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A Treatise on Independent Labels

Quick true story: In the early Sixties, independent filmmaker Herschel Gordon Lewis was making money cranking out low-budget softcore 'nudie cuties.' All was good until the major Hollywood Studios got into the act making similar films but with bigger budgets and European actresses, rendering Lewis' films obsolete. On a mission, he made a list of taboo subjects, and from this list the word "GORE" jumped off the page at him. His theory was, in order to compete with Hollywood, he had to come up with something the major film companies couldn't or wouldn't do. Lewis proceeded to lens the ugly masterpiece Blood Feast which jump-started the gore sub-genre and made Lewis both legendary and wealthy.

The same concept holds true for indie music and labels. It's both impossible and stupid to attempt to compete with the corporate giants, so why bother? By nurturing and releasing music that the big dogs view as lurking below the bottom line, budget-conscious indies can survive and thrive. The two best angles are to concentrate on hometown sounds or to specialize in a genre or genres. Some examples: SubPop hit the charts by presenting Seattle hometown punk and grunge. Twin Tone did much the same in Minneapolis, Go Kart does it in New York City. In the genre game, Alligator releases pure blues for blues purists, Windham Hill makes us drowsy with New Age, Epitaph slams us with punk, punk and more punk, Century Media does nonstop death metal, and Moonshine raves on with nothing but electronic dance music. The aggressive and often tireless fans of these styles look to these labels as reliable brand names they can count on. If it's on Wax Trax, it'll be the best industrial dance music currently available.

Indies can't afford to climb on the corporate payola wagon and send every program director in the country a VCR. Instead, they find the appropriate college radio specialty shows and fanzines that hype their brand of noise. Usually outside of the MTV in-crowd, indies send their artists out to tour as relentlessly as possible, taking their music directly to the people. It ain't easy, the pay is poor, the glamour factor low. So why isn't everyone doing it?

Most of you wingnuts probably think you'd rather be signed to the Humungo Corporation 666, but while you're busy getting lost in the shuffle you could instead be building a long-lasting grass roots following. Your indie release on the CMJ charts and covered in Flipside or Alternative Press is going to sprout more A&R vampire fangs then your self-produced demo and color Xerox photo. Once an indie label has shown the corporate boneheads (not widely regarded for their collective creative imaginations, let's be honest) that yes indeed your music does appeal to John Q. Bongload, you'll be getting treated to dinner on the Corporate Amex card in no time. If you look at the artists succeeding today, a good percentage of them began indie and graduated to the majors after a few well-received indie releases.

Indie success may eventually lead you to the cocaine 'n' silicone party wagon, but getting there could just kill you. For the indies to keep the lights on, budgets have to be hacked to the bone. Where I toil, we make albums for what the megas spend on catering. Promotions are efficient but not extravagant. Tours are bare bone affairs with six travelers crammed into a van that seats five, forget the tour bus. It's hard work, and the profit margin is minimal. However--and this is an interesting point that riles those whose life is spent computing market shares--the percentage of discs that make money versus those that lose is greater at the indie level, primarily because of this frugal approach to production and promotion. Why bother being indie, you ask? I ask myself that often, to be honest. For one thing, when Christmas rolls around, I don't sweat the man tossing me out like so much used junk when the annual cut-backs and layoffs hit. Also, at a major, I could never sign a band on the basis of just thinking they're great, knowing that their sales potential may be as low as 3,000 units. Forget about it. Instead, this Christmas I will happily be producing a death punk band called Penis Fly Trap. It's something the majors could not and would not do.


Bruce Duff is A&R Headcheese at Triple X Records.