Labelmania: Indie labels ride the ups and downs of buzz and bluster
Equality has been achieved: this recession is kicking everyone's arse. But I couldn't help but squirm at a few recent music-biz disjunctions. How does one reconcile the scene at a South by Southwest "Great Expectations" label panel last month, listening to Tony Kiewel describe 2008 as one of the Sub Pop's best years, with the bad news from Touch and Go's Chicago HQ a week later? After shuttering its distribution which once supported imprints ranging from Drag City to Estrus in February, the 25-year-plus label laid off its entire staff. Owner and ex-Necros bassist Corey Rusk was going to run the enterprise solo.
A second major blow, especially when one considers Touch and Go's history releasing important discs by Big Black, Scratch Acid, Die Kreuzen, Slint, Jesus Lizard, and of course, the Butthole Surfers (though the label's 1999 loss in a legal battle with that band likely hasn't helped). "Touch and Go basically allowed Merge to exist as something other than a singles label," Mac McCaughan of Merge Records stated in February. "If a company that did everything the right way can't survive in this environment, then who can?"
Are these simply the latest surges and sucks of free-market capitalism's death throes and toilet-bowl flows? And what's the state of independence for local labels eking it out in this still-roiling stew of sorry economic news?
"The black and white fact is that [Sub Pop] is not Touch and Go," opines Cory Brown, owner of Bay Area independent Absolutely Kosher and general manager of Misra Records. He notes that Sub Pop is partially owned by Warner Bros. and that Touch and Go had the tough luck of losing some of its biggest artists, including TV on the Radio, Blonde Redhead, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Those departures "all went down not very well," says Brown, who believes Touch and Go's contraction was "as much an emotional decision as a business one," considering the company had big releases by Pinback and Three Mile Pilot planned.
Rusk declined to comment, although one wonders what will become of his label's newer bands, among them the Bay Area's Mi Ami and Sholi. Still, should he strike up a new alliance, all systems could be go at Touch and Go once again. As Brown puts it, "Geoff Travis has closed Rough Trade multiple times now and come back with it."
What of the local label landscape? Lookout! and Jackpine Social Club have ceased new releases, whereas Tigerbeat6 and Anticon have left town. Slumberland is surfing a twee rock revival, and hip-hop's SMC has taken on bigger fish like Killer Mike. As newbie Bright Antenna appears on the horizon, veterans such as Alternative Tentacles, Fat Wreck Chords, Runt/Water, Quannum Projects, Birdman, Daly City, Dirtybird, and Hook or Crook are staying alive. AT celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. "As music and media become increasingly accessible instantly from anywhere, the role of curator is more important than ever - if I can access 10 millions songs instantly from my phone, how do I choose?," Isaac Bess, director of business development at SF's IODA (Independent Online Distribution Alliance) writes via e-mail.
Business is bright, thanks to smart planning, for SF distributor Revolver USA and Midheaven Mailorder, which supports labels such as Gnomonsong and DiCristina Stair Builders. "We're doing well, and I think that has a lot to do with what our expectations are, and not looking for a big record to be carried by Walmart and Target," says general manager Mike Toppe, who thinks it's more important to "keep connecting with people who are passionate about music."
Fat Mike, who started Fat Wreck Chords to put out music by his bands NOFX and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, has a more hardcore perspective. "In the '90s, every fucking band we signed sold a shitload of records and got popular all over the world. It was ridiculous," he e-mails from NOFX's current European tour. "Now only the really good bands can sell a decent amount. That's okay, though. This industry collapse is mostly killing mediocre bands." As for the decline in CD and recorded music sales, the SF road warrior believes that's not going to stop: "The record industry party is over, but great live bands will always do okay."
But what about the groups that can't pick up blogosphere buzz? Both Jacobs and Brown acknowledge the difficulty in developing emerging or even mid-level bands via traditional avenues. Add in the complicating factor of so-called 360 deals, in which a label takes a percentage of all artist revenue in exchange for promotion, and you have what Brown calls a "destructive" outlook. "The bottom line is musicians should get paid," he said. "Forget about how labels are doing how are musicians doing in this climate?
"I think new ideas really have to come into play, and those have to be based on the quality of life for the musician, not the company that comes up with an application," he continued, touching on the lack of public funds for musicians and lack of official recourse for bands if, for instance, they don't get paid by a club. "It's basic stuff, but it's harder to look past those things. It has to go back to the content provider."