By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
How this relates to the current musical climate is, when consumers seek alternatives to the crap the majors are putting out (and, of course, it ain’t all crap, just trying to make a point here, dig?), they’ve begun to look away from recorded music. I was in the Sunset Virgin Megastore a couple of weeks ago. Being a longtime passenger on the music-biz promo train, I sometimes forget the reality of the record chain store. Every CD I picked up — indie, major, new releases, catalog, whatever — was 18 bucks or more. Eighteen bucks!! My heart sank as I roamed the aisles and saw the releases from the label I worked for, realizing that at this price it wouldn’t be long before our CDs headed back home to us, unsold and unwanted. While I stood looking at the new Black Crowes — 20 bucks — and trying to conjure who I could call to get a free copy, a couple in their 30s walked up behind me. The guy, surveying the aisles of overpriced discs, turned to the gal and proclaimed, without a trace of irony, “I don’t think I’m into music anymore!” Now, hang on, he didn’t say “I’m not into rock” or “I’m not into country” or anything specific — he was through with the whole deal, lock ’n’ stock. Now my heart was really sinking. What does a guy like this get into as an alternative? DVDs? Computer stuff? Skiing? Wife swapping? I’d always thought everyone needs music, but at 20 bucks a pop, wife swapping sounds pretty good, and as vile as it is, the radio is free, even if it is more or less two or three big stations nationwide playing the same five songs over and over until you want to rip your own head off and throw it out the window.
That’s the big picture. Now, what to do? Close up every indie label, roll over and say to the majors, “You win, take all the market share, you greedy, filthy, stinking whores”? Naw, not yet. Something worth doing is even worth doing wrong, don’t you think? Plus, there are indie labels that are thriving within this climate, such as Astralwerks (questionable, I know, given its Virgin connection, but let’s give it the nod), Roadrunner and Epitaph. Roadrunner’s Slipknot debut sold 2.5 million, and Epitaph sells plenty of records in the 100,000-plus range. Each specializes in a specific genre that has a loyal following unconcerned with trends and fads. Astralwerks has corralled the cream of the electronica market, particularly acts that can actually play live (Primal Scream), have hits (Fatboy Slim) or both (Chemical Brothers). Now they’ve even gotten into the lucrative reissue market (no tours, no production costs) with the Neu reissues. Epitaph and Roadrunner specialize in genres that can survive outside of radio and video support by virtue of press, street promotions and live performances, those being punk rock and metal, respectively. Let’s not forget all the dope-money-funded rap labels that positively rake in the cash. The indies who took the slap upside the head the hardest are the labels who rode the alternative-rock wave, which has by and large subsided.
Survival, as has always been the case at the indie level, depends on specializing. Hold on to the hope that there’s enough of a core audience to support that which one specializes in. Filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis summed up the indie credo as well as anyone ever has. In the early ’60s, Lewis and his partner David Friedman were cranking out so-called “nudie cutie” pictures, harmless exploitation ditties that mostly played at art houses. A few years into it, bigger competitors and major studios entered the arena with similar, bigger-budgeted films with prettier actresses. Lewis and Friedman knew that to survive they had to come up with something that “the major studios can’t or won’t do.” They jotted down a list of taboo topics, and the word gore seemed to jump out at them. They went on to lens the ugly masterpiece Blood Feast and jump-start the entire gore subgenre. The only way to compete is by catering to a section of the marketplace whose audience can’t get fulfillment elsewhere.
The number of outsider niches is staggering. Basically, anything that ain’t gonna get on the radio qualifies. Radio is almost one big corporation now, too, and like the competing majors, it’s been decided in some secret, dark council somewhere that it all runs smoother if everyone works together. Aside from college stations like KXLU or listener-supported stations like KCRW, try and remember the last time you heard anything not released by a major label on the radio. As best as I can recall, the last indie records to receive substantial airplay were the singles from the Offspring’s Smash album on Epitaph, and that was back in 1994. If you’re paranoid (or perhaps just cynical), you could â theorize that after Sony safely snatched the Offspring away from Epitaph, the corporations banded together and said, “Let’s make sure that never happens again!” (For an even more extremist view on this, track down the “Anti-Rock Conspiracy” by Sal Canzonieri of the punk band Electric Frankenstein. You can find it online. If you think I sound paranoid, get a load of his theories, but then try and discount them.)