Space Flyer topped out at #29 on the CMJ charts.  It made no sense to me; I couldn’t figure out how they did it.  It was, essentially, the same music we had released on two singles and a compilation, and the same music that the band had released on their own demo tapes.  Something about packaging it up nicely and putting it in the hands of an indie radio promoter, then sending it out to the same people who had already received it, made it worth playing on a larger scale.

I couldn’t imagine that the new label pressed that many more copies than I would have; where we would have made a thousand, perhaps they made 2,500.

It was, of course, the phone call that did it.  The call from the indie radio promo cat, the person who called college radio every week, hyping a handful of records that they were being paid to promote by some label who had the cash to do it.

I wondered how many records made it to the top of the charts that way.  And I realized that they all did.

Vaguely, I began to think that college radio should make indie radio promoters against the rules.  Being left of the dial, they couldn’t accept commercial advertising.  They could accept underwriting, but underwriting had very strict governance regarding what could and couldn’t be said in the context of an underwriting spot.

So they refused commercial advertisements, but then spun records that were hand-fed to them by some record company shill being paid in a six-week engagement by some indie label somewhere.  In that context, the songs were just commercials.

At some radio stations, program directors would actually seek out new music, taking money from a music budget to record stores, searching out the most obscure, indie releases they could find.  They would supplement their music budgets with freebie copies from record labels, and all those things would swirl together into one super-cool record library, filled with the weirdest and most eclectic assortment of underground music you could hear anywhere.  WFMU, of course, was legendary for this.  Their DJs would play the music they liked, and because the DJs were hand-chosen for their depth of musical knowledge, there was nobody on WFMU spinning Smashing Pumpkins records in 1994.  They didn’t have to.  The people listening to WFMU didn’t listen so they could hear Smashing Pumpkins – they listened so they could hear Doo Rag and Scrawl.

The CD was named “Screamer of the Week” in NME in the UK, and received some pretty high-profile press coverage as well.

I marveled at it – because it wasn’t anything that the new label had that I didn’t, or that the owner of March Records didn’t.  All three of us found this band, and all three of us wanted to put out their CD.  We all had the same taste, the same ability to have found this band.

The new label, however, had guaranteed distribution from a much larger label, and the bankroll to hire an indie promoter to “work” the record.  Operationally, they made the same sorts of mistakes we did – they screwed up the art, they wrecked the masters – but they had that six-week engagement that we could not afford.

And that’s what put them on the charts.

The record rocketed right up, and then, just as quickly, rocketed right down.  Because there are lots of people who can afford that six-week engagement, and a mindless college radio program director is going to listen to one of them on Monday, but a different one on Tuesday.  It’s like a machine, manipulating the ears of hipsters with their radios tuned to the left of the dial, through unsuspecting college radio DJs and program directors who don’t even realize the shit that they’re being spoon-fed.

That there’s an entire mini music business – complete with mini payola, mini promoters, mini labels, a mini Billboard with mini charts, mini radio stations, and  mini record stores – just pissed me off.  Partially because it shouldn’t be that way – it was, like, some giant fraud being perpetuated on a large group of people who were actually cool.  Partially, though, because I wanted so badly to be a part of it – not out of some desire to be rich, or be a part of the machine, but because I thought my bands were good, and deserved it.

I felt like the bands I was, at the time, calling “mine” – Footstone, cuppa joe, Gapeseed, Toast, and the Mommyheads – were just as good as any other indie band out there.  Good in different ways, but good nonetheless.

And that phone call meant the difference between #29 and nobody’s ever heard of you.

~ by Al on April 26, 2009.

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