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Is the Corpse Smelly Yet? 

Independent music in 2001

Wednesday, Jun 20 2001

To say the thrill has gone from independent record making would be an understatement. Where once it was the renegade end of the music business, usually one or two steps ahead of the majors in finding talent and shaping trends, now it seems like a barely tolerated bastard child. How did it happen, and what exactly did happen?

Roll back the clock 10 years, and we have a time when the major record labels looked to the indies much as major league ball clubs look to the minor leagues. The number of artists that began at the indies is staggering; almost anyone who did anything that has lasted (but was not on the center line of middle-of-the-road) began at the indies. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Jane’s Addiction, Poison, Motley Crue, the Cult, and on and on, all broke out and got their initial attention on small labels. Even Elvis started on Sun, and the early Beatles records had to be licensed to indies in the U.S. because EMI’s stateside affiliate, Capitol, was not initially confident that the English quartet would translate to American tastes.

When left-of-center artists are discovered and developed on a regional, independently distributed level, it’s good for everybody. It saves the corporate chest-beaters the bother of figuring out which way the wind is gonna blow next, it gives noncorporate, smaller businesses a product to sell, and it gives the consumer a wider range of (presumably) high-quality, (hopefully) provocative choices for his/her listening enjoyment. So why is this minors-to-majors model not working as well as it did 10 or even five years ago? A portion of the puzzle can be solved by examining the idea that it was a good setup for the majors, the indies and the audience. By offering the consumer a larger variety of choices and giving the artist a place to start out at a grassroots level, the indies have an overriding concern of developing and nurturing, yes, music. To outsiders, it may seem a wild notion that the very thing that gives the music business its name could be anything other than the primary concern of the business. Guess what? That’s exactly what has happened, and no one at any level of that business even bothers to refute it.

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It’s easy to point an accusing finger at the evil empire of the corporate world and place all the blame there. So easy, in fact, let’s go with it: What is it now, two more mergers to Big Brother? (Who’s counting? It seems like AOL knows what I had for dinner.) It’s no revelation that the conglomerates have their eye on the bottom line at all times, and that they always have. What has changed is, the more they interbreed (like the royalty they emulate), the more they become alike, and the thinner their blood gets. Everything becomes more homogenized, factory-produced, enormously hyped, crappy and boring. Look no further than the Billboard Adult Top 40 for the proof, and if you disagree, you probably never were an indie-recordings supporter in the first place, and that’s fine. Admittedly, it’s for a fringe, outsider consumer.

While there’s an overabundance of prefab major-label-controlled product being shoved down our throats right now, pop-music history indicates that this is precisely the time when an independent-music uprising has the best chance of thriving. Take a look at the explosions of wild sounds that occurred via the indies in 1955, 1963, 1977 and 1989 for your proof. So what’s with 2001? The corporations have been sending the prices up and up and up over the years. The CD is now the cheapest audio format to reproduce ever, with the highest markup of all time. Of course, the big boys say that’s not as cut-and-dried as it seems, given all of their other expenses. You’ve got artist advances (that untried artists get six-figure advances in the first place is a practice that got way out of control years ago), â production costs (so don’t hire Andy Wallace for a remix), huge radio-promotion costs (payola is still the only way to get airplay, and yes, it’s very expensive) and video production (way overpriced — who even gets M2?). Let’s not forget staff expenses, but that’s sort of unfair to cite, because every time one mega merges with another, it lays off every last possible person who can be eliminated. Besides, most of the staff expenses are really going into the pockets of overpaid executives, just as it is with every other corporation.

The fact is, the corporations got together and decided, for their mutual good, to drive those prices up. Retail, which is becoming a nearly impossible environment to thrive in, willingly went along. So: Can’t the indies beat them at their own game by lowering their prices gas-war style? They could, but by the time indie CDs hit the racks, the retailers will jack their prices back up to keep them in line with the prices they’re charging for major-label stuff. Plus, indies earn less per CD than the majors because there is an intermediate independent distributor between the label and the retailer, unlike the majors, which own their own distribution networks.

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