Indie Stays Independent 

Online music revives the indie pop star

In this new age of satellite radio and personalized playlists, only 35 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds are turning to the once mighty FM radio to find new artists. Meanwhile, online music sales nearly doubled last year to about $2 billion, or 10 percent of all sales.

The reason, says Ben Zalman, radio promotion manager of the Planetary Group, a Boston-based music promoter, is simple. "Although I don't think radio's days are numbered, people are getting more used to the on-demand style of consumption. If someone is in the mood to listen to Modest Mouse, they no longer have to hear the new Red Hot Chili Peppers hit five times before they can."

While Internet consumption patterns have yet to render mainstream radio irrelevant, to once marginalized independent artists and labels, it is the radio. It is where they market and sell their music. Mariella Luz from K Records, an underground pop institution that has nourished acts like Modest Mouse and Beck, says piracy is "still a good way for people to hear new music, and if in the end, it means our bands have more fans, then I am not opposed to it." Asked if such "borrowing" has adversely affected overall sales, Luz replies simply, "No."

This response starkly contrasts to the Recording Industry Association of America. Representing major record companies, the RIAA recently sent more than 400 pre-litigation settlement letters to 13 different universities informing them of impending copyright infringement lawsuits against one of their students or personnel. Matt Zimmerman, an attorney from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization advocating citizens' rights in the digital world, has called the lawsuits "remarkably shortsighted."

So how exactly are the indies doing it?

As a genre, "indie" is an umbrella term for rock bands that release music independently in order to retain creative freedom. Considering the parade of lip-synching blondes and boy bands on major labels, it isn't hard to imagine that, today, a young Bob Dylan or John Lennon would prefer being signed to an indie label. And while perspectives in indie rock range far beyond radical politics, an inherent desire to challenge, or at least ignore, corporate culture remains. In Money for Nothing, a 2001 documentary exploring the commercialization of popular music, Ian McKaye, member of Fugazi and cofounder of independent label Dischord, said, "I have a lot of contempt for the record industry. To exist independent of the mainstream is a political feat, in my opinion."

The very mainstream iTunes store has created a venue where even the most obscure artists can exist—and even thrive—independent of major labels. For instance, in most record stores, "you have to pay to get the placement, the listening stations, and posters, whereas with iTunes, the promotions are [staff] determined," says Chris Jacobs of Sub Pop Records.

More importantly, 70 of the 99 cents of the download fee goes directly to the artist. With this more favorable exchange, and freed from the burdens of a major label's enormous cash advance, the independent artists benefit most. Apple's dominance of online retail—last year, they had more than $1 billion in annual sales—has created a check on major labels. This was evident in 2005, when Apple refused the majors' requests to raise downloading fees. If this benevolent giant's behavior is in any way indicative for the future of online retail, indie rock may have one less thing to be cynical about.

In addition, indies are leading the pack in ideas. Visit K Records' Web site and you'll find an online boutique of downloadable tracks at 50 cents a pop. According to the label, sales have been increasing monthly, and the site is adding more content. Meanwhile, Matador Records has adjusted to the fact that even its vinyl enthusiasts probably wear iPods and now provide codes so customers can download free mp3 copies of the vinyl they buy.

And though indie bands have always built audiences without the Top 40, the advent of Web 2.0 and resulting proliferation of niche markets make traditional means of promotion look inefficient. Stereogum, which averages about 13,000 hits a week, is one of many online communities that features user-generated reviews, features and videos of indie bands while unabashedly keeping the public up on the latest Britney headline. The Hype Machine, an aggregator of such blogs, updates hourly with dozens of new songs and their links to Amazon and iTunes. These user-generated sites not only empower listeners to decide what will be popular, but have the ability to do something a copy of Rolling Stone never could—play music. Hype Machine's Web site puts it this way: "We do this to let people discover new artists, fall in love, buy their CDs and go to their shows."

In 2002, David Bowie presciently said, "Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting."

If big business continues losing its grip on its music industry monopoly, perhaps we'll see a more democratic arena in which creativity can compete with commerce.

This story was originally published in In These Times.

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