It's that season again; you can smell it in the air. Like lazy dogs, they've emerged from a long slumber, vaguely disoriented but incredibly hungry. Long past the gluttony of the last decade's mergers, the major labels have awakened and released their A&R departments from their leashes, and now the talent-starved mongrels are threatening to chew up every last loafer in the underground's shoe closet.
Every few years the corporate music industry, having flung every last boy band, pop-tartlet, sensitive rocker, hair- and/or rap-metal band into the breach, comes sniffing around the musical counterculture seeking new fodder for the ravenous public. The underground's garden has grown ripe with talented acts since the last post-Seattle feeding frenzy, and the majors have been harvesting it with increasing frequency. Acts like White Stripes, Death Cab for Cutie and Poison the Well have been "rescued" from indie status, while the majors' own, freshly minted "underground" acts like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes are making their own sort of impact.
"Alternative/indie was allowed to go underground for a while and be left alone kind of by everybody and it's just coming through again now," says Leslie Bleakley, CEO of Beggars Banquet/Matador Records. "There's these great bands out lately and it's an incredibly fertile time for music."
As in times past, it's predominantly been the major labels and corporate radio and MTV who have disseminated this material to the masses, while it's been the in-the-trench indies nurturing the creative environment. However, this traditional dynamic has clearly shifted recently. Independent labels used to measuring sales in thousands have in the past few years begun selling hundreds of thousands of albums by an eclectic array of artists from The Shins and Interpol to The Faint, The Arcade Fire and The Postal Service.
Indeed, the marketplace has changed dramatically since 1990, and the major labels' once-tight hold on the market has loosened considerably, allowing the recent steady drip of successful small label acts. Though the majors' own policies could be responsible for some of the change suing customers, getting tied up in mergers, signing cookie-cutter act after cookie-cutter act the business practices of the independents, along with other cultural and technological changes, have helped to level the playing field.
"A lot of the reason it can be done now is the distribution is better for indie labels than it was back then," says Merge Records co-owner (and Superchunk/Portastatic member) Mac McCaughan of one of the primary reasons that his label has been able to find widespread success with a group like The Arcade Fire. "It's a result of the early '90s `post-grunge indie shopping spree` thing because `the major labels` were like, 'Even the bands we can't sign, we need to get in on making some of that money.'
"So Warner started ADA, Universal has Fontana, Sony has RED," he says, referring to three of the major-label-owned distribution companies that funnel small labels into big stores. EMI-owned Caroline is the fourth, while other non-major-affiliated companies, such as Koch and Ryko, have also improved their capabilities. "So the distribution system is better and you can sell tons of records on a small label, because you're not limited `by not being able to get them into stores`."
In the past, moving to a major label meant the possibility of selling hundreds, if not thousands, of times more copies than you would on an independent label. The Lotto-like chance of superstardom justified the low per-album payout and large recoupable expenses bill. But over the years, recording has become less expensive (thanks to computers, Pro Tools and ex-musicians with home studios), the Internet has opened up band promotion to any idiot with a MySpace account and the 10-year bloom of independent labels has afforded bands more self-sufficiency.
"You're not going to stop major labels swooping in and offering more money than an independent can offer to keep a band, and I think in the past the big advantages of being on a major the distribution and the way that it costs so much money to market an album because the country's so big some of those things have changed," says Bleakley. "It's not an ideal world out there, but the Internet leveled the game slightly; you can get attention without having to FedEx out 200 packets to college radio or marketers. I think there are certain elements that before were so obvious and made sense to `sign with a major` that aren't quite there anymore. The landscape's changed and I think bands are far savvier now."
It's got to be disconcerting to sign with a major and watch your musical peers on an independent label outsell you. But major labels haven't proved as adept at marketing the recent wave of post-hardcore acts as their closer-to-the-ground cousins. They've scooped up talented bands such as Vendetta Red, Thursday, Avenged Sevenfold and Poison the Well, who then failed to sell as well as Underoath, Taking Back Sunday or Atreyu, despite the latter bands being on much smaller labels.
Tony Brummel, founder of Victory Records (home to Taking Back Sunday and Atreyu, and Thursday's former label), is brash and unapologetic. He gives no quarter to his bigger competitors.
"The majors don't prey on us, we prey on them," Brummel says. "We know more about the bands than the majors do and if you look at an artist like Thursday, their Victory album sold more than their album on Island. So obviously selling the band was a smart move on Victory's part."
Brummel's comments are disingenuous in that he admits he would've liked to keep the band, but they point to a larger truth. "It's just knowing how to properly promote and market the artists," he says. Of course this is easier said than done, and for a small label, it requires effectively utilizing minimal resources.
"At a certain point someone has to spend some money. For instance, The Arcade Fire we didn't spend a ton of money," says McCaughan. "But once that record started doing well, if we had said, 'It's doing great,' and not spent any money, it would've still sold a good amount of records, but not nearly as many. You have to spend money to keep things out there in people's minds every week. It's easy to lose track of it. But at the same time we can't justify advertising on any but our biggest-selling records. One ad in Spin is like the entire promotional budget of most of the records that we put out."
While the Internet has opened things up by providing another means for bands and labels to reach their audience, more traditional avenues such as magazine ads and articles have become more expensive and harder to come by in the oversaturated media marketplace.
"Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is an amazing story the big Pitchfork review that took them from a band that nobody ever heard of to the next big thing. I think that's fantastic that that can happen, but in the past `the same thing happened after` a big review in the NME," Bleakley notes. "What's going on is people are discovering music through different avenues."
Radio remains the major labels' last trump card. Even with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer forcing Sony BMG's capitulation to payola charges (with investigations of other labels in the offing), no one expects any major changes.
"Radio has always been disgracefully difficult for independent artists to get on. Obviously with Interpol we did get some modern rock play, and when you get it, it's really important. You can't beat radio play," Bleakely says. "But people are skeptical. I think there's a hope that `Spitzer's case` will change things, but people don't generally think it will."
Perhaps it's all just a case of nature abhorring a vacuum whether it be between the Simpson sisters' ears or that of quality music on the charts. (Maybe even radio will get it one day.) Every so often the underground needs to remind the mainstream how it's done, and that it can be done without them.