major labels: some of your friends are already this fucked MAXIMUMROCKNROLL #133  

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how the game works
by bobby s. fred

One of the great joys of writing a little zine is that I get the coolest letters in the mail. Yesterday I got one from Mechanic/Futurist Records. It was a form questionnaire. On it were detailed questions for me to answer along with conveniently typed lines to fill in information. Neat things they wanted to know: my name, the name of my publication (odd seeing as they had already written "Bobby Is Fred" on the envelope), my title 'if applicable', street address, city, state, zip, work phone, home phone, fax, class of my publication (national, regional, fanzine, or newsletter), frequency of publication (monthly, bi-monthly, weekly, bi-weekly, quarterly, or daily), my music preference (death, metal, alternative, hardcore, punk, industrial, or gothic), my closest "large metropolitan market", clubs I often visit, and finally this: "Do you watch MTV? If yes, what programs?" Wow! These guys must really care about me if they want to know this much about me! Each time I get one of these questionnaires I feel so honored, so special.

Across the top of the letter was written, "We have recently come across information regarding your publication and would like to know more about you." Where'd they get this line? The FBI? "Please fill out the simple questionnaire below and mail it back to our offices with a sample of (your) publication. Once your information is recorded in our database, you will begin to enjoy regular servicing." ...Servicing? What... for my car? Outstanding! I can't wait to enjoy "servicing"! I just hope I don't have to drive very far to get it. (If there's one thing I've learned it's that if something seems to good to be true, it probably is. I'll bet I have to drive clear across town to get to their service station. And after that I bet I have to buy something like an air freshener before they touch my car.) With that in mind, most of these letters just end up getting tossed.

One thing I really do wish though is that the companies who send me these things would start using friggin' stamps instead of postage meters. At least I could cut the stamp off and soak it.—But my wish usually never comes true.

Hmm... Mechanic/Futurist Records. I've never heard of them. A quick call to a buddy of mine who writes for a fancy music publication revealed that Mechanic is a subsidiary of Giant and is distributed through Warner Brothers. They currently have two bands on their label, Tad and Seed. I've never heard of Seed, but Tad?! As in Tad from Sub Pop? Looking back at the questionnaire I don't see anything mentioned about Warner Brothers. My friend tells me that Futurist is a scam indie distributed through Relativity. In fact, Futurist recently released a Tad 7" in an effort to bolster the coolness of the band before their record came out on the more commercial Mechanic label. The funny thing is that if I hadn't made an effort to track this info down, I probably would have thought both Mechanic and Futurist were just some misguided indies that had an NYU computer major for a publicist.

[By the way, I wonder what happens after I fill out a questionnaire like this. Who eventually gets all of my vital information? Does it stop at Mechanic in New York or is it eventually passed on to Giant and Warner Brothers as well? And if Warner Brothers gets it, is it then passed on to someone else after that? (Just wondering.) Somehow I'll never forget getting a call from the U.S. Army after I filled out a contest entry form at a Baskin Robbins with a bogus name. They wanted to know why a "Joe Strummer" at my address had never registered for the draft.]

It seems like one of the big trends these days at Major Label Central is to make everything look as "indie" as possible. (This comes on the heels of an earlier trend that tried to make everything look as "Seattle" as possible.) A while ago the big labels decided that the indie world holds great value as a breeding ground for the cash cows (make that sacrificial lambs) of the "alternative" future. They've gotten tired, however, of having to spend enormous amounts of cash in bidding wars to scoop the big fish out of the indie pond. Hence the creation of the scam indie.

What does "scam indie" exactly mean? The best way to define it, I think, is simply an independently distributed label that works in direct collusion with or is financed by a major label. A major label I would define as any record label owned and/or distributed by any of the big six distributors. Reprise, for example is a major label. Geffen (as we all know) is a major. Arista is a major. Island is a major. American (formerly Def American) is a major. These are just random examples. (Refer to the charts for full details.) A scam indie then works closely with one of these majors, but in fact is marketed and distributed independently of the big six distributors.

Here is a primer on some of the scam indies

Wasteland

  • distributed through Caroline
  • owned by Radioactive (which itself is distributed through UNI via MCA).
  • bands: Pray TV from Australia, Angelfish from Scotland, and Dig from California.
Wasteland's main release last year was a CD by the "Desperately Seeking Alternative" band Dig. The marketing plan for Dig is a good case to review. Wasteland released Dig through Caroline Distribution, while its parent Radioactive, followed up with an aggressive regional advertising campaign. Wasteland asked Caroline to sell 20,000 units in an initial 3 month period, after which Radioactive was to takeover and push Dig through the major distributor UNI. All of Dig's ads appeared with the Wasteland logo, and Caroline was eventually able to unload about 10,000 copies before Radioactive decided it was time to bump the project up the commercial ladder. Late this winter the Dig video made it onto MTV and the band put in live performances on several talk shows.

Frankly I'm really not sure what all of this accomplished. Did selling 10,000 CDs through Caroline really give Dig a hip, street-level vibe? Did the fact that all those ads showed the Wasteland logo instead of the Radioactive one really make any difference? Who the fuck knows. More and more major labels, though, think this is the way to go.

[Late last year Caroline released a CD by the band St. Johnny's. There was an unconfirmed rumor that Geffen Records had pushed the band through Caroline for the first few thousand units before the label decided to release their latest CD through it's own distributor, UNI. Regardless of whether this is indeed accurate, there will be many, many similar examples to come in the future.]

Seed

  • scam indie distributed through Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA) [the label has no relation to the band]
  • owned by Atlantic
  • bands are: Television Personalities, Nightblooms, Leatherface, Tumbleweed, Madder Rose, Monsterland, Nightblooms, Pastels, Earthmen, Fuzzy, Ivy, and Inch
In many ways this is a perfectly named label. By starting seedling bands out in their greenhouse, Atlantic is hoping that with careful gardening some of the groups will grow strong enough to be planted in the front yard. Craig Kallman, a VP at Atlantic, originally started a dance & rap label called Big Beat. He later started Seed as an "alternative" label. Seed tries very hard to appear as indie as possible. Seed is about to release a CD by a San Diego band called Inch. Below is a chart that uses this example as another case to study

ANATOMY OF A SCAM
  • Inch: a four member band from San Diego with two previous 7" releases, including a split 7" with Contra Guerra.
  • A&R scout from Los Angeles office of Atlantic Records sees Inch while down in San Diego looking for bands. Returns to L.A. & recommends pursuing the band.
  • Atlantic A&R staff greenlight the project and move it on to Atlantic scam indie Seed Records.
  • Seed releases a 7" to set the band up for CD release in April
  • Inch CD entitled "Stresser" released by Seed on April 5th.
  • Advance promo copies mailed to college radio and fanzines in Seed envelopes (with postage from Atlantic mailroom?)
  • All marketing and promotion is handled by Seed. Distribution is handled by ADA. CDs shipped out to indie mom & pop record stores.
  • If all goes well, Inch will develop a following thru radio airplay, alternative press, and national touring. Seed will pull every string possible to give Inch some form of street credibility.
  • Craig Kallman, VP of Atlantic, eventually decides whether or not to recommend elevating the band to Seed's parent, Atlantic Records.

Thirsty Ear

  • distributed by Relativity
  • independently owned but works in collusion with Sony
  • Sony has the "first option" to sign Thirsty Ear bands.
  • current bands are: Small Ball Paul and Queen Sarah Saturday (with several more in the works)

Vernon Yard

  • distributed partially by Caroline and partially by CEMA
  • owned by Virgin
  • been in existence about 1 1/2 years.
  • bands are: Verve, Acetone, Low, and The Auteurs

World Domination

  • currently distributed partially by Relativity and partially by CEMA
  • originally tied to Capitol (but now owned by "Japanese investors" according to a spokesperson)
  • label has been in existence for 2 years
  • label manager is actively seeking to disassociate the label from Capitol. All ties to CEMA are being severed. Future distribution to be handled exclusively through Relativity.
  • bands are: Psyclone Rangers, Stanford Prison Experiment, Sky Cries Mary, Low Pop Suicide, Elastic Purejoy, and 17-24

Beggar's Banquet

  • British label manufactured here in the U.S. by Atlantic
  • mainly distributed through ADA
  • larger Beggar's Banquet bands like Buffalo Tom and The Charlatans go through Atlantic to WEA.
  • other bands: Polyphemus, Radial Spangle, Rollerskate Skinny, Sundial, Hair and Skin Trading Co.

Caroline

  • both a label and a distributor
  • owned by Virgin
  • bands on label evidently are NOT tied to Virgin (for example Walt Mink recently signed to a Sony label.)
  • It is widely rumored, however, that the Smashing Pumpkins were originally a Virgin signing before their records first appeared on Caroline.
  • other bands: Idaho, Buzzcocks, Adrian Beleu, Peach (from Seattle), Seefeel (on Astralwerks), Bark Psychosis, Action Swingers, Drop Nineteens, Fudge, Bracket

More scam indies of note

Mechanic and Futurist I've already mentioned. Ecstatic Peace (Thurston Moore's label) is handled by Geffen. External is the scam indie run by London Records. Stardog is a joke handled by Mercury (see every Ugly Kid Joe CD). Revolution, a label run by Ron LaFitte, the manager for Megadeath, gets a lot of help from Capitol Records on distribution & promotion. - Upcoming releases this year include LPs by Big Chief and Truly. (Yes, both coming off of Sub Pop.) Medicine, home of the horror known as Green Apple Quickstep, is part of Giant which is distributed by Warner Brothers. Fiction Records is somehow related to PolyGram, but fuck if I know how. Bands include Eat, Black Happy, Bleed, and Peace Love & Pitbulls. There are many more examples out there but neither I nor MRR have even half the resources necessary to track them all down.

To play devil's advocate for a moment, it's important to note how the bands are treated in this whole process. In some ways this scam indie thing is a benefit to them. They receive a lot of attention from their downsized label, and they're handled by people who generally know a hell of a lot more about their world than major label executives. Political issues aside, this is better than being churned out with a shitload of the other random bands in a major label's loaded release schedule. Bands drop like flies in this process. The advantage to The Meices, for example, by coming out on External instead of London is that PolyGram's I.L.S. (Independent Label Sales) will promote their record for a year, whereas PGD, PolyGram's main distributor, would probably promote it for about four weeks. In another example, Thirsty Ear is only working with two bands at the moment. That currently allows for a lot of individual attention for those bands. However, if Thirsty Ear goes on a signing spree (and they probably will) the individual attention will drop off quickly.

The key to running a scam indie is making it appear as unattached to a major corporation as possible. For some bizarre reason a few of the labels mentioned above (like Medicine) actually print their parent company's name in small letters in the corners of their ads. If you're trying to appear indie, why blow it so blatantly?! (I can just see a Medicine guy running down the hall to the advertising division of Giant with this article in his hand.) By disassociating the scam indie from it's true parent, the marketing folks hope to powder the baby label with some kind of pixie dust "credibility." Hell, sometimes they can even fool fanzine editors into letting them advertise for half price!

Once a label is disassociated from its true parent, an alternative form of distribution is naturally required. This is where everything gets a bit confusing. Since none of us have the training and skill of Dr. Geffen or Dr. Warner Brothers, we teeny little zine writers have to conduct our research without the benefit of DNA testing. Finding the true biological parents of ALL the pseudo indies in the musical nursery is practically impossible. My preferred method of genetic detection is looking at independent distributors.
Labels distributed by Caroline

Alias
Antler Subway
Astralwerks
Big Deal
Blackout
Caroline
Cleopatra
Earthworks
Editions EG
Engine
Virgin Front Line (Reggae)
Gyroscope
Herald
Hey Day Records
Matador
No. 6
Off Beat
Plan 9
Play It Again Sam
Railroad Records
Realworld
Silent
spinART
Taang!
Thrill Jockey
Venture
Vernon Yard
Wasteland

There are three so called "indie" distributors that are owned by majors. They are: Caroline (owned by Virgin), Relativity (owned by Sony), and Alternative Distribution Alliance or ADA (owned by a group led by Warner Bros.) There is sort of a fourth scam "indie" distributor out there called I.L.S. (Independent Label Sales) which is part of PolyGram, but to my knowledge they only sell to one stops and other distributors. They don't maintain any direct accounts with stores.

Caroline, Relativity, and ADA all maintain and cultivate accounts with the smaller record stores and mini chains across the country. Each of these distributors handle stuff for both majors and indie labels. ADA for example distributes for Sub Pop, Restless, and Beggar's Banquet which are all often thought of as indie labels. They also handle the initial shipments of releases for "alternative" bands on Warner, Elektra, and Atlantic. This, then, is the grey area where majors and indies overlap.

To play devil's advocate again (and at least give the semblance of writing something that is even mildly well rounded) it's not entirely fair to attack real indie labels for using midlevel distributors. (See the major-owned indie distributor chart for examples.) The bottom line out there is survival. As anyone who heads up a big indie now will tell you, the memories of working out of a tiny office (or bedroom), barely being able to pay rent, and struggling to make it through the year leaves an indelible impression upon their minds. Indies, even some of the big ones, are always just one or two disasters away from complete failure. (If you don't believe this just talk to Daniel House at C/Z Records. This last winter was a disaster for him, and now C/Z is on the edge of bankruptcy.) Living close to the edge like that makes indie managers practically phobic about bringing in enough money, even if they are having a bumper year. Anyone who starts an indie label is going up tremendous odds. The ever watchful IRS reckons that about 95% of all start up businesses in this country fail within a few years. Yes, folks, that's 95%. If you have the guts to lay your dreams on the line and wager against those odds, you should do anything you can to fight to stay alive. If somehow you make it, just try to remember that you have an obligation to stay true to your scene. Using midlevel distributors is like taking medicine. Small doses can be good for you. Large doses can be lethal.

Labels distributed by ADA (Alternative Distribution Alliance)

4AD
Atlantic
Beggars Banquet
Dali
Elektra
Hollywood
Interscope
K
Luaka Bop
Matador
Mechanic/Futurist
Medicine
Mute
Reprise
Restless
Seed
Sire
Slash
Sub Pop
Twin Tone
Warner Bros.
Will

Back to I.L.S. for a moment: They distribute the smaller imprint PolyGram labels like Island Red, Mango, 4th & Broadway, Gee Street, FFRR, External, etc. I.L.S. is about to handle a record coming out on A&M called Deep Six, which is early Soundgarden-Mudhoney stuff that originally appeared on C/Z. External, as I noted earlier, is the scam indie run by London. I.L.S. is already hard at work pushing their just released Meices record.

I.L.S. sells to Universal or Big State Distribution who then in turn sell to the one stops who then in turn sell to the stores. It's hard to think of I.L.S. as a distributor because they're separated from the moms & pops by so many layers. It might be easier to think of them as the "scam indie promotion" wing of PolyGram because they interact with moms & pops more on a promotional basis. An I.LS. spokesperson said that they also sell a little to Dutch East, Cargo, and Twin Cities, although I couldn't get separate confirmation of this. (The bottom line these days is that everyone sells to everyone else. Some like to hide the connections, others just don't mind.)

Smaller stores that don't sell music in high volume (i.e. don't shovel tons of CD's out the door every day) usually go to a one stop distributor to do most of their buying. One stops are distributors that aren't tied to specific labels. They provide major label products to smaller stores that aren't big enough to have an account with a major distributor. A buyer at a mom & pop store can get a wide variety of music at a one stop, including both indie and major label releases. Because one stops are an additional layer between labels and stores, the store buyer has to pay slightly higher prices when using them. It's also important to note that majors only allow up to 10% of the product shipped through a one stop to be returned while 100%, of indie stuff can be sent back for credit.

Labels distributed by Relativity

Albertine
Bib/Unsigned
Capricorn
Century Media
Cherrydisc
Circumstantial
Collectors Series
Continuum
C/Z
Daemon
Earache
Energy
Epitaph
Guitar Recordings
Mammoth
Mechanic/Futurist
Metal Blade
Moon
Nettwerk
November
Nuclear Blast/Relapse
Pavement
Red Light/Grindcore
Relativity
Relix
Rex
Roadrunner
Rotten
Shrapnel
Southern Studios
Stardog
Streetbeat
Thirsty Ear
Touch and Go
Triple X
Tristar
Turbo
World Domination

Why in the heck would majors want to go to all this trouble just to access indie buyers? Heck, if indie buyers only make up a small portion of the music buying audience, why would a major waste its time trying to appeal to them?

There are several answers to this question.

In today's "alternative" music environment access to the indie buying underworld is seen as a highly necessary marketing tool. If a post-punk band with no previous releases gets signed to Polymer Records and Polymer wants to see that band go on to sell lots and lots of records, the first thing they've got to do is make the band look as cool as possible. The best way to do that is to try to scam the indie buying world into adopting their cause. As Karin Gembus at the highly respected indie distributor Mordam points out, "All of these major affiliated 'indies' that aren't really even indies are trying to get street credibility by channeling these bands in a certain way that people will think 'Oh wow, the new, next indie rocker. How cool!'"

Even if a scam indie can build just a little bit of a groundswell, they can use that as leverage to go after a wider commercial audience. Music that charts well at college radio, for example, has a better chance of crossing over to "commercial alternative" radio than music that doesn't. A major label release that bypasses college radio and goes straight to commercial alternative has no track record and hence no momentum to get it into heavier rotation.

I just used the example of college radio as a testing ground. Really there are four testing grounds: college radio, indie record stores, indie oriented magazines & fanzines, and venues like Jabberjaw, CBGB's, Lounge Ax, Covered Dish, and La Luna. A good scam indie will focus on promoting its bands via all four of these avenues. Think about that. A major supported label channeling its resources to promote bands in the four areas that are by tradition anti-major and anti-commercial. (You should be feeling a little queasy by now.) It's clear, then, why majors need to be covert about it.

A second reason that majors want to try to run their own indie labels is that it allows them to acquire "talent" (i.e. bands) at cheaper prices. Major label accountants point out that the costs of signing unknown bands and marketing them through scam indies are less expensive than having to buy talent from, for example, Sub Pop or Taang. Plus with the scam indie they can spread costs out over several baby bands at once and hope that two or three eventually hit. If it works it beats the shit out of making a half million dollar bet on one horse.

Sometimes majors prefer to foster distribution relationships with larger indies, like Mammoth, Matador, and Sub Pop. This provides a major with access to pre-formed "packages" of indie talent. Any form of access to the indie talent pool is considered highly valuable. [Note: Surprisingly it's hard for me to strongly criticize Matador in this particular case. Rarely has an indie label taken the kinds of chances on innovative bands that Matador has over the last few years and survived. Matador is the one label I would ever reprieve from complete vilification in this area, like what I think really makes a difference anyway!]

Yet another reason for doing the scam indie thing is that if a band does go on to do bigger and better things on the parent label, the company already has the band's entire back catalogue. Since catalogue is king, it pays to be the kingmaker.

It's worth noting here that when a major picks a band up from a true indie label, they often try to grab the band's catalogue as well. Sometimes they buy it, and sometimes they steal it. I wonder if Lookout! has been having any problems with Warner Bros. about Green Day? I'd bet my last dollar that Warner Bros. has taken a very close look at Larry's rights to Kerplunk and 39 Smooth. (Think of Warner Bros. as the size of planet earth and Lookout! the size of a tennis ball.)

One horror story that comes to mind here is Subterranean's run in with Def American over Flipper. When Def American signed Flipper a couple of years ago, Subterranean was completely shut out. Flipper in essence "sold" their catalogue to Def American without ever asking their former label if it was okay. Since Steve, who owns Subterranean, had spent a lot of money, time, and energy helping them build that catalogue, he naturally protested. When he tried to go to Rick Rubin, Def American's president, with his claim, he was met with a swift legal kick in the head from a Warner Brothers lawyer. All in all, Steve's former relationship with Flipper probably cost him about $10,000 in unrecouped recording costs and legal fees. Rubin could easily have reimbursed Steve for his losses, but chose instead to shut him out. "Thanks for helping build the band. Now go fuck yourself." Jeez, that's major label gratitude for you.

Yet another horror story is the one about Geffen trying to steal Urge Overkill's releases away from Touch and Go. (If anyone ever has any doubts about the highly corrupt nature of major labels, look into this story. You'll find the Geffen folks giving a whole new meaning to the word 'evil.')

Finally, with a scam indie a major can spend small amounts of money on the initial record simply to see if the indie buying underworld even likes the band. Radioactive I don't think even bothered to try this with Dig. The Radioactive execs blew Dig through their Wasteland scam and headed the band right on to major distribution without ever sticking their finger in the wind. The fact is Dig sucks. Dig sucks really badly. I guess Radioactive thinks if they spend enough money on the band they can make it go. In contrast I doubt Sony would take a Thirsty Ear band to the next level unless they'd really proven themselves in the indie environment. I'm also guessing the same about Seed. We'll see. Look for what happens with Inch from San Diego.

The bottom line, of course, is that majors want to have farm teams in every music format. The Nirvana explosion woke majors up to the "new" format and commercial viability of post-punk. Now the majors are scrambling to get their farm teams in place. (I was hoping to write this whole article without ever using the "N" word, but shit, I just couldn't help it. Okay... Nirvana ...NIRVANA! Okay? There it is! I said it!)

Majors have decided to push every band they can through the relatively small door that Nirvana opened. (If you don't think it's small, look at the back page of a Rolling Stone to see some sales figures. The March 24th issue - ironically the "College Issue" ' shows one punk oriented band in the top 40 sellers. Yes, it's Nirvana.) To delve deeper into this whole revolting "alternative" thing, there are 11 releases on that chart that are placed in this bizarre category. They are: Alice In Chains, Counting Crows, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, 10,000 Maniacs, Stone Temple Pilots, The Cranberries, Gin Blossoms, Nirvana, the Sleepless In Seattle soundtrack, and The Breeders. Two years ago, when the term "alternative" was first minted, maybe 5 of those releases would have been called by that name. Clearly any form of criteria for membership in this amorphous category is fading away.

Some of you may be confused by what I have just written, especially after you read recent articles about how Soundgarden entered the charts at #1 with their latest release and how this proves to the music industry that "alternative" is a major force as a music format, etc. etc. Yes, I agree that this thing called "alternative" is hot and that bands lumped in there are indeed selling very well. What I do NOT agree with is that this is an "explosion of punk" thing. It's clearly not. Majors and the rest of the mass media want you to believe it's an explosion of punk thing. In fact major magazine writers have gotten to the point where they now mention the punk explosion thing almost parenthetically because it's supposed to be so obvious. (Ex: Rolling Stone, April 7, 1994, p. 16, 3rd column, the writer starts a sentence with, "In fact, now that punk and rap rule the charts...") What?! What the fuck are you talking about?! Look at your own fucking charts! (Or as the Jerky Boys say in their best Indian accent, "Look at your fucking food! Maybe you poison everybody!")

Every true punk or post-punk band that is signed to a major is simply a means of major label identification with the movement Nirvana brought to the surface. Even if the Melvins, for example, only sell a few thousand records for Atlantic, the "alternative" by association factor provides highly desired marketing points for the label. There is no way that Atlantic expects Bad Religion to sell millions of records. I'm sorry, but they just don't. They do, however, expect Bad Religion to help bolster the image of their label in the "alternative" marketplace, and thereby foster "coolness by association" for every other band on the label. Think about the dolt at one of those jackass college radio stations somewhere that only plays major label music. "Hey, look, the Stone Temple Pilots and Bad Religion CDs just came in!" Browsing through the college playlists in the February 21st issue of the College Music Journal, I came across a perfect example: WMLN in Milton, Massachussetts. The records that charted in their top 35 that week were by these artists: Counting Crows, Possum Dixon, James, Therapy?, Redd Kross, Crash Test Dummies, Tori Amos, Connells, KMFDM, Buffalo Tom, Afghan Whigs, US 3, Pearl Jam, Alternative NRG, In The Name Of The Father soundtrack, Wade, Smashing Pumpkins, Candy Planet, Shonen Knife, Melvins, Candlebox, Pillbox, Ultras, Jawbox, Dead Milkmen, Enigma, Fleshtones, Lemonheads, Die Monster Die, That Dog, Green Day, Dig, Breeders, Nirvana, and Plastikman.

Sorry to bore you with the minutia here, but I could not have made up a better example than this playlist. Five maybe six bands from the post-punk indie world mixed in with this other shit. Who'll end up selling more do you think, Jawbox or the Counting Crows? The Melvins or the Lemonheads? In a sense it can all be distilled to a Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam battle. (And folks it's Pearl Jam by about 50 lengths.) If you don't think Pearl Jam is trying to get a ride off punk rock, I would refer you to that issue of Entertainment Weekly about a year back when Pearl Jam graced the cover. If you look at Eddie Vedder, you'11 see that he wrote "Fugazi" in black marker on his forearm. (...Hey! Yeah! , Who knows, maybe Pearl Jam will start covering punk tunes like Guns 'N Roses!)

At KROQ in Los Angeles playing Nirvana is probably still considered "taking a risk." If we could plant hidden microphones in KROQ's marketing meetings we'd probably hear something like this: "Okay, next week we'll play Jawbox about 5 times to bolster our credibility ...wow, aren't we risk takers! Then we'll play Counting Crows, James, Crash Test Dummies, Tori Amos, Buffalo Tom, Pearl Jam, Candlebox, and the Lemonheads about a 100 times each. Yep, that should do the trick!" The fact that Jawbox might be heard on KROQ at all is positively shocking. Who the fuck would ever have thought of hearing a Dischord band on KROQ! It was only a little while ago that the KROQ music director had never even heard of Fugazi (as was reported in bobby is fred #1). By the way, guess which label put out the new Jawbox CD? Yes—Atlantic .... Is Atlantic slowly replacing Geffen as the main source of evil in the world?

In the end, even if a major loses money on a scam indie, to them that's okay. Most majors probably expect to lose money on these ventures. It's simply seen as a necessary cost of marketing bands in today's "alternative" environment. More than anything this is the precise reason that scam indies should be reviled by anyone who believes in what used to be called independent music. Majors have very deep pockets. Their ability to lose money on scam indies is a cut throat strategy. By soaking up the talent pool at the lowest levels and by muscling in on independent distribution, majors are trying to push the little guys out of the game. (Isn't Wal-Mart facing basically this same criticism as they run small town department stores into the ground?)

Fortunately there's no way they can push the little guys out of the game. The deeper major labels invade the indie world, the deeper the indie world will go. Even if major entertainment conglomerates find a way to make indie labels illegal, future punkers will find a way to continue to subvert the system.

Sadly, if Green Day hits it big on Warner Bros. (and they probably will) it'll provide yet another boost to this entire process. In September of '93 I remember seeing Green Day open for Bad Religion at The Palladium in Hollywood. I couldn't believe how many people turned up. Wow. Green Day playing in front of thousands of people. I went up in the balcony and ran into a guy named Rob who said he produced the Green Day record for Warner Brothers. I think he mentioned something about an A&R gig there too. I said wow, the Green Day record will probably do pretty well. He said yeah, he hoped so. (I thought I saw the color of Nirvana flash through his eyes.) Later he introduced me to his dad, Bob, who he said manages Paula Abdul and who used to manage Prince. As he shook my hand, the image of Joe Pesci from Goodfellas flashed through my mind. "Dance that drink back to me, Spider!" I watched in fascination as he looked down at Green Day and nodded his head with approval. Wow, maybe someday Green Day will get to open for Paula .... After a while Rob introduced me to his sister. "If you know of any good unsigned bands around, my sister could really use one. She works over at Madonna's label, Maverick." I cheerfully suggested Fugazi, but she had never heard of them. I excused myself and sulked back downstairs. Shit. Why didn't I say Zappa?

Sometimes I think that money and power have so corrupted everything that big companies now want to own all forms of art and music that can be used for commerce. Even if they can't own the music, they will always want to control access to it (i.e. the delivery system). When Nirvana rocketed into the stratosphere two years ago it was the clarion call for every major label in sight to rush into the scene to try to grab everything that breathed. The wild thing about this whole process is that majors are going way overboard in their exuberance. Since none of them have the proverbial crystal ball (and in fact it just doesn't exist), each band they sign is a veritable crap shoot. Think about this. Every single big label out there has grabbed a handful of post-punk oriented bands. Only 1 out of 20 of these bands is ever going to sell enough records to make a major happy. Couple that with the fact that horrible "commercial alternative" bands like Dig are being pushed in the faces of people currently buying everything from The Breeders and Frank Black to Nine Inch Nails and Helmet. Shelby Foote often used to say, "There are too many pigs for the teats." In this case there are way too many teats for the pigs. Something will have to give.

You as consumers have three choices (actually four, but the fourth will get you a life sentence.)

  • One: Buy into this whole process.
  • Two: Passively resist. Take the time to learn what forms the serpentine mass media are taking and avoid them as best you can.
  • Three: Actively resist. Write a fanzine. Start a label. Make your own films.
  • Four: Violently resist. Find David Geffen's home address and pay him a Halloween visit in the style of Eric & Lyle Menendez. The downside is that you'll spend the rest of your life in jail and possibly be executed by the state. The upside is that you'll graduate to matyrdom (...If you do go this route it means, however, that you'll have played into the hands of the mass media because they'll be able to sell tons of advertising on your story. For godsakes don't do it!)
Finally I'd like to make a few more points about the mass media. (In fact I plan to really go off the deep end here.) The other night I happened to see a show called Dateline on NBC. One of the features of that night's program was an in-depth personal interview with Jeffrey Dahmer. Over the course of the interview I was shocked to see a casual discussion of torture, cannibalism, and dismemberment. Jeffrey Dahmer sat calmly in a chair while the NBC reporter sat across from him and coaxed him through the gory details of his past. Everything was very casual and quite polite. Dahmer quietly discussed how he had taken young teenage boys into his apartment, drugged them, and then drilled holes in their heads so he could pour acid into their brains. He talked about how he had carried a young boy's head and genitals around in a box as a prized personal possession. I was completely horrified by what I saw and heard during that broadcast. My God. NBC had touted this interview with Dahmer as a great "exclusive" for their network.

Two points immediately come to mind about this: First, I find it strange that a lot of people are so quick to criticize lyrics in music and so slow to grasp the horrors in movies and television. (I refer you to the 1985 Congressional hearings on musical lyrics featuring fine testimony from members of the Parents' Music Resource Center.) The "Jeffrey Dahmer Show" aired at about 8pm, just in time for little Johnny to clean his dishes, flip on the tube, and hear a story about a man who sodomized the dead body of a fourteen year old before he cut it up and cooked it. Great. Just great. Secondly, and sticking to the point of this article, if the future of news and entertainment lies in the hands of the coming superconglomerates and if the current trend in mass media is sensationalism, what does this say about the state of the coming information age? What does this say about the power of ratings, the power of gaining an audience, and the power of influencing our minds? Isn't it ironic that just a little while ago it was thought that underground record labels were semi-subversive? What about the sensationally driven entertainment conglomerates? I ask you what is more subversive, the glorification of psychotic and criminal violence by the mass media, or listening to a punk rock band sing about the angst of everday life? Even GG Allin was incredibly tame compared to Jeffrey Dahmer. Sometimes I just see this whole values thing as a top down problem and not a bottom up problem.

The real point here is that it is the major entertainment companies as a whole are far more responsible for creating our Pottervilles than any of us as individuals are. With all of their power and all of their access why don't they use more of their vast resources for the force of good? It seems that the type of person who gets ahead at a major record label is the one who is perfectly ready to do anything it takes, good or bad. Is "good" not good for business? Why do major record labels churn out so many truly awful people? These are folks who have no problem telling the truth and being honest ...if it's to their advantage. They also have no problem lying and being deceitful ...if it's to their advantage. And we as individuals in society are constantly berated by the mass media for the decay of family values. Let me see if I've got this straight. We, the sheep-like consumers, we, the end-users of all that mass media, we are responsible for the decay in family values?

On an important animal rights note, too many of us now refer to record label A&R people as "weasels." That's not really fair to weasels. Let's be nice to weasels and not give them such a bad rap by associating them with the lowest form of life on the planet.

These days A&R people seem more like chameleons. They disguise themselves in all sorts of ways in order to run intelligence gathering missions into the punker world. A&R people know that punker kids will naturally resist their probing questions at clubs and various other congregation points. Beware, though! A&R people come in all different forms. They are disguising themselves in a multitude of ways in order to try to gain your trust.

When major labels aren't sending covert agents out into the punker world, they're "buying" agents from and the punker world. The owner of a prominent underground club in L.A. is now an A&R rep for Priority Records. Thirsty Ear snatched up a knowledgeable guy from indie bastion KXLU in L.A. and shipped him out to their HQ in New York. There's a girl at Columbia Records in NY who spent years volunteering at Gilman before she was eventually co-opted. She's now known to be calling fanzine editors across the country offering to finance their publications in return for unspecified favors. Finally, I come to the curious case of the DJ's at KCRW here in L.A. It seems that several of them are agents for major labels. Heck, the friggin' music director, Chris Douridas, is on the payroll at Geffen as an A&R rep! Is that ethical? Wait, is that even legal? There's a girl there named Lara Hill who sent me a form letter recently. She does a radio show at KCRW called "Subterranean Soundwaves." What the letter doesn't say is that her show only airs once a month and that her real job is the A&R manager for WEA distributed EastWest Records. Great. Just great.

To sum up the long tirade that I have just spilled forth on these pages, I turn again to the rapidly growing media conglomerates. In advance of the upcoming conversion to the "information super-highway" system, entertainment companies are being snatched up like flies by cable giants and baby bells. There's a massive rush to grab the remaining "software" companies left behind after Japan's two giants, Sony and Matsushita raided Hollywood. The Japanese want software for the entertainment systems they manufacture. But the cable giants and the baby bells have a better idea. Fuck CD players. They'll transmit everything you need directly to you via fiber optic cable .... Do you think they'll let small indie labels sell and transmit music through this system? At what price?

And you think entertainment companies are big now. Just wait!

  • Report from the future [again going off the deep end]: Owning cable boxes will be mandatory. Owning a record player will be punishable by 10 years in the new superjail system. Owning a CD player at first will only be punishable by a small fine. (We don't want to piss off the Japanese.) But soon we'll throw you in one of the superjails for that too.
  • Report from way off into the future: We'll feed a strand of the information super-highway directly into the superjails. Each prisoner will be forced to wear a virtual reality visor, and we'll reprogram them, starting with their early childhood experiences...Yes! Steve Austin, man in prison. We can retard him ...I mean rebuild him! We have the technology to build the world's first retarded man. ...Oh forget it.
In the final analysis there are just two words that best describe major entertainment companies: corrupt and evil. Any organization that puts making money ahead of human value is inherently evil. By attempting to corrupt the street level expressions of our music, the entertainment conglomerates are corrupting our very culture and hence our very lives. True independent record labels, independent publications, and all other independent forms of expression are the final speed bumps on the coming superconglomerates' drive toward total media domination.

The Faustian world of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is now arriving on track 5 .... (whistle)

I say, "All abort!"

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