November 2, 2001

Behind the Music

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Ever browsed through the new releases section at a local record store and wondered what went on behind the scenes to get these albums into stores? Ever wondered how Britney Spears managed to become a platinum-selling chart-topper and budding stripper, while hundreds of bands struggle in obscurity for years without ever getting any notice?

Basically, what makes the record industry tick?

Money. If I wanted to be overly-simplifying, I’d just give that one-word answer. But since I have a whole page to fill up here — and since it really is much more complicated than that single word suggests — I think I’ll expand a little.

Certainly, for most of the major labels, most of the time, it’s all about the Benjamins — signing the artists most likely to produce hits, releasing records sheened up with layers of studio gloss, and keeping those pesky costs like paying artists to a bare minimum. The rare exceptions, both within the major-label machine and on smaller labels, come when blatantly uncommercial artists get signed for their artistic merit rather than their selling power.

This is, of course, not meant to necessarily portray the major labels in a negative light. For a young band choosing between prospective homes, juggling the many advantages and disadvantages of major labels versus indie labels can be a daunting task.

According to Matthew Fritch, editor of Philadelphia-based music magazine Magnet, “Anytime you’re working in the major-label world of big money and countless managers, publicists, assistants, etc., things can become complicated and slow. As for distribution, major labels have it better. No contest.”

This reflects the fundamental difference between the indie and big-business worlds. On the one hand, most indies have a reputation for being more personal, more artist-friendly, and more liberal in terms of creative freedom. But the smaller stage — and smaller pockets — translates into less promotional power and less ability to get records into stores.

The advantage of the indie domain comes in the form of more personal interaction with artists. Just ask Bettina Richards, founder and sole staffer for the successful Chicago jazz/rock imprint Thrill Jockey.

“I wanted to be able to work with bands on their own terms,” she says. “I’m going to seek their input on just about everything, even the mundane.”

This personal interaction and greater artistic freedom is the main attraction of indie labels — and the reason why potentially major-label bands like Fugazi and Tortoise have remained staunchly in the independent domain despite offers from majors. But when it comes to getting records bought in stores and played on the radio, it’s the major labels that have a clear leg up on the competition.

Major labels have the near-bottomless budgets necessary to pay tour costs, mass-produce new releases, and heavily promote singles for radioplay. For a band more used to the pay-as-you-go, shoestring tours that most struggling acts have to put together, the more posh tours sponsored by major labels (complete with a “rider” of food and drink for before and after each show) can be a blessing.

Also nice is the greater promotional power of major labels. It’s pretty much an accepted legend that anything a major wants to be successful will be successful — and while this may not exactly be true, the larger labels certainly do have the power to get albums heard on a mass level. What can be frustrating about this is that they can be extraordinarily selective about which records to promote.

“Being on Up or K [two prominent Washington state indie labels], the people who put out your records do give a shit. That’s where I got disappointed with Epic, ” said Isaac Brock of the indie-turned-major band Modest Mouse.

The majors’ stake in radio promotion goes much further than simply suggesting songs to play, or sending demos. Often, spots on radio playlists can be purchased, as can supposedly spontaneous “fan requests.”

In a recent fiasco, heavy metal band Mudvayne’s label Epic paid fans of the band to vote for the rockers for the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards’ “MTV2 Award” — which the death-metallers went on to actually win, accepting their prize with fake blood splattered on their white tuxedos.

Poppy rock outfit Spoon (who will be coming to Cornell with Cake and Rahzel on November 10) know all about major-label woes. After being dropped from Elektra’s roster, they spent nearly two years in label limbo, their fantastic third album Girls Can Tell unreleased until indie-pop imprint Merge picked the band up earlier this year.

“That’s one of the things that’s most disgusting about