Monday, September 04, 2006

Maximumrocknroll #276 May 2006

This column originally appeared in an issue of Maximumrockroll tackling the 'business' side of punk rock.

The funny thing about re-reading the original major-label theme issue from twelve years ago is marveling about some of the bands that were getting snapped up in the bidding frenzy but either went nowhere, broke up, got dropped, or came crawling back to their previous indie homes. OK, Green Day are now one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, and we all know what happened to Nirvana. But it's a fucking joke now that anyone cared about Seaweed, Jawbox, or Samian, for example. I'm not making a judgment call on the quality of those bands, but with hindsight, it's clear that their signing to majors wasn't really worth making a fuss about.
The majors don't need to bother snapping up the hot indie bands any more anyway. They've got a conveyor belt of starry-eyed youngsters with no greater ambition than to get on the Warped Tour, sign to a major, make a video, and get on MTV Cribs. They got their claws into Against Me! (anyone running a pool on how long 'til they break up?) but even if they hadn't, they'd have got someone who sounds just like them before too long.
All of that stuff happens outside the punk scene these days, pretty much, but the more insidious threat is the way so-called punk labels and bands are adopting the tactics of the majors. On the surface, their efforts are transparent and hilarious, but it's the sense of competition where there used to be a spirit of cooperation that is sapping punk of a lot of its potential, it's power, and a great deal of what makes it fun.
The world at large would think it bizarre to say the least that we even think the issue of major labels is worth discussing. It's generally accepted that bands only put out records on indie labels (or by themselves) as a means to get noticed by majors. It's seen as a sign of astute business acumen when an independent label sells out to (or strikes some kind of deal with) a major label. The owners of independent labels who do this are held up as true American success stories.
The labels that churn out the bulk of the punk rock product on the CD racks at your local (or online) record store, including many (if not most) of the labels that advertise in this very magazine, have adopted sleazy major-label tactics and even collude (sometimes grudgingly but rarely unwittingly) with major labels under the banner of 'getting the message out to a wider audience' (At this point only a cynic would point out that bands have been using that argument since The Clash and the revolution still isn't imminent). Actually, the true grounds for playing the game the way the majors do seems less about spreading some spurious message and more about simply surviving. The music press is constantly (if prematurely) heralding the death of the music industry and it is true that record sales are in decline (although sales of music downloads threaten to make up the difference). The combined sales of all independent labels (including those with some sort of major-label distribution or P&D) probably amounts to less than 20% of an already shrinking pie. So there's a lot of competition for a pretty small prize. At some level, these labels might think that anything they do is justified to help them compete with the majors on a more level playing field, but they're kidding themselves. They are only competing with each other, and every step they take that gives the majors a taste of their action just makes the imbalance even more pronounced.
A couple of specific tactics that are (on the surface) pathetic and amusing but that are also pretty depressing are the prevalence of street teams and publicists. Independent and major labels willingly sucker their bands' fans into doing free promotional work for them, in the guise of making them feel like extra special insiders and probably in exchange for a free CD or concert ticket. Then there's the whole magazine publicist thing. There's very little chance that a band on a true independent will make it into the pages of Rolling Stone magazine. However, tons of glossy, 'alternative' magazines have sprung up to fill the void that RS has left by only covering acts in the Billboard Top 40. You only have to go to your local Borders or Barnes & Noble to check them out. You'll notice, though, that by some strange coincidence, they're all covering the exact same bands, and all those bands happen to have a new album just about to come out. Now do you suppose that twenty different magazine editors got up one morning and thought, I know, I'll put (current indie pants-soakers du jour) on the cover, because they're my favorite band right now!" Not on your life. Most articles you see in those alternative magazines on the newsstand (and almost certainly all the cover stories) are there because the label paid someone to suck up to the editor and/or because the label advertises in the magazine. Actually, these days even those cutting edge indie magazines are more than likely to have major label bands on their covers – you know, the cutting edge major label bands. "Hey, Death Cab on the cover equals guaranteed sales man, and then we can turn even more people on to the truly indie shit in our mag. It's all in the name of getting the message out…" It would be almost tolerable, or at least respectable, if these people were getting anything out of shilling themselves to the machine, but most of these mags, even the glossiest ones with the ridiculous advertising rates, are basically voluntary concerns, just like MRR. The editors and contributors work day jobs and then put their creative energy, spare time, and sweat into producing what is essentially free publicity for the major labels (and the best kind too, the kind with street cred). They do this in the hope that the magazine will grow and they'll be able to command increasingly high ad rates and will get enough juice with major-label publicity departments that they'll be able to conduct backstage interviews with today's hottest stars, and eventually their mag will be the next Spin.
So yeah, NEWSFLASH! The music industry is sleazy and fucked! Punk rock as we know and love it developed over almost 30 years as a true alternative to the ego-driven, fame and publicity hungry, cutthroat, competitive world of the conventional music industry. It's still the case that a lot of the best music is being made on truly DIY independent labels. So let's just keep enjoying it. Let the people who are content to put themselves up for sale go on their merry way, and good luck to them. But when it's obvious that bands or labels are obviously keeping one foot in the punk camp for the credibility while simultaneously chasing mainstream stardom, let's withdraw our support, expose them, and mock their ridiculous presskits.

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