Dreaming of a record contract?  You might have better luck becoming an astronaut.  

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Once upon a time, every rapper in the world dreamed of snatching a label deal.  They’d snail mail their demo tape to Def Jam, Tommy Boy, or Jive, hoping to catch an A&R’s attention and join the ranks of rap’s elite.  Hip Hop was at its creative peak, and with such diversity, ranging from Public Enemy and Queen Latifah, to Salt-N-Pepa and Biz Markie, every aspiring artist felt as though they had a potential seat at hip hop’s colorful round table.  Make no mistake, it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows, but there was indeed something truly magical about hip hop’s early era.

Fast forward to our present time.  Rap’s elite is made up of a small group of artists, who must aggressively brand themselves beyond music in order to remain relevant.  Having a number one hit means nothing when music sales are at an all-time low.  The only way to maintain a place in the spotlight is to branch off into movies, TV, or other merchandising and branding endorsements.  (Headphone companies, or overpriced water, anyone?)  The Mac Millers and Tech N9nes of the world are the exceptions rather than typical examples.  We won’t even talk about the anomaly that is the fan favorite Jay Electronica–the nomadic and free-spirited lyricist, with not a single full-length album to his name.  The remaining 98% make up the underground, a scene so saturated with bushy-tailed hopefuls that you could probably populate a small planet with them.  Most of these rappers have a better chance of becoming astronauts.  Yet and still, countless starry-eyed rappers continue to dream about signing that big contract.


The truth is, the age of the major label record deal is over.  The mainstream music industry in its current state is a sinking ship to avoid at all costs.  Don’t let a handful of chart-topping artists with fashionable life jackets fool you into thinking that the boat hasn’t yet hit the iceberg.  After all, the musicians on the Titanic played until the very end.

Here’s the industry that a million aspiring rappers are wasting time trying to get into:

  • Million-dollar deals and co-signs from rap’s elite didn’t prevent Trinidad James and Chief Keef from being dropped by Def Jam and Interscope.
  • Only a couple of months after signing with Epic Records, Bobby Shmurda started complaining that he wasn’t making the kind of money he expected from his big hit “Hot N***a”.
  • Aloe Blacc, who co-wrote the pop hit “Wake Me Up,” only made about $4000 in streaming royalties off a song that broke Spotify records and was the 13th most played song on Pandora, receiving over 168 million streams in the US.
  • With music sales and legal downloads declining at an alarming rate, country/pop superstar Taylor Swift is the only artist of any genre to go platinum this year.
  • With today’s music industry weaker than ever, megastars like Jay Z and U2 partnered with Samsung and iTunes instead to promote their new albums.

However, beyond the smoke and mirrors, there’s another reality for those who embrace the title “working artist.”  Working artists are those who strive to make a living through their art, and don’t necessarily need a traditional job to survive.  They hustle extra hard to make a name for themselves.  Although they may never become rich and famous, they’re resourceful, self-motivated, and entrepreneurial.

Is it a difficult path?  Yes.  But the odds of making it as a working artist are still much more realistic than expecting to become the next Jay Z or Kanye, something as rare as being hit by lightning twice in a row.  On the other hand, while hip hop artists like Rapsody, Brother Ali, Black Milk, Killer Mike, Homeboy Sandman, and Jean Grae may not be household names, they manage to make a living off their music.  It is these indie artists that up-and-coming rappers should study, not the Drakes and Nickis, whose success is a once in a lifetime combination of luck, timing, and dwindling million-dollar marketing budgets.

Sebastien Elkouby is a creative consultant, writer, and award-winning educator. For more info, go to SebIsHipHop.com. Hit him up at SebastienElkouby@gmail.com or @SebIsHipHop. Don’t forget to check out his podcast Take No Prisoners Radio.