Up and coming alt-R&B singer-songwriter Mateo believes the phenomenon of the pop/dance/R&B hybrid has reached its peak. "In order for urban singers to chart on those platforms, you gotta come out with a four-to-the-floor joint," the L.A.-based Cincinnati native said. "What I see now is an appreciation starting to build for the R&B that used to be. There is a renaissance happening."
Mateo built an online following with a series of mixtapes, EPs and videos. He's racked up more than a million views on YouTube and landed a deal with Interscope. "Its definitely R&B, it has soul in it," he said of his sound. "But there's elements of alternative rock, there's the big drums. I always felt like urban music didn't have the euphoric sound that you shout at stadiums."
Online discovery has played a critical role in breaking these acts, with each of them taking control of their music and bypassing traditional methods.
When Ocean grew frustrated with Def Jam he released a mixtape, "Nostalgia, Ultra," for free on Tumblr. He was already a critic's darling, a member of L.A.'s hip-hop collective Odd Future and selling out shows before "Channel Orange" hit stores earlier this year, a rarity for R&B acts that have been dependent on radio and music videos.
Miguel rolled out "Kaleidoscope Dream" in three parts to promote the album. Fans who purchased either preview (dubbed "Air" and "Water") could use iTunes' Complete My Album program for the full record. He followed a similar method when he introduced fans to new music with "Art Dealer Chic," a series of conceptual micro EPs that he released free for three consecutive months, earlier this year. "Any kind of anticipation or newfound acceptance really comes from that," he said.
The DIY model worked for the Weeknd, who released a trilogy of free albums last year and has since teamed with a major label to reissue the set. It's also the foundation for Richard's solo career. She is launching a solo career after finding success in two different groups: urban pop girl group Danity Kane and hip-hop fusion collective Diddy Dirty Money.
Armed with a tiny team (her producer also manages her) she released an EP, "Armor On," earlier this year exclusively on iTunes. It sold more than 30,000 copies without any radio play and hit No. 1 on the iTunes R&B albums chart and No. 4 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart.
"There [is] a transition happening," said Richard, whose debut, "Goldenheart," is due in the new year and will be distributed by indie company Altavoz Distribution. "R&B doesn't have to be so linear. ['Armor On's' success] was a confirmation that a new kind of artist can succeed."
Devin Lazerine, founder and editor of the R&B/hip-hop news site Rap-Up, said listeners are no longer letting radio dictate their playlists.
"There is a demand for more 'real' R&B that is showcasing vocals and less studio effects," he said. "It's almost a response to the inundation of pop."
Fuzzy puts it more bluntly: "I'm sure radio probably frustrates a lot of artists because they hear what is going on radio. And when [certain artists] do it they get chastised for it," he said. "It's almost our fault — and their fault for compromising."
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