In early March, the veteran A&R Chris Anokute was listening to a SoundCloud link from an aspiring artist. The track came to an end, and the platform’s algorithm automatically queued up Curtis Waters’ “Freckles.” “I felt like he was telling my story,” says Anokute, who worked with Katy Perry at her hit-making peak and now runs an entertainment company called Young Forever Inc. “I became a fan immediately.”
The chance SoundCloud encounter was timely: Anokute became Waters’ manager before the May release of “Stunnin’,” a beach-party ready slab of pop-rap that sounds like Will Smith’s “Miami” remade for the TikTok generation. Last week, “Stunnin’” became the fastest unsigned record to go into Spotify’s flagship playlist, Today’s Top Hits, since Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne,” which went on to earn more than a billion streams.
But unlike Zervas, who inked a deal with Columbia Records, Waters is choosing not to sign with a major label. This is an especially noteworthy step at a time when the exploitative nature of the music business’ longstanding business model is coming under fire.
“I didn’t agree with the deals [I was being offered],” Waters says. “I came so far independently. I’m not sure the major labels are giving artists what they really need.”
Waters, who was born in Nepal but now lives in Cary, North Carolina, has been making music for six years, initially motivated by video game soundtracks and Odd Future. “I’ve put out so many horrible beat tapes,” he says. He recorded “Stunnin’” while balancing college and a job making smoothies for minimum wage — “I was just in a bad mood, trying to make some stupid shit and cheer up.”
Before releasing “Stunnin,’” Waters studied the path of recent viral hits like the BoyBoy West Coast’s “U Was at the Club,” “where the audio was already trending [on TikTok] before the song was even [officially] out,” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which benefited from a relentless meme campaign. Both songs had been well received on TikTok, so Waters decided to get on the app for the first time. He made a series of videos for “Stunnin,’” and a laid-back, appealingly shabby dance routine with his brother suddenly picked up hundreds of thousands of views overnight.
Anokute had already reached out to Waters to see if he wanted to sign a “license deal” — where the artist regains ownership of his or her music after a set period of time — for just one album and split the profits evenly. “That’s what I feel like a record company should offer people,” Anokute says.
But as “Stunnin’” started to move on TikTok, the nature of the negotiations shifted. “There are companies that just look for TikTok hits, so everyone was just blowing up my phone,” Waters explains. “They hadn’t heard the rest of my album, and the only person that really understood the album was Chris.” Anokute signed on as Waters’ manager.
Thanks to a decade-plus tenure in the major-label trenches, Anokute knew Becky Bass and Ned Monahan, who are part of Spotify’s Global Hits team, Lauren Glucksman, who handles artists relations for Apple Music, and Isabel Quinteros, who fills a similar role at TikTok. “The only people we called were the streaming services,” Anokute explains. He made sure “the people with the power” were aware that “Stunnin’” was on the move.
Streaming services play a key role in growing TikTok hits by introducing the songs to passive listeners who aren’t on the app. They do that by moving songs through their playlist systems. As a track proves its popularity at each level of playlist, it is granted entry to the next level. In a little under a month, “Stunnin’” streamed its way to the biggest pool of all: Today’s Top Hits.
While Anokute worked his Rolodex, Waters faced the major-label feeding frenzy that follows any song surging on streaming platforms. Labels offered eye-popping deals, but none of them were to Waters’ liking. “On average, the deals included multi-million dollar advances and 20-year reversions after the terms on a three-album deal,” Anokute explains. “So if it takes him six years to put out three albums, [the label] would collect for 20 more years after that. They’re also taking anywhere from a 15 to 22 percent distribution fee off the top.”
In the old days, a distribution fee would cover the costs of making physical CDs and trucking them to stores. That’s no longer something that most artists need — as Anokute puts it, distribution fees “make no sense because everything is digital now.” Still, he says, “before [major labels] would even calculate Curtis’ earnings, they steal 20 percent.”
Instead of signing with a major, Waters chose to work with BMG, which offered him a 60-40 profit split and a 10-year license, at which point the music returns to Waters. “Curtis has 100% control,” Anokute says. “Nine months after he puts out his album he’s a free agent.”
At a time when the music industry’s exploitative practices — especially when it comes to black artists — are under the microscope, Waters’ decision has extra resonance. The major labels are able to keep doing business the way they have for more than half a century because they tell artists that they are necessary to make hits and mint stars. But more than ever, savvy artists can make and market hits on their own.
That means the major labels’ primary function, according to Anokute, is to “write you a check and activate globally.” “But there are a lot of indie companies that have global teams,” Anokute continues. “So what do we need [a major label] for?” If a dozen artists with fast-moving streaming hits adopt Waters’ approach and stay independent, that might force the major labels to change their ways.
Waters’ interactions with the major labels partially inspired his new song “System,” out this week. “I started writing it when all these labels were reaching out to me — I felt like I was being treated like a commodity, like I was just a product,” Waters says. “System” is a brittle, declamatory punk missile with a blunt message: “I’m boutta fuck the system up.”
As “System” starts its climb, “Stunnin’” continues to romp. It’s now earning more than 700,000 streams a day on Spotify, and it will be shipped to three different radio formats next week. Waters has his album finished and ready to go when he wants to release it.
He still hasn’t given notice at the smoothie store where he worked this spring. “Technically I haven’t quit yet,” Waters says. “But I stopped going.”