Behind the Music: The Struggle of the Independent Artist

Maurissa Rose clearly remembers the day she got a call to rush over to a Detroit studio to record a duet with Universal Motown recording artist Kem.

Recording the song, “If It’s Love,” as a featured artist for the third single on Kem’s “Intimacy III’’ album was sure to be one of the best things that ever happened to the veteran singer.

Considering the duet was hot on music charts for 52 weeks and still is a radio hit, perhaps it should have been her big break. 

Instead, her dream was diminished. She was paid a session fee for her work; having her name listed as the featured artist on the single was the only thing the singer says she requested.

While she was given credit on the album, when the single was released, there was no mention of her name. To make matters worse, the song was re-recorded and released featuring Kem’s Universal label mate, Island Def Jam recording artist Chrisette Michele.


Detroiters noticed the difference in the two versions. They discussed it on Facebook, called in to the radio stations asking for the Maurissa Rose version-a rich, deep rendition- although many of them didn’t know her name.

Armando Rivera, program director for 105.9 Kiss FM says the station continues to play the version featuring Rose because she’s a homegirl.

However, K.J. Holiday, Director of Urban Programming for Clear Channel Communications’ WJLB-FM 98/WMXD-FM 92.3, says he wasn’t aware that the Detroiter recorded a version until months after its release and continues to play the version featuring Michele.

“The devastation of having a national record that I couldn’t gain exposure from is a nightmare,” Rose says. “It was a major disappointment in my career. I’ll get another turn. I’ll get another ride on this rollercoaster.”

Dramatic ups and downs are as integral in the lives of the independent artist as the music itself. Sometimes, they are signed to a major music label and suddenly dropped without explanation or they find their project was shelved and never gets off the ground.

Some artists manage to make a name for themselves overseas, but can’t get the love they desire at home or never see the limelight they live for. Still others simply find peace in doing what they do.

Metro Detroit entertainment attorney Howard Hertz, president of the Detroit Music Awards Foundation, says these situations sometimes occur in the music business. He cited Kid Rock’s 2002 single “Picture,” which was released as a single featuring country singer Allison Moorer.

In 2003, the single was re-released with the more prominent Sheryl Crow singing lead. It became Kid Rock’s first crossover hit.

The biggest mistake unsigned artists make, Hertz says, is failing to secure an entertainment attorney to protect their interests. Other attorneys, he explains, may not understand the terminology used in entertainment business contracts.

“Even if it’s just a one or two-page agreement, there should be someone to review it who knows the business, understands the business, and can either explain or negotiate on the artist’s behalf,” Hertz says.

Rose acknowledges she made the deal to sing the duet on a verbal agreement and signed a one-page legal document without representation because she doesn’t have a team backing her or an attorney. The $5,000 retainer top entertainment attorneys, such as Hertz, require wasn’t in her budget.

Toya Hankins, who has been Kem’s manager since 1993 and helped the once-independent artist propel his career by selling 10,000 copies of his debut album, “Kemistry,” says using the Chrisette Michele as the female vocalist on the “If It’s Love’’ single was the original marketing concept Kem, his team and label had. Rose, she explains, was only hired to do a demo for the song.

However, Rose says the notion of a demo was never mentioned when she spoke with Kem and recorded the track.

“Marketing is fine,” Rose says. “It’s not a problem, but who would want to do something for nothing? Why would I want to be on a record and get no [credit]? To go around and chase it, and say, ‘That’s me!’ Who wants that?”

For Rose, the situation was even more of a disappointment because it wasn’t the first time she sustained a major blow in the music business. In 2006, the singer who has worked with a slew of artists from Anita Baker and the O’Jays to Aaron Hall and the late Phyllis Hyman, recorded the duet, “Tonight,” on the “Madea’s Family Reunion” soundtrack.

Her name was listed in the music credits at the end of the film, but she wasn’t credited as the featured vocalist with Kem on the CD cover. Rose says she wasn’t given an explanation for the omission.

In the late 1980s, Rose was signed with Capitol/EMI records, but was among several artists who abruptly lost their contracts after a management shakeup.

Oak Park-based Mayaeni, an independent rock and soul singer/songwriter understands the feeling. She, too, was once signed with a major label, Universal, but split with the company over creative differences.

But things are looking up for Mayaeni, a 2012 Detroit Music Award nominee who recently signed a publishing deal with a major publisher, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, co-owned by Sony and the Michael Jackson Family and Trust.

“With publishers, if they’re behind you, it’s a different feel than a label because they’re really about the music,” Mayaeni says. “Their job is to exploit your songs as much as possible. I really love having a publisher.”

Thornetta Davis, an independent R&B and blues singer, has earned more than 20 Detroit Music Awards, toured the world and performed at President Barack Obama’s inauguration with Kid Rock. But says she has given up on the majors and has embraced her independence.

“I was thinking in an old school kind of way that maybe I could get a label to sign me,” says the 2012 Detroit Music Award nominee. “But I’ve come to terms with that. I can’t wait around for a label to discover me. I’ve been out here too long.”

Major label artists have more financial backing and resources than independent artists, Mayaeni says. That’s why independent artists become entrepreneurs who wear different hats out of necessity, booking their own shows and arranging their own recording sessions. In her case, she even shoots her own music videos.

Davis says it may be a better deal for an independent artist.

“The artists have to do a lot more than they used to establish themselves,” she says. “Nowadays, [major labels] want the artist to have it already done and packaged and ready. It might even be better to be independent because you own your own music.”

Rose sometimes finds herself still licking her wounds, but all is not lost for the singer. While she works to build a team and get legal backing, her latest single, “Thinking About You,” is blowing up on ballroom dance floors.

“I’m a believer,” she says. “I believe that my gifts will eventually make room for me when the time is right.”

J. Nadir Omowale is a Detroit-based musician and freelance writer who has won 10 Detroit Music Awards.

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