Independent Women: What Country’s Female Up-and-Comers Gain From Going It Alone
The 2019 roster for CMT's Next Women of Country program is a diverse group of musicians with equally varied backstories. Some are relatively new to Nashville, while others have been pounding the pavement in Music City for years. Some recently released new EPs, while others have been busily gigging across the country. And, while some have record deals, many members of the new class are releasing their music independently.
In an industry that still offers only a limited number of slots to female performers, it makes sense that some artists would need to pursue careers without the backing of a label. Yet just a couple of decades ago, it might not have been possible for such acts to achieve enough of a platform to ever be heard at all, let alone become well-known enough to be named into a Next Women of Country class.
According to the founders of Olivia Records, who established their label in 1973 to help re-balance the gender inequality in the music business, social media has changed everything. "It's all digital, which means artists don't have to have a label. They just are the label," says co-founder Cris Williamson.
"Fans just want to know that this is real ..." - Stephanie Quayle
The NWoC's independent artists agree that social media is an indispensable part of their success. Before Lainey Wilson signed a deal with Broken Bow Records, she released an EP independently.
"Yeah, I think social media has a lot to do with it," Wilson tells The Boot and other outlets. "I mean, you always have to have a team of people around you -- a support system -- but as long as people can see and hear you ... People are visual. And auditory, too. If they can see it and hear it, that's the most important thing."
The added boost of being able to promote herself, Wilson says, gave her the freedom to put out a project on her own terms: "I did release my EP in April, just by myself," she explains. "I kinda just wanted it to be me."
For many artists, the ability to curate their own careers is an incredible advantage of releasing music independently.
"The thing that I'm most excited about as an independent artist is that I get creative control over what I want to say," offers Lauren Duski, who recently released her single "Costume Party" independently.
Creative control was especially meaningful to Duski for that particular song, which confronts the anxieties that many young women face about not living up to the expectations of the society that surrounds them.
"My first single is about being comfortable in your own skin, and trying to just accept that you're always gonna be a work in progress, and that's okay," she adds. "So it was nice to be able to say that first, and know I was able to do it without any control, someone telling me [what to say] -- not that they would have -- but it was nice to have."
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Duski is far from the only young female artist to release music about overcoming the feelings of falling short of what she's expected to be: Her fellow Next Women of Country Class of 2019 member Ingrid Andress' "Ladylike" makes the case that lots of different kinds of women -- including tequila-shooting tomboys -- can be "ladylike" in their own ways. Kassi Ashton's debut single, "California, Missouri," is a tortured love letter to a hometown that the singer still loves, even though it never quite accepted her. Heck, Cassadee Pope wrote an entire album based on sharing every aspect of life with fans, even and especially those moments that aren't sunny or palatable in the way that female country artists are often expected to be.
While the above artists, and many more, released soul-baring music under the auspices of a label, Duski reasoned that going it alone on such a personal single would ensure that she was doing it entirely her way. Of course, being an independent artist can be scary, and it isn't always a choice: Leah Turner recalls that she had a Top 40 single on radio while signed to Sony, but a regime change at the label lost her and many other artists their deals.
"You go, 'I'm either gonna sink or swim. I'm gonna splat on the ground, or I'm gonna fly,'" Turner explains. "I chose to swim, and I chose to find some wind beneath my wings."
"As long as people can see and hear you ... that's the most important thing." - Lainey Wilson
While the experience may have been harrowing in the moment, Turner goes on to say, it ultimately left her a much more confident artist: "To have the freedom to be able to record what I want, and ... kinda just find myself as an artist, to stand on my own two feet, has been really incredible," she adds.
Plus, as long as they can reach listeners using tools like social media, an artist's label affiliation doesn't ultimately affect the most important thing: their relationship with their fans.
"They listen to the music, but they don't know which label you're on, you know?" Stephanie Quayle points out. "They see a woman with a song, and they want to know more. That's usually as far as they go."
Fans prize an authentic connection, Quayle continues, which is why touring and having a compelling live show is ultimately more critical to her career than being signed by a label.
"Fans just want to know that this is real, and that they just spent their money on a show that they can go home and tell people about, or be moved by, escape what they're going through," she says. "Most of the artists here, we all perform. We're all touring artists. That's how we make part of our living, and you can't fake that. It's too much work. It's way harder to fake it."
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