Friday, October 07, 2011

COLUMN: Labels

I like to wear a lot of hats in life -- newspaper columnist, telesales representative, disc jockey, boyfriend, son, homeowner. But despite my many interests, there's ONE pigeonhole that you can ALWAYS find me in, regardless of what particular hat I'm wearing that day:

I am a music nerd.

I blame my parents. Apparantly my mom used to take headphones, put them around her pregnant belly, and pump up the jams so that I could have a fierce little rave in utero. My folks had an 8-track player in their bedroom, and I can still picture my dad cranking Santana into floor-shaking terrain. My mom, on the other hand? Well, let's just say my ultimate point of mortification was when it hit 3:00 and I hadn't even made it out the doors when I, and the rest of my junior high, could hear my mom belting along to Barbara Streisand on the car radio.

From their love of music came my own. I was just a little kid when I got my own console stereo, and it rapidly became an only child's best friend. I was the only kid in middle school with a subscription to Rolling Stone.

But quite often, Rolling Stone would heap praise on bands that I'd never heard of, bands that weren't on the radio dial. And when my mom let me join the Columbia House tape club and I could choose 20 tapes for a penny, I devoted that entire penny to bands I'd read about in Rolling Stone but had never heard: R.E.M., The Cure, The Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, XTC, New Order, and so on. That box of tapes changed my life.

In high school, there were only two paths to follow: (a) Become a devotee of the mainstream and pick up a quick fondness for hair metal bands, or (b) embrace the counter-culture and listen to indie music. Sure, you'd be ostracized by the Bon Jovi crowd and get derogatively called a "corn chip" for reasons none of us have ever understood -- but you could live with being a corn chip because you knew you were secretly in a gang too cool for the cool kids.

Bands like Poison wrote lyrics like "don't need nothin' but a good time." Instead, I worshipped at the altar of The Smiths' frontman Morrissey, famous for refrains like, "There's a club if you'd like to go/You could meet somebody who really loves you/So you go and you stand on your own/And you leave on your own/And you go home and you cry and you want to die." Overly dramatic? You betcha. But when you're an ostracized teen in the throes of puberty, Morrissey was the only guy you wanted to turn to. Morrissey understood. Morrissey KNEW.

Some twenty-five years later, I'm not quite as depressed -- but my love for indie music has never waned. The music business is in serious jeopardy these days. With the decline of CDs and the advent of swapping mp3 files willy-nilly all over the internet, it's tough for a record label to stay in business. In order to best compete and stay viable in the market, the major labels have trimmed their rosters down to the core and put all their money on those artists most homogenized to reach the widest audience possible (see: Ke$ha.)

Meanwhile, struggling acts who don't have MTV looks or banal bubblegum choruses are ignored by the big labels. Their only hope is to get picked up by a fledgling independent label -- the little guys with no capital, no massive marketing departments, and no sales in Wal-Mart. Without indie labels, the world would have never known Kurt Cobain. Oasis might have ended up a bar band. Arcade Fire wouldn't have cleaned up at this year's Grammies.

With all apologies to the ghosts of Mr's. Holly, Valens, & Bopper, last Monday was the day that the music REALLY died.

You've heard about the riots in London, right? Well, what barely made news is that one of the buildings that got torched by rioters was a non-descript warehouse in the Enfield region. But this warehouse just happened to be owned by Sony and operated by Play It Again Sam, the #1 global distributor for indie record labels. MILLIONS of records and CDs were lost in the blaze, including the entire inventories of some of the world's most important indie labels.

I know what you're thinking: The stuff's insured, right? The answer to that is thankfully yes, but it could take MONTHS for replacement stock to arrive. Most indie labels operate on a shoestring, month-to-month basis, and cutting off all sales while they wait for restock could spell the end for some of the most cherished, ground-breaking, and under-appreciated record labels in the world. Among the labels hit by the fire:

- Rough Trade Records, the original home of the Smiths and one of the most seminal labels in the world. Home to The Strokes, The Libertines, Belle & Sebastian, and others. If you see a Rough Trade stamp on a CD, you know it's a great record.

- 4AD Records, the boundary-pushing, storied label that was home to the ethereal dreampop sounds of The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, The Pixies, and scores of other acts.

- One Little Indian, the label that found an unknown Icelandic band called The Sugarcubes and ended up making their frontwoman (Bjork) a global superstar. Paul McCartney recently left his life-long home of EMI Records and signed exclusive distribution rights of his back and future catalog to One Little Indian.

- Mute Records, worldwide home of Depeche Mode and Erasure.

- Domino Records, one of the hottest indie labels on the planet right now. Home of Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Animal Collective, etc. The brand new Arctic Monkeys single was due out this week - thanks to the fire, it'll never see the light of day.

- WARP Records, perhaps the most innovative dance music record label in history.

That's just a handful of the labels that have been all but wiped out by the fire. Without the continuation of these small companies (most so small they're run out of bedrooms, basements, and garages,) some of the greatest musical artists out there will remain undiscovered, unheard, and unappreciated.

I've never used this space before to hustle moolah, but this cause is well worth it. The Association for Independent Music has set up an emergency fund to support the labels, and they're urging consumers to hop online and make some digital music download purchases that will help these struggling companies survive until their physical inventory returns. You can go to to read about all the labels affected, learn what purchases you can make to help save the indie music industry, or just make a monetary donation that'll go straight to the labels.

Be a music nerd, lend a hand, and help teach those kids in London that the BEST way to rebel isn't with a riot. There's only one time-honored, tried and true way to rebel: Go out and buy a record that you just KNOW your parents will hate. Take it home, crank the volume to 11, and rock out.

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