Bored witless during the first summer of the pandemic like so many teenagers, Will Paquin started posting videos on TikTok — clips that were often shot on top of a building he climbed illegally near his Boston apartment. He’d been playing guitar since childhood, scrutinizing the jazz techniques of Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, and the videos he uploaded showed him tossing off original instrumentals full of handsome, quicksilver riffs. But he had never harbored much interest in the commercial side of the music industry. “My whole life I was like, ‘Fuck labels!’ ” Paquin says.
Despite this attitude, his TikTok account started to gain traction, meaning that labels began messaging him anyway. As “We’ve always loved your work!” emails started to roll in, Paquin’s resolve started to weaken; after all, who wouldn’t want to be courted by billion-dollar companies? Especially ones, as he puts it, that “know exactly what to say to make you feel so good about yourself.”
Paquin, who is now 21, was on the verge of signing a deal when he got a call from Kyle McEvoy, a musician who also runs the label Sonder House, which initially focused on instrumental and ambient music. McEvoy’s pitch was simple but possibly counterintuitive for many kids who dream of making music for a living: Don’t sign a deal. “I’m like, ‘You haven’t released a song yet,’ ” McEvoy remembers saying. “‘You have no idea how it’s gonna do. And best-case scenario, it does amazing, and then you’re stuck in a deal.’ ”
In 2022, artists have more and more power to jumpstart their careers without a label’s help. But even if they achieve a large measure of success on their own, many still feel that signing that major-label contract is the key to success. The record companies do what they can to encourage this mindset.
It’s also getting easier, though, to find people like McEvoy who are questioning the equity and value of these arrangements. Muni Long went viral around Christmas with “Hrs and Hrs,” a slow-drip R&B stunner full of dazzling vocal runs that jumped from Number 70 on Apple Music all the way to Number 2. She put “Hrs and Hrs” out on her own label, Supergiant Records, because she’s well acquainted with the music industry from her time as an A-list songwriter. “I’m not trying to go backwards, go back into that dark system,” she says. “That shit is tired. Nobody really wants to sign with a major. I’m trying to create the new thing. And [maintaining] ownership is where the world is going.“
“If your job is to treat a song like a cryptocurrency and flip it, then by all means, you should be talking to the majors, because they’ll pay the highest price for it,” adds Roy LaManna, co-founder and CEO of Vydia, a music-technology company that has distributed more than a dozen TikTok hits. But, he says, “If you actually want to be a career artist, I think the likelihood of that happening through a major label after a viral TikTok hit is fairly slim.”
McEvoy speaks like an idealist from a time before “label” became synonymous with “international conglomerate.” The business today tends to reduce artists to hit singles, treating those tracks with the same dispassion as traders evaluating stocks. In meetings full of cold, hard data and streaming projections, music itself often seems like an afterthought.
But for McEvoy, who manages to channel West Coast surfer chill — seasoning his sentences with the occasional “gnarly” — along with “the whole vibe of sad New England,” where he grew up, music remains “the only pure thing we have left in this fucking world, bro.” His dream: To have a “compound, studio, artists just jamming, everyone has little tiny houses.”
He makes a living by releasing pretty, languorous, wordless guitar music, which quietly earns millions of streams on Spotify playlists like “Ambient Relaxation” and “Chill Instrumental Beats.” That income stream helped him set up shop in Woodstock, New York, where he has a studio, a cabin in the woods without a bathroom.
He started Sonder House in 2018, mostly working with instrumental artists who specialize in all things soothing. Acts that sign to the label are not paid an advance, making this one of the only financial arrangements in the music industry that does not start by immediately sinking an artist into debt. Acts keep the rights to their recordings (known as “masters” in the music industry) and compositions (dubbed “publishing”). They also take home 85% of their streaming income after the company Stem, which Sonder House uses as a distributor, takes an 8% fee off the top. The 15% that artists fork over gets split three ways: 5% goes to the label, which handles various playlisting and song-pitching efforts, 5% goes to a mastering engineer to help put the final touches on the music before release, and 5% goes to an artist who puts together artwork for each project.
McEvoy sees Sonder House as “an experiment,” an attempt to “change everything about how a label works.” He wants to answer a question that you don’t hear many (any?) people in the music industry asking: “What’s the least amount of money you can take” from artists while still providing them with valuable services?
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The Sonder House setup stands in stark contrast to a traditional major-label royalty or profit-split deal. In that model, artists typically receive advances from the record company, which can be sizable, and then try to dig themselves out of a ditch by paying that money back over time. The terms on which they do so vary, of course, but even viral artists with lots of commercial momentum typically have to cede ownership of their music for a period — seven years, 20 years, or even forever — according to multiple managers. Major labels often take a fee for distribution that’s upward of 15%. And managers say the friendliest major-label contract available to new acts still involves them turning over at least 50% of the streaming income they generate, usually more, once they make back the deal’s initial cost (the advance plus other recoupable expenses).
While Sonder House pledges to help artists with a few select tasks like playlisting, artwork, and mastering, the big record companies often promise to deliver the world to acts on a platter, whether through radio campaigns, collaborations with their already-established stars, sessions with big-name songwriters, or all of the above. “They put on a little show: ‘Hey, we’re a family here, we’re about the music, we can help you get into acting, we can help you build your career,’ ” LaManna says. “They bring the whole office into the room; the artist sits with everyone.”
But, he continues, “The moment that ink dries, try getting these motherfuckers on the phone.”
Paquin didn’t know any of this when he began to upload videos to TikTok. “What’s a pub deal?” he asks McEvoy, sitting in a snug bar in Brooklyn on one of the gloomy final days of 2021. Many artists who go viral are in the same position, facing a momentous decision with little information on hand. This disparity undoubtedly works to the benefit of the major labels as they try to sign acts.
But Paquin had been communicating a little with McEvoy before the big companies came calling, and the guitarist mentioned that he was about to sign. “Then this idiot cold-calls me,” Paquin says, pointing to McEvoy. “Wassup, dude!” McEvoy responds cheerfully, working his way through a skillet of mac and cheese. The two have an easygoing rapport; Paquin urges McEvoy not to order chocolate cake, while McEvoy pushes Paquin to finish his college degree even as his music career takes off.
That cold call wasn’t a slam dunk for Sonder House at first. “I’m like, ‘Who the fuck is this kid?’ ” Paquin continues. “He sounds like some stoner. But he started spitting some facts.”
The guitarist took a chance on McEvoy’s experiment, a gamble that paid off for both parties last year. Paquin uploaded a riff to TikTok that went viral, so he turned it into “Chandelier,” a self-destructive love song full of gnashing, keening playing. The track, Paquin’s first official release, has earned more than 32 million streams on Spotify to date. The lion’s share of the income generated by those streams is going to the creator of “Chandelier,” rather than a label.
This means Paquin’s “entire life has changed,” though not so much that he wants to get verified on TikTok, because then he would be viewed as existing in a separate category from his fans — an idea he abhors. “When I see a verified person, I’m like, ‘You’re industry,’ ” he says dismissively. He’s careful to tell himself that the trajectory of “Chandelier” was highly unusual, and he’s busy learning to write and record so he can build out his catalog.
For Sonder House artists who have moments of mainstream traction, the label actually reduces its share in their incomes. In Paquin’s case, that means he gives up just 1% of streaming revenue. The same goes for Maye, a bilingual singer who moves easily between boleros and dreamy neo–yacht rock, and Jonah Kagen, an acoustic singer-songwriter who had his own viral moment with “Broken.”
McEvoy justifies this percentage reduction by voicing an opinion likely to offend many music executives’ business sense — an activity he seems to enjoy. “As artists get bigger,” he beams, “you can take less.”
Progressive managers who think a lot about the tradeoffs between independence and major-label deals often return to a few key differentiators. The biggest benefit from the latter, they say, stems from the large record companies’ international reach, muscle they can use to extend a viral moment around the globe. The majors also mostly control the keys to the airwaves, but unless you’re one of a tiny handful of superstars, the value of radio is shrinking, so this isn’t something savvy young managers care all that much about. And a few gifted A&Rs, who can help acts put together better tracks, still work at majors, though one manager calls that talent “vanishingly rare.”
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Majors still have deep pockets — more like cavernous — which provide them with a considerable edge, since plenty of young artists need money up-front, and even the ones who don’t probably wouldn’t mind having more anyway. In addition to providing temporary economic security, landing a big advance payment provides an act with bragging rights in a status-obsessed industry. (Again, Paquin didn’t take an advance.) And for anyone who still equates success only with becoming a superstar — rather than, say, earning a living, which may be both more attainable and more sustainable — the big companies always have an easy pitch, since most blockbuster artists from earlier eras are affiliated with them in some way. “If you want to be a global superstar, it’s very rare to do that independently,” Long acknowledges.
That helps explain why the majors have vacuumed up the majority of artists coming off viral moments, even as it’s unclear to some in the industry if these acts made the right choice for the long term. Eric Parker runs the management company Extended Play, which works with several acts who are finding success at the intersection of TikTok and music, including Suriel Hess and Sky McCreery. “Most of the [artists with] viral moments that get signed turn into, ‘It’s been a bit and we haven’t seen anything from them,’ ” Parker says. “It’s harder to find the ones that sign and their streams keep increasing.”
In some cases, aligning with the majors in the wake of an unexpected, TikTok-abetted internet eruption undeniably worked well for everyone involved. Lil Nas X is a commonly cited example from the early days of TikTok, while the sunny pop singer Tai Verdes has shown his staying power more recently. Parker stresses that when signing with a label, artists “need to know what the specific value-adds are that they’re looking for.
“When an artist blows up, they feel like they have to sign something now or the opportunity’s gone,” he continues. “They can’t just go, ‘Major label, blow up my song, please.’ Then you’re rolling dice on a career.”
Paquin’s faith in his decision to avoid the major-label route, at least for now, was cemented after “Chandelier” went viral a second time starting in November. A moment of explosive growth for a piece of music puts the artist at the center of a maelstrom of corporate come-ons. (This process was effectively lampooned by a cuttingly satirical musical industry Instagram account, Shittyar, which now appears to be defunct.)
Initially, Paquin found the labels’ attention flattering. But soon it felt more like A&Rs “were stalking me,” he recalls. “I was talking on the phone all day for weeks. I went nuts.” He found the labels’ backhanded compliments particularly crazy-making. Paquin described a typical pitch as, “Listen, this moment you’re having is so sick.” So far, so good. Then the executives would switch tone: “It’s not gonna last. You need us.”
“I don’t think people realize the manipulation of hundreds of people telling you, ‘This moment isn’t going to last forever, man. Your career is gonna be nothing unless you sign with us,’ ” McEvoy adds.
Paquin kept getting calls through December, and he reached a breaking point during the middle of his finals week at Boston University, where he’s a senior majoring in advertising. He donned a suit to deliver his closing presentation in a business course but forgot to silence his phone; as he discussed his semester-ending project, one A&R executive rang Paquin four consecutive times. “I called him back up after class — ‘Listen dude, you can’t do that,’ ” the guitarist says. “‘That’s fucked up.’ ” Drained, he instructed McEvoy to handle emails and calls going forward.
Many artists undoubtedly enjoy being wined and dined and fought over. “It’s exciting when you’re being pulled into dinners,” says John Vigorito, whose Loud Era Records enjoyed a recent viral success with Louyah’s breezily blasé “I Used to Care.” “I met Snoop Dogg face to face and got to talk business with him. You can get lost in the hype a bit.”
But not so lost in the hype that Louyah decided to sign a deal. “The most important thing I preach is ownership of intellectual property,” Vigorito says. “I have no problem with licensing” — ceding rights to a song to a label for a set period of time — “but when you’re putting 10, 15 years on a license, that’s crazy to me. And when you start adding more people into the equation, everyone’s got an opinion. To be honest, that screws up workflow.”
“Signing with a label makes a lot of artists less nimble,” after they enjoy a viral breakout, Parker agrees. “They’re less willing to test the waters and see what works — they’re listening to other voices saying they should make this kind of music, work with these people. But those people aren’t why the artist got to where they were.”
McEvoy acknowledges that signing with Sonder House may be more challenging than signing with a traditional label. “You’re taking a harder path to control your destiny,” he says.
“Hard” is not for everyone. When a career seems like a slog instead of a glamorous romp, McEvoy says, “There is always that dream of the grass is greener” elsewhere, and “artists jump out to take a quick paycheck,” which he admits can be frustrating. “We did all this work to help them own everything,” he continues. “Then they’re like, ‘Cool, we’ll take an advance of a couple hundred thousand dollars,’ ” sign away their rights, and split. (He’s still “chill” with Kagen, who left for Arista in April.)
It’s hard to know if other labels could replicate the Sonder House approach. Part of the reason McEvoy is able to structure the operation the way he does is that the label does not represent his primary source of income. He estimates that he makes 85% of his money through his own music. And again, many of the label’s releases aren’t aimed at the mainstream. Paquin’s wasn’t either, until millions of kids reached out and made it theirs.
An even tougher question to answer: Would other labels even want to try to minimize the margin they make off their artists? The first response from people when they hear about Paquin’s 1% deal is pointed, and often delivered with high degrees of incredulity: How does Sonder House make any money? (McEvoy says that all his label’s releases generated a total of $1 million last year before Stem took its cut.) And the label founder knows he has ruffled some feathers by questioning the value of record companies and even managers on social media, which may make some people unwilling to listen to the specifics of his underlying business model. The music industry is full of middlemen who are unlikely to be excited when someone points out their roles may be superfluous.
But this time McEvoy is passing the megaphone to Paquin. “That’s the power he has as an artist speaking to other artists,” McEvoy says. “You’re having a viral TikTok moment? Don’t sign your shit away.”