Selling Out is All the Rage?

Independent record labels were separate from the larger labels but in order for them to support their artists, it was better for them to partner with other companies, who could provide the financial support needed. This can lead two ways, either they partner wants to have some power to control what is being produced or they are clueless and let the indie companies have full range. The latter was what happened with the indie company One Little Indian according to the piece, Indie: The Institutional Politics and Aesthetics of a Popular Music Genre, by David Hesmondhalgh. They partnered with an entrepreneur that had little knowledge of the aesthetics of punk. This allowed for the company to have control and keep to the indie aesthetics. But as with all things indie, after there is success in the indie world larger companies will do anything to capitalize on it. This is where the term ‘selling out’ comes into play.   

The aesthetics of indie music, as Hesmondhalgh describes in his piece,  are based on “mobilization and access.” The aesthetic if affected by what tools the artist and producer has access too. They were not always be able to work with the best equipment which created a sound that was not as clean as the main stream popular music. Being independent lets the artist to get their music into different countries and throughout our own country as well. It is more appealing to a larger amount of people.

I don’t think indie music may have the same kind of relationship that indie TV has institutionally, but I don’t agree that indie film does. Indie music and TV, in my opinion, still have the ability to be free from the restraints of the conglomerates; granted not overall, but they still have the ability to make out of the box, thought provoking, controversial media and still be successful. People, who has Netflix, are talking about Orange in the New Black or listening to a punk album. They have the ability to still reach the general population and be accepted, whereas a lot of indie films, unless produced by a mini major or the like, are not really heard of or brought to the eyes of the media consumer. It’s just not what people are buzzing about.

Business(men) and Art(ist) Don’t Mix

Music has always been considered a form of art which is a large part of why people appreciate it so much. However music is not only about an artist’s artistic expression anymore but has become a product of businesses. Its not that one side is bad and the other is good, both the record label and the musician help each other in some way, but considering that the musicians goal is art and the others is to make money. With the control that record labels inevitably have over the artists they’ve signed its not that hard to believe some change will happen with the artist and their work.

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One example of this label control changing an artists material is the young Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa who through out his career has worked independently and with labels. In 2010 Wiz Khalifa signed with Atlantic Records and began working on his first studio album called Rolling Papers, which was released the next year.This album did well in mainstream music charts but received a number of reviews saying that it had a very pop sound and it was lazy lyrically. Which I would completely agree with, his mix tape before Rolling Papers, titled Kush and Orange Juice, is proclaimed as the best work he has done and makes the transition even more apparent. He even states during a dialog section of his latest mix tape Cabin Fever 2, that he may have done it different, but that he was open to working with new people and labels. Another aesthetic change he has had to make is abbreviating the title of his second album with Atlantic Records to O.N.I.F.C(Only Nigga In First Class) for mainstream release.

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(why)lo Kiley

Over the summer, I saw The Postal Service in concert and while watching Jenny Lewis energetically bop around the stage it dawned on me that I had completely forgotten about her band, Rilo Kiley.  I was a big fan of Rilo Kiley in middle and high school until they broke up in 2007 and fell somewhat into obscurity.  Looking back on the records I enjoyed and the ones I didn’t, it becomes clearer that a shift occurred when they produced their last album with Warner Bros.  Even the band members knew it wasn’t their best work.  Rilo Kiley’s guitarist said, “I think that it could have been our best but I think we were under pressure. There were some of our best songs on that record but some of our worst songs. Like, ‘Dejalo’ and ’15’ — I didn’t like those songs. They’re OK, but we have a ton of old tracks that are better than a lot of the stuff that did make the record.”

This album, Under the Blacklight, was their first under a mainstream label.  Warner Bros. signed them after the success of More Adventurous, my personal favorite album from the band.  More Adventurous feels like listening to a compilation of deeply personal short stories, each with their own complicated characters.  For example, in ‘A Man/Me/Then Jim’, the song tells the story of a lesbian couple, dealing with their breakup and the suicide of a friend.  But alternatively, ‘The Moneymaker’, their first single from Under the Blacklight, doesn’t sound like their previous songs regarding sex.  It is more overt, less delicate. The album doesn’t have a defined sensibility to it.  There are sad songs, happy songs, quirky upbeat songs, which is normal for a lot of albums, but this seems to me an influence from the label to make the album more approachable to a wider audience.

Rilo Kiley’s transition to the mainstream might seem surprising, considering their previous distinct indie sound.  They created their own label, Brute/Beaute Records, to distribute More Adventurous, which was distributed by Warner Bros. But others weren’t surprised by their shift: some claim this was their foray into mainstream by producing songs that were catchier and more radio friendly.  They left their previous label, Saddle Creek, partly because the company wasn’t willing to pony up the cost of putting their songs on the radio.  Drummer Jason Boesel says in the linked article that the hope was to be signed to Warner Bros. even though he is aware of the risks. “It would be wrong to say we’re not taking a gamble choosing to go into this world. We’re taking a risk. These companies are set up to make money, while indies like Saddle Creek started out as a way to put out good music, which is a completely different thing,” Boesel explains.

Eventually, the band did break up due to, as guitarist Blake Sennett stated, “deception, disloyalty [and] greed.” So as I speculate, perhaps all members weren’t on board with this blatant move towards the mainstream.  Like Hesmondhalgh implies, major labels do influence aesthetic differences, sometimes more subtly than others, but in Rilo Kiley’s case, the label wasn’t the only factor in making the sound more mainstream and accessible.  

 

 

Three Indie Peas in a Pod

Indie music is quite similar to indie films and television when it comes to the relationship between institutional independence and indie aesthetics. We’ve learned that there are common aesthetic elements within the indie culture that are prized and utilized in texts (such as unique narratives, characters, and dialogue) because the media producers are free from major institutional guidelines. While indie music may not have these same elements, they still have aesthetic freedoms that come naturally from being independent from major industries (in this case, major labels and record companies).

Hesmondhalgh states that one of the successes of post-punk (and the growth of an indie music culture) was “the commitment to independent production and distribution [that it] transcended romantic notions of musical creativity.” Beginning indie music producers worked to be independent from both major producers (who knew what profitable music was at the time, and they made it) and distributors (again, looking for profit- they wanted to sell music that would please the masses for the most money). Without constraints of the industry, indie music could go in any way it wanted to. Indie culture flourished within these independent bands, whether in music quality, genre, lyrics/themes, and/or social and political commentary. This is similar to indie film and TV, where the indie culture grew from a collective agreement on opposition of the mainstream’s conservative aesthetics.

Indie music being unrestricted from major institutions has its struggles as well, just as television and film do. Indie producers want the creative freedom they earn from risking popularity and profit that they could’ve ensured with “selling-out” to a major company. Plus, indie bands have to constantly work against the mainstream and simultaneously keep an exclusive distance from mass audiences to stay in its indie culture. (This cultural ideal isn’t as prominent in indie TV, but for indie film this exclusiveness is an element.) But then how does an indie band or production studio make profit? This is where the shaky middle ground of “micro-independents” and “mini-majors” come into consideration of struggling media producers.

I think it’s very hard to be a true indie artist, since there are not many functions (that I know of) that will help an aspiring indie musician to gain popularity. (And could they even keep that popularity without signing onto a big label?) Separating from major industry influence definitely shapes aesthetics, just as with other indie media; but I believe the music culture keeps broadening so that there are more successful “indie” artists and less common and agreed-upon indie music aesthetics.

Indie bands can be so far from the mainstream that they could seem nonexistent. But that’s what makes them indie right? c:

Quantity and Quality Unite at Last

It has always been a struggle in the music business to find that perfect balance between commercial success and creative autonomy to maintain your artistic vision. Nowadays, it seems that more often than not a band chooses to “sell out” and join the “mainstream”. But what does this mean exactly? Also, is this anything new in the music scene or is our generation so obsessed with being different that we are making a bigger deal out of joining forces with the musical powerhouses than is necessary? For the answers, we must look back at “indie” music’s rise during the 80’s and 90’s.

Creation Records, founded in 1983 and headed by Alan McGee, became an indie powerhouse during the 80’s and 90’s in both the UK and America, largely through their successful band Oasis. It’s shocking however to find out that Creation Records has been aligned with Sony since 1992. This came as a huge shock to the music scene at the time and earned Creation the reputation as a “sell out” and “traitor” to the indie cause. However, how much did they really sell out when they joined forces with Sony? Well for starters they sold out hundreds of venues due to the global promotion Sony was doing on behalf of Oasis. They also sold millions of copies of their album. By aligning with Sony, they were able to put their music, which heralded back to classic rock, all over the world and crate buzz for both themselves and for Oasis. If you dig into Creation Records reasoning for joining with Sony, you will actually discover that in this case their goal to maintain an old school pop icon aesthetic by conquering the globe fueled their drive to become institutionally “mainstream”, a tactic that would be picked up by other indie labels such as One Little Indian. Hesmondhalgh goes into great detail how in case of both One Little Indian and Creation Records they allowed their aesthetic visions to drive their institutional policies of joining with majors in very successful, and lucrative, ways

In a way, this is no different than the movie industry that we find ourselves in today. In both cases, the final product can be created, produced, and distributed completely independent of the major players.  To what end, though? If you are simply making the text for the sake of art than sure, go right ahead. But if you are trying to introduce a new genre of text into the world or really want to impact people wouldn’t it be useful to use the established structure to deliver it to the masses for you? In both cases, success stories have been documented by independent companies who work under a corporation, albeit at an arms length, to both create popular works of art and maintain the connection to the masses who wish to appreciate their work (example Miramax). While complete autonomy cannot be totally achieved in this system, I believe this is a comfortable middle ground for indie artists, writers, directors, actors, musicians, etc. and should be taken up by all forms of media. 

Crossfade: the tale of two labels.

The presence of big business is almost always met with apprehension by those who hold the “indie” label so dear. Indieness is seen as something outside the mainstream so to take away the abstraction of the music defeats the purpose to many. Hesmondhalgh points out that there is a perception that major music labels take indie artists and make them more mainstream and there seems to be some credence to that claim.

Take the band Crossfade for example; they have been signed under both a major label and a more minimajor style label. Unlike many, Crossfade moved from the major label to the independent label. Their first two albums were released under Columbia Records, who was a major label eventually bought out by Sony. The first, self-titled album they released with Columbia was quite successful and two of the songs received airtime. At that time they had a somewhat unique sound but there was nothing extremely profound in their music, just a typical rock band. However, Columbia dropped them and they were then signed under the independent label Eleven Seven Label.

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With the new label came a more unique sound for Crossfade. In the past their songs had been somewhat heavy sounding but their lyrics didn’t always mimic the sound, but that all changed with the album We All Bleed released through Eleven Seven. This album possessed more edgy lyrics that tended to push the envelope. For example, the most famous song off the album “Dear Cocaine” deals quite bluntly with the difficulties of Cocaine addiction. Also, Crossfade’s style of music moved towards a heavy yet slower paced style that gave it a more indie feel. So in this case the indie label resulted in a more free and indie album than they had previously released.

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I think the label under which a band is signed definitely has an effect on the final product. However, the degree to which the label affects the band’s sound seems to be up to the band. There are plenty of examples of bands who have signed with varying labels whose sound remained more or less consistent. One of those bands is Devildriver. They were under a large label early on and slowly moved towards a more metal focused label but their sound has stayed consistent throughout the years. Overall there is a move to push a more mainstream sound under a larger label but it can be dampened by a stubborn, yet successful, band.