|NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS!
« Conclusion of a four-part series. Click here
for part one. »
For the fourth installment of this series, I want to focus on the business of making music and the general differences between independent and major labels. Luckily for me, I had a punker cousin and an older sister with sympathetic boyfriends that introduced me early in life to music that was made without consideration of the money it could generate. Underground music took to task the way I thought about things, challenging my ideas of stardom, performance, industry, and self-determination. Thus, it's changed the way I appreciate music, the way I look at "stars," and not only the way I think about my profession, but how I choose to run my business today.
The term "indie" (née independent) is widely misused today as a euphemism for a "cool" new member of the entertainment industry. Just as major labels launched "alternative" acts during the boom of independent labels in the late '80s/early '90s, they are co-opting independence as a current marketing strategy. That is, indie has been circumscribed by the record industry, and rather than recognizing the two as fundamental opposites, Independent has become synonymous with Major Lite. Or worse, "indie" is used as some sort of tastemaker benchmark to indicate how ahead of the curve he who relinquishes the dish is, because in all his infinite ear-to-the-ground wisdom he knew about this band before you (e.g., these indie darlings, who cut their teeth in the trenches of Buffalo before moving to New York City and finding success with the hipsters and old guard alike, will be playing tonight in support of The White Stripes.) Any mainstream rag you pick up uses "indie" in the same paragraph that describes an artist making commercials for Honda or Epson printers or Target. Whatever. I'm not here on some farcical Take Back The Indie lobby. I simply want to enunciate the difference between how they view indie and what indie really is. If you're going to get it wrong, you should at least know what it is you're wrong about.
The secret of a creation can be realized only in our own actually creating.
--Benjamin Paul Blood
The independent movement began as an unrelenting rejection of mainstream culture. Getting its footing with punk rock (there are plenty of examples predating punk, though some lacked the same longevity and principle that the punk-spawned indies enjoy), the movement was a reaction to many things, and it meant something different to everyone involved. The independent labels were a revolt against a civilization that reduced all human inspiration to market values. A discussion about the foundational footings of the independent model, then, can't be understood within the ideology of the entertainment industry. So, rather than following the conventional cultural model and attempting to condense a league of free-thinkers into a general package (Daring Hair! Ripped Jeans! Distorted Guitar!), let's generalize the tenets of the independent scene rather than its hair color. (I say "generalize" because there will be at least seven million things I leave out of this article, including--and probably most importantly--the first hand accounts from folks within the indie scene. Thankfully, there are plenty such accounts, and if you're so inclined, I'd recommend you seek them out.)
First, and most importantly, the commercialism that controls the record industry bears little significance in the independent model. Sure, you need to make money to run a business, but it's not the reason independent labels do business. Contrarily, major labels look first and foremost at the money, and if a record isn't going to make a shit ton of money, they're hard pressed to see any reason to exert any effort. This way of thinking, this profit-driven principle, casts an ugly din over every aspect of the record industry. Putting money before everything else makes people, ideas, creativity and logic marginal in the record-making process. I stated earlier that it was the obsessed, un-objective artists who made the best records--records that can suffer commercial failure upon their release, but end up, a decade or so later, on Top 10 lists everywhere. You see the dilemma, right? What profit-driven business would see any good reason in releasing a record that will likely fail (i.e., make little money)? Especially when that business is too impatient to wait ten years to see such investments yield any worth.
Luckily, independent labels enjoy a freedom from this dilemma. Rather than operating as a business with preeminence on profit, they behave as friends sharing a common goal (making records). In this model, the people involved, their ideas, and creativity are foremost. If the band makes a record and the label can release it, then there is success. By this design, a relationship is created based on inclusion and free exchange. No party holds any leverage over the other since both are working to the same end: to release records. By not operating within the constraints of profit-driven business, there is no need for contracts, lawyers, managers, representatives, or any of the other chicanery. A contractual relationship, like those of the entertainment industry, is built on distrust, and places a burden on the weaker party (the artist) to uphold its end of the contract. If an artist can't meet all the obligations of its contract, he is without the means to enforce--as his leverage relative to a huge corporation is minuscule--and the contract ends up being more a liability than a safeguard.
As proof of a more appropriate process, look at the independent labels today; their artists tend to stay with the label and both parties enjoy longevity. In contrast, major labels are constantly dumping artists, holding them in contractual abeyance, or persuading them to "update" their sound (see the careers of Nelly Furtado, Jewel, AFI, Joss Stone, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, The Black Eyed Peas, Mariah Carey, ad infinitum). Major labels are faltering, reporting huge losses and blaming college kids for the death of the industry as the result of illegal downloads, while independent labels enjoy sustainment. By not spending all their money--as well as the artist's share--on lawyers and managers who can interpret and enforce the relationship, independent labels only have the artist and themselves to pay. This relationship is not only transparent--as both parties deal with one another rather than each other's "people"--but it encourages frugality. By not having a contractual obligation to one another, the artist is free to leave, or the label is free to decide not to release any more of the artist's records. This freedom breeds a stronger alliance between the two (as witnessed by the longevity of most label/band catalogs), and if the relationship does end, it's usually without incident. For major label artists, leaving their label is much more complicated (see T.A.F.K.A.P. (née Prince) and his "slave rebellion", Donna Summer, George Michael, Rolling Stones, Boston, Linda Ronstadt, Radiohead, The Mamas & The Papas and Fiona Apple, to name a few).
All this is without mention of the fundamental difference between the mindset of an independent artist and that of a major label "star." That is, a career. The benefit stars enjoy ("benefit" and "enjoy" are arguable) is the option of making a career out of their music. This preferment is the twinkle that major labels put in the eyes of their artists. "You want to be a star, don't you?" The idea that you'd never have to work again, that there will always be a car (with a driver) waiting for you, fame and riches, supermodels to fuck, cocaine in the VIP room, an SUV with secret compartments for your contraband.... This is the type of shit that the media loves: the substitution of spectacle for substance.
The independent artist, on the other hand, usually works a day job. His music is a hobby, a pleasurable pastime, a diversion from the everyday grind. There is little spectacle involved in this arena. Music is purely a creative pursuit, not a career. (There is a good number of independent artists who live off their music, but they are probably the minority.) And since the independent artist doesn't depend on his music to feed him, he has a luxury his major label counterpart can't afford: freedom.
Sure, it's much sexier finding yourself the temporary poster boy of the blogosphere (e.g., an unwitting star in a leaked home video, high out of your gourd atop some ecstasied waif) than it is being "free" to make the art you want. There's not a lot of pageantry in the independent circle. And when the mainstream press sets their sights on an independent artist, to court or to cover, they invariably get it wrong by applying their wiliness, the entertainment industry mindset, to their subject's intent. This exemplifies the second fundamental difference between the majors and indies: artifice.
Generally (since we agreed to deal in indefinites for the sake of brevity), artifice is a device the major labels systemically use as a style rather than acknowledging for what it is--a distraction from owning up to a lack of substance. This is the basis for the pop icon. The effect that this entertainment industry device has on us, the listener, is to dull our inquisitiveness, readjusting our senses to that which is gloriously normal. As a result, our interest lies in the spectacle rather than the content. By way of a test, consider how it's common practice to deduce a pop star's shtick before examining their creation. Rather than considering the inspiration for, the content in, or the influence of a Gwen Stefani song, we first look at the package, the clothes, the Harajuku entourage, the luxurious luxury, etc. That is to say, we look first for obfuscation and rarely decide to look further. The American Idol precept: This hardworking high school student from Wichita who grew up on the music of Mariah Carey, overcoming a speech impediment along the way, is here to show America what makes her special. Text 5598 to vote for her now!
I argue that it's not the pesky college kids and their downloading that are robbing the record industry of its money; it's the lack of substance, homogenization as part and parcel of popular music, the obfuscation of "art" as "entertainment." The artifice has overrun the art. The entertainment industry offers very little that is genuine, very little that engages the listener; it's just sound and show business. This worked, perhaps, better in bygone eras, when "stars" were a novelty. Then, stardom could be something compelling, and the audience could revel in the popularity, delight in the fame. As all that fame and popularity became the benchmark, anything less that Absolutely Everything was disillusion. Naturally, if you wanted to be a star, then you needed to supplement your craft with some flash, something with sex appeal, danger, or mystery. Well, here we are, 40 years after Beatlemania, and all the good gimmicks are gone. Every "star" is put through the same ringer (hit producer, new sound, perfume line, song on ABC hit show, etc.) until they break or spoil. The aftermath--nudie home movies, gunplay, or greed--is predictable. Aren't you bored?
There's an argument to be made about the content of each artist's work, and it's an argument worth making. After all, this is the reason we listen to music: to promote thought, to listen through the sound and find the content, to find the inspiration for making the music and decide if that inspiration inspires us. This is hard to do with all the obfuscation. When a listener has to shovel through countless layers of bullshit to get to the kernel, only to find nothing of substance in the end, there's no real worth in a second listen. The standard for today's hit is homogeny. The industry banks on similar results (profit) from similar products (art).
An argument could also be made for those who just need some distraction. Those people who exalt the joys of television, and People magazine every week, and loafing, and the comforts of a good SUV, and quaint bars, and podcasts, and the responsibilities of the Alameda Parent Teacher Association, and God knows what else that's gloriously normal; those people deserve their distraction. I'm not here to argue that. Hollow music is perfect for them.
Most people have unique tastes that allow them to differentiate what they like from what they don't. There are varying intensities of observance; different listeners will pay different levels of attention. Some are fine with music as just sound. Others will consider the sound as part of the overall aesthetic of the artist. Paying attention allows the listener to discern the intention and inspiration of the artist. Paying attention also allows us to perceive when we are being handed shit disguised as sincerity. A genuine work of art will reward you for your time, every time. Bullshit music gets old.
I say, fuck the façade of superstardom in place of something genuine. Fuck accepting pageantry and show business in place of substance. Fuck selling songs to an episode of Desperate Housewives. Fuck selling out art, audience, and reputation to corporations. Really, fuck all that mess!
There is a crucial bit here, one that is usually lost in these debates. Accusing someone of selling out is often countered with, "Hey man, forgive the guy for knowing how to play the game and wanting to make a decent living and feed his kids." This is where it is important to distinguish between what us independent-minded people are against versus the straw man proffered by the apologists of mainstream culture.
There's nothing wrong with making money. There's nothing wrong with selling records and being popular. There's nothing wrong with success, popularity, and longevity. Really. That stuff is awesome. Period. Nothing at all wrong with selling records, finding success, and having fans. How else can we say it? Make as much money and sell as many records as you can. We're all for it. No objections here!
The problem is this: There is always some dickhead ready to tell you that Nirvana weren't sell-outs, and instead, they just decided to "take their music seriously." Or, Sonic Youth didn't sell out, they "beat the system." How about, "Iggy Pop is a legend; him singing for cruise ships won't change anything." Oh, and this one, "I love M.I.A.--she deserves to be just as popular as Madonna!"
The point that our dickhead is missing (and precisely the thing that makes him a dickhead) is that we don't take objection with success and making money; we object to artists who are willing to associate themselves with repulsive businesses and their repulsive practices. We object to artists allowing themselves to be co-opted by commercial enterprise, forever linking their art and their audience (us) to their merchandise and practices. We object to being bulldozed by corporations. We object to the herd mentality that makes all of this possible. These things have never been a part of underground culture. To dismiss it as anything else is bullshit.
Of course, the artists owe nothing to their listeners, just as we owe them no allegiance, either. We're allowed to love their music but get creeped out that they make commercials for Hummer. They are within their rights to behave however the hell they want, just as we are within ours to notice and form an opinion of that behavior.
To be clear, I am not making a case for the Goddamned Sincere Artist. That is to say, in order to be an independent artist, you don't need to be some Terribly Humble, Extremely Nice, Wonderfully Bearded chap. That's the beautiful thing about art (and please, forgive me for waiting until the end to get to the goddamned beautiful stuff; she deserves better); it abides perversion, malevolence, and indifference as well as a host of other untidy whores. It's a mistake to assume that independence needs to be pure and honest. Let them be fumbling, demented bastards who make it up as they go. Just don't dish me some inauthentic bullshit birthed from a marketing strategy committee meeting and call it a work of art.
Profit-driven music; behaving dishonorably; holding artists in contractual abeyance; artifice in place of art; treating music like a job; saddling art to the reputation of shitty multinational conglomerates and their oppressive, draconian culture; the deadweight of accountants, attorneys, managers, PR "people", all of whom have allegiance to money over creativity. These are the symptoms of the entertainment industry.
• • •
[As an aside, and not to put too fine a point on it, but there is a subtle distinction to be made regarding the cross-pollination between independent and major label artists.]
Let's get the consistent artists out of the way, those who stuck with either a major label (Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, U2) or an independent label (Fugazi, Silver Mt. Zion, Will Oldham). There is no confusion there, as they seem comfortable operating within their respective camps.
Then there are those people who come up in one camp or the other, and for some reason, switch. These are interesting cases, for several reasons:
First, let's look at those who start as independents but "graduate" to the majors (e.g., Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Metallica, TV On The Radio, The Decemberists, Elliott Smith, Beck, Granddaddy, SWANS, Bad Brains, My Bloody Valentine, Drive Like Jehu, DJ Shadow, Butthole Surfers, etc.). Everyone reading this is familiar with the story of a "little" band that signs a record contract and every attempt was made to "break" the group into the sphere of popular culture. The band/artist is usually subjected to all sorts of stress, demoralization, unrealistic financial goals, etc. The majority of these bands flop, or break up--or both, or worse (in the case of Nirvana, suicide; in the case of Metallica, staying together and making awful, awful records). For those, such as Beck, who "make it," the spoils are favorable.
Secondly, let's examine those artists who start a "career" in music on a major label and then move to an independent. Merle Haggard, Bettye LaVette, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Guy Clark, Tom Waits, and Radiohead all had commercial careers on major labels and later switched to independent labels. For groups like Radiohead, it's not that hard to behave like Robin Hood. They collected all sorts of fortune, fame and fans through major label exploits, and then used it to their advantage in an independent circle. For the others, like Ramblin' Jack Elliott, an independent label seems more suitable, as he's not likely to release a BMore 12" remix of "Git Along Little Dogies," nor is he likely to be a huge success in today's pop market. An independent allows these artists more room to be themselves without the burden associated with a major.
Finally, there is also a relatively new trend in independent circles that's worth noting. Whether it's to stay relevant in a time when "anybody can release a record," or as a way to compete in the new digital age, some independent labels are behaving like dollhouse versions of major labels: hiring publicity companies, licensing songs to television commercials, making videos, tour managers, radio promotions, signing contracts with multination corporations like Apple. This behavior contradicts the ethos of underground culture. With this comes a rash of temporarily independent acts (M.I.A., Modest Mouse, The Killers, Interpol, etc.) that are independent until something bigger comes along....
• • •
The independent movement began as a subversive counterweight against social order, an unrelenting rejection of mainstream culture; that agenda has never changed. The revolt against the reduction of all human inspiration to market values that was the genesis for yesterday's independent labels is the genesis for today's independent labels.
There's something to be said for a natural audience. That is, building something unique and letting inquisitive people find it. Underground music is not for everyone. I don't believe all music is universally improved by inundating listeners. It's typical business practice to find something that people like (vacuum cleaners, for example) and make sure every single person on earth has one. While I won't argue that this approach has worked in music (Beatles, Michael Jackson), it comes at high expense (Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson). Treating people like vacuum cleaners is shitty. Not everyone needs to know about everything.
Little kids everywhere will grow up with a dream of being Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake, and we won't stop them. The great thing about kids is their built-in rejection system. Kids question everything, and invariably, there will be those who reject the notion of the pop star. While their peers are parroting the popular, our little inquisitive antihero will be starting his own band, dreaming up his own songs, and looking for something else. The point is this: Business cannot own all musical endeavors. There will always be a record industry (though, these days, with a new "death of the record industry" piece each day, who knows?), and there will always be those of us who exist exclusive and in rejection of that industry. We have no interest in slaying the dragon of the record industry. We have no interest in their business. We have nothing in common with their practices. We are something all together separate from that shit. We are something they can't own.
Who is better equipped than those who were there, fanning the flames, to pass the truths to those who believe greater days are just ahead?
Thanks for reading,
--Bambouche of the Vanguard Squad