The songs that Eric Whitney makes under the name Ghostemane are lacerating and distorted, drawing from the pummeling energy of hardcore, the murky atmosphere and triplet flows of Memphis hip-hop, and the scabrous, anxiety-inducing wing of electronic music. This combination hardly seems readymade for mass consumption, especially if you believe, as Whitney does, that there is an absence “of aggression and emotion” in the pop mainstream. But the singer-songwriter-rapper-producer and multi-instrumentalist, who built his career independently, now amasses more than 40 million streams a month across his catalog, so his managers spent much of 2019 and 2020 in extensive negotiations with a major label over a potential record deal.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know if I even wanted to do” a deal with a major label, Whitney says. But he saw that few artists fill arenas and enjoy a global presence as indie acts. “When it started to become real, and we were sold this dream and this plan of what was going to happen, I kind of got head over heels for the idea,” Whitney continues. “This is the next step,” he convinced himself.
But this summer, three months before Whitney planned to release the eighth Ghostemane album, negotiations collapsed, leaving the artist without a runway — no marketing help, no one to bug the streaming services for support — to launch his latest project. “Fuck!” Whitney remembers thinking. “What the hell is gonna happen now?”
At one time, this last-minute jilting could have crippled a rollout. But in a sign of the slow but steady decrease in the influence of the major labels, it didn’t have much of an impact on Ghostemane. Like many artists these days, Whitney is used to functioning as his own label, and he mostly continued business as usual, releasing new music — Anti-Icon is out Wednesday — to a steadily growing audience.
Whitney is part of a growing class of artists, often polymaths who write and produce on their own, who make an excellent living outside of the pop mainstream thanks to streaming. The major-label system tends to value mammoth hit singles above all else, but while Ghostemane doesn’t have a track beaming into living rooms across America via TikTok, he has something potentially more valuable: the makings of a robust, sustainable career. Whitney has been able to sell 3,000 tickets to a show in Moscow and help his mother buy a new house.
“If you were to weigh his stats against other artists, he’s competitive against anyone who’s considered ‘hot,'” says Jonathan Tanners, who has co-managed Ghostemane since 2017.
That’s impressive for an artist whose music fails to fit in easy commercial buckets, and who initially struggled to find any sort of music scene to support him. Growing up in Florida, Whitney wrote his first song at age 14 after being suspended from school for inciting a riot: A hallway altercation led to a planned showdown that attracted an unexpectedly large audience of Whitney’s peers, along with the attention of the school’s deans.
“I went home that day and wrote my first song,” Whitney recalls. “It was more like a poem. I put it in the form of a punk song because I was really into NOFX and Pennywise and that stuff at the time.”
As a young teen, Whitney already was drawn to “to any song that had screaming in it or a heavy guitar tone.” When he was 17, his father died, and Whitney started to make trips to New York, where his mother’s family lived. A cousin began to take him to New York hardcore shows. “I was like, ‘I don’t think there’s a scene like that near me,'” Whitney remembers. “He chuckled and said, ‘Dude, it’s everywhere.'”
After scouring Myspace, Whitney was able to find a comparable music ecosystem in Florida and start a band of his own. While the new group played hardcore, the band’s singer introduced Whitney to a wide swathe of hip-hop; he gravitated to the style of Memphis acts like Three 6 Mafia. “This stuff is heavier than a lot of the bands I listen to,” Whitney says.
He was also drawn to rap’s self-sufficient models. “That was something I could do on my own,” Whitney explains. “I didn’t have to rely on a bunch of people to come together” in a band.
Ghostemane was born in 2014, but Whitney initially had trouble finding fans. When he tried putting his music out through rap-centric sites like Datpiff, he didn’t get much traction. Whitney had better luck on SoundCloud, but soon reached a point of frustration. “I felt like I was working as hard as I can, taking time to risk getting fired to make music,” he says. And still, “I was just watching the dream fade away.” In a moment of desperation, he hurled 300 of his CDs and a slew of T-shirts into a dumpster, gearing up to quit.
Instead, Whitney’s brief affiliation with the rap collective Schemaposse, which also once counted Lil Peep as a member, helped his music reach a wider audience, as did subsequent collaborations with acts like Pouya and $uicideBoy$, who gained internet popularity in the mid-2010s. “He started to take off without the benefit of traditional marketing; he just happened to be working with other artists who were of interest,” Tanners says.
Some fans were also hooked by Ghostemane’s frequent releases — he put out three albums in 2016 alone — and one of his singles in particular started to leave a lasting impression on YouTube. That was “Mercury: Retrograde,” a track that mixes blasé, drilling raps with unhinged screams; the visual has more than 250 million views to date.
As Whitney gained more fans, he kept trying to incorporate more of his hardcore background and full-band education into his shuddering hip-hop. “I’d have a couple songs that have a more industrial feel, a couple acoustic things, some hardcore stuff, and in the beginning it was very Frankensteined together,” he says. “It felt fun. But I wanted to make an album that’s finally the cohesive experience.”
Whitney views Anti-Icon as the realization of this project, where the seams between genres finally start to fade from view. The album segues smoothly, if bracingly, from full-throated screams to rat-a-tat raps, from unhurried hip-hop to full-tilt rock, and often back again. “There are really only two songs that don’t have some form of live instruments, whether it’s guitars, drums, bass, synthesizer,” Whitney says. He mastered a yell that he has “been trying to do on a record for a long time” in “Melancholic;” and on Anti-Icon‘s second half, he was able to rap in his prized triplet flow without feeling “limited vocally.”
While Whitney spent more than a year writing and producing his new album, his management started talking with major labels about a potential deal. “We came to a crossroads,” Tanners says. “He was already doing well globally,” especially in Russia. This made a deal with a major label potentially attractive to Whitney and his team, as big record companies have the global infrastructure in place to help promote an act abroad. They also have marketing muscle and sway with the streaming services, which could in theory push Ghostemane closer to eventually filling arenas.
But Whitney held out for a very specific arrangement: He wanted a short-term deal with an artist-friendly profit split. This turned out to be too much for one of the major labels to stomach, and after 18 months of back-and-forth that Tanners describes as “pretty torturous to all sides,” the negotiations fell apart.
There’s a lot of chatter in the music industry these days about the need for deals that help creators rather than burying them in debt. But artists like Whitney, who don’t need a major-label contract to survive, also have more options than ever before. Not too long ago, the deal-negotiation-implosion would’ve forced Whitney to radically alter his plans, but no longer: Ghostemane instead connected with Alternative Distribution Alliance, the independent label services arm of Warner Music Group, for a one-album deal where he retains ownership of his music.
While Whitney says the hectic scramble to finalize a rollout in time for Anti-Icon‘s release date was stressful, it “solidified for me that I’m going to keep the indie route forever for the Ghostemane project,” he adds. “Little things like playing Lollapalooza at the main stage, and I’m gonna have a couple songs go gold next year — those are things I’m incredibly proud of.”
Those milestones also prove that Ghostemane’s instincts have been right all along. “The guiding principle for this has always been: just make crazy shit,” Tanners says. “People will gravitate towards it.”