Reinventing The Wheel: Indie Labels in the Digital Age

“TV on the Radio? Yarr, there she blows!”

So Greg and I were discussing this last night, and as the UCLA student body’s foremost authorities on pop music, I thought our ideas would be worth writing up. (You can find Greg’s analysis here.) But first, songs.

Belle & Sebastian – “Song For Sunshine”: mp3
The Decemberists – “The Engine Driver”: mp3
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! – “In This Home On Ice”: mp3

Let’s start by making some assumptions so we’re all on the same page. Take these with a grain of salt, I guess – they’re somewhere between facts and anecdotes.

People download lots of indie music, and they download it illegally. In fact, indie music is the safest, easiest and most obvious music to download. Here’s why that makes sense. Think about it – the profile of the average indie kid, the target audience for labels like Sub Pop, Matador, Jagjaguwar, etc., is someone who is borderline obsessed with music. Talking about it, wearing band shirts, going to shows, hanging out at Amoeba Music, playing guitar – I don’t think anyone would argue that these are the kinds of people who buy Band of Horses albums.

The double-edged sword of indie rock is that there’s so much of it, and it’s impossible to keep track of. Everything all the time, as it were. Between Matador, Sub Pop and Merge alone (to name the indie Big Three), that’s over a half-dozen albums every month, and if you throw in MySpace and left-field, Pitchfork-approved Vashti Bunyan reissues, there’s no way even the wealthiest of indie kids is going to have the money to support every one of these bands or have the time or inclination to listen to all of them. As an indie fan with a limited budget and timeframe, how can I make discerning choices on what I want to listen to, much less support?

You could always place your trust in media outlets like Pitchforkmedia and Cokemachineglow or music blogs like this one, but then, the amount of what appear to be quality releases is still overwhelming. Even hearing it isn’t enough: OK, I dig this sample MP3 – do I think the rest of the record will be that good? Now, you don’t even have to ask that question. Just head over to your favorite message board and ask for a Yousendit download (“Hey bro, can I get a YSI?”) or fire up a private bit torrent hub and download everything you want and more.

Ultimately, being able to hear good albums in the expectation-free environment of not having paid for them is only going to help good bands. Yesterday, after Pitchfork gave the otherwise completely unknown group I’m From Barcelona an 8.4 and Best New Music status, over 1,000 people downloaded it from one popular underground bit torrent site. That’s 1,000 people who had never heard this band before, and outside of low quality MySpace streams, 1,000 people who wouldn’t have heard them any other way. Another by-product is that bands who put out a mediocre album or two get a lot of second chances – I wasn’t a big fan of the last M. Ward album, but hey, I’ll give his new one a shot if I don’t have to drop $15 on it. This has to be good, right? Well, sort of.

There’s one key thing that labels should remember about downloading: every download is not a lost sale. Especially if you’re an indie fan who downloads a few albums every week, you’re not downloading albums that you would ordinarily be buying – you’re downloading in addition to those albums. Has Belle and Sebastian’s fan base dropped significantly in the Napster era? They’re still making records. You’re downloading albums that you read about or your friend talked up or that are on a label you like, or whatever – it might just be something with a cool name.

The point is that there’s a certain degree of apathy in the average download, and chances are the average downloader may never even listen to everything they grab. Even if they do, if they don’t like it, they’ll delete it and move on to the next one. This is not someone who was going to invest in that album – those people are still investing, and I think downloading can only allow more people to discover the bands. While arguably, those people may have read a stellar review and decided buy the album blindly, I would contend that people are still willing to do this – just look at the jump in sales Pitchfork scores cause. Downloads have a much lesser degree of interest involved. So. If you have an album, it’s good, and 1,000 people have just downloaded it and actually enjoy it, you’ve created quite a bit of good will. The question is how to turn what begins as apathetic sampling/piracy into financial support.


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah sold plenty of albums, despite (or because of) the band’s debut’s widespread piracy.

One problem is that buying a CD is useless if you’ve already downloaded the album. Sure, liner notes are nice, but you already have the thing on your iPod and you’re just going to stick it in the rack with all the rest – unlike a vinyl LP, it’s not exactly a collector’s item. Like anyone who listens to music, I want to support bands, honest – you’d be hard-pressed to find a downloader who doesn’t have good intentions. It’s just that buying a CD is kind of pointless in the digital age, and so I wait until the band comes on tour so I can, well, buy the CD – or a t-shirt. I want to support the band as much and as directly as possible, so I’m much more likely to buy a concert ticket and put my money into the band’s hands at the merch table. Think of it this way. If you like an underground band enough to go to their show, you probably have their new record, right? And yet bands sell CDs at every show. My guess would be that downloading first and then waiting for the tour is a pretty widespread phenomenon.

The other issue here is that the digital world moves unbelievably fast. The core of the indie fan base who buys every big Sub Pop album is very Internet savvy, or has friends who are – and listens to a ton of music. We’re in love with a band for a couple weeks and then we’re on to the next thing – and when albums leak so fucking early, it’s very easy for them to get lost in the shuffle. By the time a release date rolls around, we’ve forgotten that the album is even coming out. “Whoa, that comes out this week? I’ve had it since January! Too bad I’m kind of over it.” Especially if the band doesn’t tour, there’s not a lot of incentive for someone to go through their top 10 list at the end of the year and run over to Amoeba to buy them all.

Sending out promos so early is an outdated idea that applies to monthly magazine like Rolling Stone, who do need the heads-up on an album for review, but when Pitchforkmedia posts 5 album reviews a day and MP3 bloggers go through bands like a steak knife through a baked potato, the publications themselves don’t need so much lead time. You don’t need two or three months to build buzz anymore. You need two weeks. A lot of bloggers (not me. Just sayin’) have gotten watermarked copies of the new Decemberists album, due out in October. It’s watermarked, which means bloggers can’t put it online in any format. So, what are we supposed to do – listen to it for two straight months and then post an MP3 when the retail version comes out? Put the thing aside and pretend we don’t have it yet? That hardly seems productive for the press or the l


Now, finally, this essay arrives at some ideas. I won’t call them solutions, because I don’t run the record industry and I have no idea how realistic this is, but I’m throwing them out there and as a fan or a label, you can let me know what you think and how this would affect you.

1) Capitalize on buzz. When Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s album “leaked” (about a month before the big Pitchfork review), they were already selling it. People didn’t have to wait two or three months for it to actually come out. Why not just send the promos out later, or even better, release the albums sooner? I know with the whole idea of a release scheduling and marketing that timing is everything, but if you want to get the downloaders to become buyers, you need to strike while the iron is hot – not two months later, after next year’s albums have leaked. A band like Swan Lake, for instance, is never going to build enough buzz to be a crossover success (no offense, guys, you’re awesome), so why not go after the target audience that’s sitting on the fence? Rolling Stone will still review it if it’s been out a couple weeks, and more importantly, people are much more likely to make an impulse buy during their honeymoon period than two months later.

2) Here’s the real paradigm change: accept donations. Say on your Web site, “Did you download this record? You should buy it, but hey if you can’t afford it, can you throw us a few bones?” Wilco did this when A Ghost Is Born leaked, but being the nice guys they are, they gave the money – a substantial amount – to charity. But they were on the right track. Why not recognize that downloading is bound to happen and not everyone is going to want to then pay $12 for your album? Since piracy is inevitable, give people who dig the album but not enough to shell out for it a chance to show some appreciation. People WANT to support music. I think downloaders would be much more likely to hand over a few dollars for albums they like but can’t afford or don’t want to buy if they had the opportunity. And while that could be viewed as legitimizing piracy, downloading indie records isn’t exactly stigmatized. It’s not going to stop, so why not open up a new revenue stream? If you’ve got indie rock lemons, make lemonade: If 1,000 people download an album and 100 decide to buy it, 400 more might decide to give a few dollars to the band – and that’s another couple thousand dollars in your pockets that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Just my two cents (and 1,200+ words). Thoughts?