“In the land of rock, the discs of sound are pushed by the weasels of greed.” – Anton Round (1)
I’m well aware of the fact that it’s probably unwise to begin an article with a pointer to another piece of writing, but I’m gonna do so anyway. What follows, in this article, will likely involve some pretty negative opinions about the record industry. I’m coming from a few different places. One of them is embodied in the aforementioned pointer: an essay by Steve Albini, described in his bio at the foot of the piece as “an independent and corporate rock record producer most widely known for having produced Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’”. This article, I think, is absolutely essential. I highly recommend that you read it in its entirety before moving on to the rest of this. It deals with the politics and finances of recording for a major record label.
For better or for worse – depending on whose perspective you look from – over the course of the past few months, many of the major recording companies in America have merged, consolidated, and mated. There are, I’m sure, many prudent financial benefits related to these corporate marriages. Frankly, I don’t give a shit. The upshot of the deal is that many bands are being dropped from their labels. Not that I’ve heard anything, but I would not be surprised to be told that many of the signed bands covered in these electronic pages were in danger of release. Let’s face it: in terms of pure Billboard numbers, these bands don’t exactly have much economic power. Ultimately, though, I think that all of this industry crap will be a good thing for the jam band scene — and again, let’s face it, there really is a scene.
“Midnight on a carousel ride / Reaching for the gold ring down inside” (2)
Getting signed, while not the primary goal, has always been at least a secondary goal of many bands. This cannot be denied. Why? What is the purpose of getting signed? There seems to be one answer that can break down in several ways: to sell more records. One of these explanations is to buy into a record industry myth — one will never make it big if one isn’t on a major label. While this hasn’t been disproved as such, I still don’t see it as a fact. For any model of a developing band, I think Phish is a good place to look. They’ve made it. They’ve gone through all of this stuff – in a recent economic and social environment, taboot – and things can be learned from them. Phish, I contend, could’ve made it just as big without Elektra’s help, though it surely would’ve taken longer. What Elektra did do for Phish was help them with another explanation of the selling more record thang: distribution. This is the biggee. This is what most bands cite as their reason for signing with the big boys. Only with the distribution network of a gargantuan company, they reason, can they hope to get their record in front of the eyes of every potential buyer in the country. To enter national chains of stores, to enter the country-wide distribution ring, is the gold ring for many.
“Life may be sweeter for this, I don’t know / See how it feels in the end” (3)
Again, here I must urge y’all to read the darned Albini essay. Record companies, surely, have done some bands a lot of good. Elektra has done Phish little harm. Overall, I might even say they’ve done them well. In 1993, however, they did force a little on the band. The result was “Hoist”, released in March 1994. In the “Phish Book”, Fish states that “both [Phish] and Elektra wanted to have something on the radio, so [the band] tried to write a Phish single” (4). Later, he refers to the single in question as “a blatant stab at bogus commercialism” (5). Despite the band’s qualms with it, they do seem to think – and I agree – that it maintains its musical integrity, for the most part. (That, and the fact that without a pushy record company, Down With Disease, a major jam vehicle for Phish for the better part of the tune’s existence, would not exist. All of this is not the point…) Phish, by that point in their career, did command a fair say over what they did for the record company — and were still semi-forced into doing what they did. Imagine a band that is just starting out. What kind of say might they have? Hell, you don’t need to imagine it. Check out the Albini article for some real life examples. Sure, record companies might be able to provide excellent distribution for a band… but if the content of the product isn’t the band’s own, then what’s the point, really?
“Gone are the days we stopped to decide / Where we should go / We just ride” (6)
Despite (still) struggling to get records into stores, independent bands in this day and age have it pretty good. This is remarkably easy for me to say, not being in a professional band. Still… they’ve got the ‘net, man. The ‘net, eventually, will be the downfall of record companies. And, if it doesn’t completely replace them, it will at least provide bands with a viable alternate means of direct distribution and promotion. As far as getting the content out goes, it looks like it’s gonna happen either through not-yet-fully-developed mp3 technology or through simple sell-the-damn-thing-over-the-computer distribution. Better yet, directness of ‘net has begun to replace traditional record industry propaganda machines designed to promote the flavor of the month. Real music listeners tell other music listeners what they think is good in a two-way conversation, as opposed to simply being told what is good. The technology that drives all of this is moving ahead at a breathtaking pace, sweeping many bands along with it for the ride. This is one more factor for bands to weigh before deciding whether or not to sign. Optimistically speaking, the indie side of the scale continues to gain weight.
“Who can stop what must arrive now? / Something new is waiting to be born.” (7)
Where to now, then? Things can’t continue how they are going now. Obviously, in addition to bands getting dropped, it’ll also make it that much harder for new bands to get signed. Something’s gonna have to give… and it ain’t gonna be the bands. New things have to and will be tried. The first, and more unrealistic, option is to attempt to conquer the traditional routes of the major labels — manufacture, promotion, distribution. It can be done. Fugazi, a punk/hardcore band from the Washington, DC area, has managed to stay independent for the entirety of their career while distributing their releases on their own Dischord Records. Indeed, there are scores of independent labels out there, some with good national distribution. Most of them, though, seem to be devoted strictly to varieties of punk and wouldn’t touch most jam bands with a ten foot prong. So: out of jam bands currently existing, who can afford to take enough time off to get something like this going? No one, really. Well… Phish. They’re doing it too, for their own extra-curricular releases. I doubt they have any interest in masterminding an independent label. For what it’s worth, the Dead did make an impassioned attempt at doing this in the mid 1970s, only to have it collapse fairly quickly. (8)
The something new, I think, is waiting – nearly due – in the ‘net. Over the course of the past year, much ado and general fuss has been made about the advent of online shopping. Until the technology becomes available – which could be pretty frickin’ soon – this seems to be the way to go. I know nothing of the politics involved with such online record shops as Music Blvd., CD Now, and Amazon, but I can bet that they’re vaguely similar to those of national real world chain record stores. The opportunity, though, for easy distribution has arrived. With more and more people buying CDs through the ‘net – and if bands could sell their CDs directly through these web sites – record companies could be phased out. This, friends, is cool. It means less middle men and more money for the musicians who created the music. The question now is how to get self-released albums onto sites such as these. That is the next step. With any luck, justice will be served and the same cut-throat capitalism that made record companies decide that certain bands weren’t economically feasible will allow online music stores to decide that certain record labels aren’t economically feasible.
(1) Steve Brown in: Blair Jackson; Goin’ Down The Road: A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion; Harmony Books, 1992; p. 47.
(2) Robert Hunter; Crazy Fingers; A Box Of Rain; Penguin Books, 1991; p. 45
(4) Richard Gehr and Phish; The Phish Book; Villard, 1998; p. 155
(5) Gehr 157
(6) Hunter 45
(8) For an interesting account of the saga of Round Records, the Dead’s venture, see “If I Told You All That Went Down…” by Steve Brown available in Jackson, p. 47.
Thanks to Grill Stites for kicking my brain into gear on this column.
Jesse Jarnow has decided that it is simply not economically feasible to continue completing columns at 3:23 a.m. the night (or morning) before they are due in. With that, he will soon begin a campaign – based off of his home page – to add some extra hours to the day. Which hours, exactly, will be decided on a daily basis by Mr. Jarnow and Mr. Jarnow alone. Good day.