This story is part of Billboard’s third annual package spotlighting the trends defining the independent business.
This past spring, alt-rock singer-songwriter Chaz Cardigan was chatting with producer Alex Salibian, who has worked with artists like Harry Styles and Young the Giant and wanted to help Cardigan with his next album. Cardigan had recently been dropped by Capitol Records, after his original A&R, David Wolter, left the company and the pandemic crushed his planned headlining tour.
When Salibian asked what Cardigan’s dream record deal would look like, he jotted down a list: He would get to own his masters; the label would never take more than 50% of his streaming royalties; and he’d get to leave the label scot-free if his A&R departed, among other things.
None of these items are standard in major label record contracts. But Cardigan’s new record deal includes all of them — plus healthcare, mental health services and more. Cardigan is the first U.S. signee to Nvak Collective, the forward-thinking record label Salibian and former recording artist Tamar Kaprelian launched earlier this year with the mission to disrupt industry norms, and his second single through the label, “Pictures,” is out Oct. 29. Formed as the label arm of Nvak Foundation, Kaprelian’s music education nonprofit, Nvak has a particular focus on women, non-binary and LGBTQ+ artists and artists in underrepresented regions of the world.
“We conveniently forget that [music] is a really young business. This isn’t some hyper-established, long-standing tradition that can’t be iterated on,” Cardigan tells Billboard. “There’s room to be modular in how we think about what a record contract is.”
A Kentucky native who grew up with dreams of striking a major-label deal, Cardigan signed with Capitol in 2019 and had a breakthrough with the single “Not OK!” the following year. But he says he became frustrated by the label’s emphasis on singles and TikTok virality. “I was signed by an A&R who really loved what I did […] and then that A&R left and I became a homework project,” Cardigan says. “It isn’t really a crime, there just wasn’t a shared vision.” Further executive shuffling took place when Capitol Music Group CEO Steve Barnett stepped down in late 2020.
Cardigan also felt a lack of mental health resources to deal with the pressure of being an artist in the public eye, particularly when it came to trolls on social media. “The response was, ‘Bummer, but you’ve just gotta keep doing what you’re doing,’” he says.
At Nvak, on the other hand, he has access to therapy as well as alternative healing methods like reiki and acupuncture. Cardigan and the label split revenue from his music 42% apiece, dividing up the remainder among producers, songwriters and mixers, plus a point towards environmental initiatives. All of Nvak’s deals with artists involve similar splits, and the label is framing its releases as “sustainable streams,” signaling to listeners that revenue is being fairly distributed. To further promote transparency, Nvak contracts are also written in plain English rather than legal jargon.
Nvak’s leaders say that Cardigan is a good fit not only philosophically, but creatively as well. “Chaz’s lyrics and outside-of-the-box approach to creativity stood out to us immediately,” Salibian and Kaprelian say in a joint statement. “He came to us having already written and produced the entirety of his album and was in need of a safe, support system and sounding board to help refine his work and champion it to the industry. His clarity of vision and mindfulness extends beyond his music, and he was instrumental in designing the artist-friendly framework of our recording deals.”
Cardigan’s manager, Hard 8 Working Group partner Mike Bachta, calls Nvak the “best situation I could have dreamed of,” and thinks the label has the potential to change not just Cardigan’s career but the entire music industry. “As they start to break artists, because they will, we’ll see if that structure gets adopted by anybody else,” he says.
After the pandemic renewed conversations about better conditions for artists in the music industry, other labels and music companies have made changes. Last year, BMG eliminated the “controlled composition clause” that reduced songwriters’ income from its contracts and audited its historical contracts with Black artists for evidence of discrimination. Under Sony Music Entertainment’s “Artist Forward” initiative, announced in June, the company will no longer apply existing unrecouped balances to earnings for eligible legacy artists and songwriters, and last week, it added a program providing its artists with free therapy. Earlier this week, ASCAP became the first performance rights organization to offer telemedicine services to its songwriter and composer members.
Cardigan joins a roster at Nvak that so far includes American pop artist Annika Rose, Lebanese pop artist Talia Lahoud and Armenian singer-songwriter Rosa Linn, who recently released single “KING” with Kiiara. On Sept. 17, he dropped the album’s politically-charged first single, “We Look So Good,” which chides the United States’ refusal to reckon with social issues by imagining patriotism as a toxic relationship that only looks good on paper. Cardigan says the album will explore “the logical conclusion of that story.” He’s also kicking off a string of fall tour dates opening for Cherub starting Oct. 27.
“My plan at this point is to have fun,” he says. “We’re getting way more creative, and I’m way more invested right now in trying to curate joy in my life.”