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Is the Corpse Smelly Yet?

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.

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.

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.)

Meanwhile, back at the niches. When considering what isn’t likely to get played on commercial radio, the checklist includes reggae, blues, soul, funk (non-mechanized), hardcore metal, punk, house, trance, gospel, folk, traditional country & western, world beat, jazz and more. Should be plenty of room for everyone, right? Problem is, besides gangsta rap, “mall” punk and hardcore metal, not many of these genres are moving substantial numbers for the indies. This could mean that some indies may be switching their emphasis to metal and rap, but then what? Will even indie labels turn away from the marginal, niche markets? Probably not, because what separates these labels from the big boys in the first place is passion. Anyone gone enough to helm a bebop label in this day is doing so cuz he or she is mad about bebop, not because he or she wants to get on the A-list at Barfly. The problem for these mavericks is that the audience for outsider music seems to be dwindling, which could be viewed as implying that outsiders themselves are dwindling, as more and more people are willing to fall in line and march like those animated hammers in Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Personally, I don’t think that’s the case. A breeze through the eclectic variety of recordings available on people’s hard drives via Napster is mind-boggling. There are still folks out there who want to hear “Eric the Half a Bee” by Monty Python, Hindi remixes and Norwegian black metal. However, for the price of an hour’s worth of music at your local retail outlet, most people want to funnel their money elsewhere. There’s also the theory that we’re at the beginning of a 20-year cycle, and that we are in the slump portion coinciding with the years 1960 to 1963, or 1980 to 1983. To my mind, this theory is flimsy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pondering:

What if, sometime around 2003, some weirdo from nowhere pops up with a music so fresh and new and exciting that it inspires thousands of bored, fed-up kids to emulate him/her/them? A new musical revolution would be upon us, with plenty of action for those who happened to make it to the right place at the right time. It could happen, and if so, it’ll have more to do with real vision, talent, luck and determination than anything that could be concocted in a boardroom. In other words, it will again be a good time to be in the independent-recording business.

 

S.L. Duff has been employed by Triple X Records for the past 10 years.