bigger than us,” he tells Variety. “We’re operating with no red tape — we just yell down the hall.”
While Liles’ and his fellow cofounders’ gained vast experience in their roles with major labels, they also got a sense of what they didn’t want.
“Sometimes when it’s too big, it’s no longer a family business — it becomes a corporate business,” he says. “Everyone at 300 knows everything about Meg. I can tell you, when we Facetimed after she won that first Grammy, she had the biggest smile on her face. Her mom” — who passed away in 2019, and was herself a rapper — “always said she would win a Grammy, so this moment was the culmination of years and years of work, and even her mom’s career.”
But the win wasn’t just for Megan and 300 — but for the entire indie sector. According to A2IM, 14 independent labels won across 19 categories, including Brittany Howard (ATO Records) and Thundercat (Brainfeeder).
“Thanks to the democratizing and diversifying effects of unlimited shelf space, reduced friction to listening to new, unfamiliar, and even obscure artists, the loosening of restrictive advertising driven genres, and the diminishing dominance of huge marketing spends brought about by algorithmic discovery, each year, independent music has grown to make up an increasingly larger portion of the global music market,” says A2IM president and CEO, Richard James Burgess.
Still, Liles points to the steps it took to get 300 to where it is today, noting that label artists Young Thug, Gunna and Highly Suspect were all nominated for Grammys in previous years but didn’t win.
But now, “Independents are starting to have a voice that you can’t control and can’t curate,” he says. “When you think about Megan’s artist-development story, or any young artist who was working a dayjob and, because of TikTok or YouTube or a mixtape, becomes overnight sensation — that’s because technology has empowered independents. When we started 300, we knew we had the mindset of an independent but the muscle of a major. And being independent doesn’t mean you’re doing it alone — independent artists just need the right partners who will bring them the best value proposition.”