Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Rambling Look at Independent Music

Photos from the Internet

I’ve been writing music reviews now since about 1975, when I was editor of the Scepter, the newspaper of Kingsborough Community College, which even predates my fanzine by two years. To quote Jeff Salen’s line from the Tuff Darts song, “It’s all for the love of rock and roll.”

Before 1975, I was more of a film person than one interested in music. Yeah, I enjoyed listening to it casually, hearing new stuff sporadically, and even seeing some amazing shows (Slade with Aerosmith opening, Roxy Music where I took my first-even in-concert photos on an instamatic, Alice Cooper, Melanie, Dylan, Jennifer Warnes, Mary Travers, Elephant’s Memory, Brownsville Station, and a nascent version of the Fast were some). But music was more peripheral of my interests.

What changed my perspective was June 20, 1975, a date I’ve mentioned on my blog often: it was the night Bernie talked me (dragged me, more accurately) into going to CBGB's for the first time. At some point I’ll tell that story, but for now I’ll stick to something a little more esoteric.

Similar type of backpack

Back in the ‘70s, even before my club-going days started, I wore a backpack, which I would realign the straps and wear over one shoulder. You may ask what is the big deal? Back then, not only did no one else do it, but I had to go to an army/navy store to find one. It was always khaki, and made out of canvas, which is a quite sturdy material…though I had to replace it every three years or so from wear. As I started to buy albums, it would make life easier to carry them around from store to store.

There are so many ways going to clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, and seeing all these unsigned bands who were fighting just to put out their own music, altered my way of life. True, I never ever punked out: the closest I came is when my friend Nancy lent me her leather Ramones-style jacket for about a year around 1980 (through an extremely hot summer, but I still wore it gladly and proudly). Other than the leather, I was already dressing like the Ramones (sans long hair) even before then, with a tee-shirt and jeans. One example of a way I did change is that I basically stopped wearing brand names, other than possibly Lees pants and PF Flyers sneakers. As the Jordaches and shirts with alligator icons starting becoming popular, I associated them with the whole mainstream bland sounds of arena rock, soft rock, and disco. I stopped wearing polyester (not that I had much, but people gave it as gifts on birthdays and the like), which back then was hard to do because it seemed everything was made of the crappy synthetic material. I’ve always liked my pants straight legged and belted around my waist, not flared at the bottom and hip-hugging (which always felt like my pants were falling down). Ironically, the CBGB’s shirt itself would become a brand, thanks in large part to Guns ‘N Roses.

An early Ork Records release

One of the big lessons of the period was how important independent music was. By the early '70s, mainstream media was busy with genres I would never be interested in, such as lame rock (Kansas, Yes, Rush), hair metal (Bon Jovi, Poison), and especially disco. When the bands I was listening to starting putting out their own music, or small labels like Ork and Stiff launched, it was easy to go down to Greenwich Village, especially record stores like Discophile on 8th Street, and just pick them up as they came out. By 1976, and especially 1977, it was much harder to do that, since there were so many coming out each week. Plus, indie records were usually much more expensive at sometimes 1976 $5 each. Luckily, in the cooler stores, independent and local releases were usually in their own bins, so one didn’t need to weed through thousands of mainstream singles to find the ones being looked for.

In 1977, I had been tired of having problems getting my writing about indie music published in college newspapers, that were only interested in what was on the radio, so I decided to start my own fanzine, FFanzeen (whose legacy is the blog you are now reading). As I started publishing, I wrote to indie labels to let them know of my existence. There was no email back then, so it took work to find the labels in the stores, write down their addresses, write each letter one-by-one, and mail them out, never knowing if it was reaching anyone (indie labels came and went quite quickly, much like many fanzines). Slowly but surely, review copies of records, and even some cassettes, started coming my way. And I respected each of them, even if I didn’t like a particular band, because (a) I knew the burden of work and personal cost of them on the bands/labels, and (b) I was aware of their rarity. Even now, many of the records on my shelf have not been re-released as CDs. Some of the labels did find some relative success after a while, like Alternative Tentacles and SST, but there are the smaller ones like Eat Records, which will probably never see a reissue unless they have a devoted label owner, such as Bob Richert with his Gulcher label, willing to pay for re-releases out of his own pocket, or until someone like Greg Shaw emerges to collect them and release it in a “Nuggets” format.

An early SST release

Now that technology has reached a level of where everyone with a computer can record their own music and release it by burning disks, indies are both more important and at the same time damaging. Burning disks are putting an end to many of the ways collectors function, with virtual music (such as mp3s) replacing the physical (CDs, LPs, etc.). This is shown in the demise of Tower Records, and Virgin on the brink of vanishing. Another result is also the disappearance of venues of live music. There is so much music being put out now, that the number of bands that can become popular through exposure is almost only available again through mainstream media outlets, such as the radio. People don’t know what to listen to anymore; since the music has become as disposable as the bands.

College radio is probably the most important outlet for the independent release, and it is being flooded by home grown sounds that they don’t know what to do with it. More music is being released yearly than can be listened to. At a college radio conference I attended (held by the IBS), one of the panels was about how a band can get someone at the station to actually listen to their output. The station managers and DJs were just overwhelmed, and most of it just got shuttered aside; even college radio personnel won’t even listen to virtual recordings anymore, only CDs.

An example of a recent indie release

And yet, through it all, I still applaude indie music. I revel in indie music. While I won’t write reviews about anything other than physical disks, I still encourage bands to produce their own sounds – though I beg of them not to do it by themselves only, and to have a separate person not in the band do the final mixing or engineering, because self-indulgence is the biggest hindrance to recording. I call it the “let’s use every dial on the console” syndrome. With the lack of venues, self-recording is a stellar way to judge where one’s band is at any point in their development.

I’m not sure where independent music is heading, whether it will continue to grow into an mp33,000, or if CDs / DVDs (or other formats) will completely vanish. I hope they won’t disappear. I like the physicality of the plastic of CDs or vinyl of records, much as I enjoy the feel of negatives when I photograph.

Yes, I am aware that it is the collector in me that wants the tangible over the virtual. The soundbyte of an MP3 always felt more disposable, and somehow less “valuable” than the physical disk. For me, the electronic song is more like a placeholder, sort of like the listening station at a music store where one can hear what something sounds like to make the decision to purchase, but not to cherish. It is okay for an iPod jukebox situation, but I want the box. I want to read about what I am listening to in a booklet that comes with the disk, or to admire the art of a record cover, not to read about it only online. I want to hold onto the cardboard album cover or CD case as I listen to it, much as a sport fan will hold a football or basketball while watching a game. Somehow, holding an object makes me feel like part of the process of the music, like the end product is special and meaningful. In my mind, virtual = demo, whereas the CD is the final product, even if they are the same sound.

Perhaps I’m old fashioned that way.

1 comment:

  1. Great Blog! It was nice to read about some of those classic and indie bands despite most of the names being new to me. Indie will definitely continue to live on, There will always need to be that "underground" to keep a counterbalance to the mainstream.

    I totally feel what you are saying about the disposable nature of the MP3s But there is soo much more flexibility to give rise to the indie culture that creates an inherent value.

    Take for example. It's a huge site with opportunities for Indies to share their work in part of whole to the gen pop. They can then choose from there to further support the artist on the artist's website (if available) or simply spread the word via indie distribution. (you)

    There is also Which is alot more on the mainstream side to "make a living" But it's also part of the cnet conglomerate. This site hosts a "free file of the day" feature but also allows you to peruse thousands if not millions of free files to download. Within that there are many mainstream titles that are free as well as indie stuff that you might not have heard of otherwise. Free is beautiful

    You will never replicate that feel for buying a new album, ogling the cover 2x2 x10 to admire it's art and credits but MP3s have made indie culture world-wide, accessible to the world. It's truly a beautiful thing.