our noise.

Last week I picked up the book Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records.

Merge was one of the labels that was just getting started during my formative years in indie rock; I got my copy of the “Slack Motherfucker” seven-inch while I was in college and it blew my mind.  When Merge released seven-inches from Finger and from Breadwinner I really began to look up to the label, and after I saw Mac speak at a CMJ panel I was even more motivated to move Dromedary forward.

Labels like Merge were always an inspiration to me.

I decided to start writing this story in December of 2008, and when I found out about Our Noise a couple of months ago, I thought it was awesome that there would be another account of the history of another label, one that went in the opposite direction of Dromedary.  While Merge sprung out of a more fertile scene than Dromedary, and while Merge was fortunate enough to have a Superchunk releasing records on Matador in the early 90s when Matador was at a creative and business peak, it’s still interesting to read about an indie label that achieved success on its own terms.

I’m about a third of the way into the book and I couldn’t help but notice the section about the major label involvement in the indie music scene that began after the commercial success of Nevermind.  Much like the entries in this blog a week or so ago, that section of the book makes reference to Albini’s article in The Baffler and how that article was an inspiration to so many indie bands.

What I found interesting about the book’s take on it, however, was the implication that somehow, labels were popping up at that time, looking to cash in on the commercial success of the label:

The early nineties indie boom didn’t just take in bands.  Hundreds of labels popped up, hoping to find a diamond in the rough and dire them to glory and riches.  Or at least to a sustainable business model.

The book then proceeds to tell the story about how Mac and Laura (neither of whom I’ve ever met, and neither of whom would have any clue who I was) released the Tossing Seeds CD through Touch and Go’s distribution, and issued subsequent Merge records the same way.

After reading that section of the book, and relating it to what is happening at this stage in the Dromedary story (late 1995/early 1996), I couldn’t help but draw parallels and ask lots of questions.

The first, and most obvious question is was I one of those hundreds of people starting labels, hoping to cash in on the commercial success of Nirvana?

And the answer to that question is, quite obviously, “No.”

There was never a point where I felt I would get rich in indie rock.  It never occurred to me.

I did hope to be able to make a living at it.  I hoped that, partially out of desire to see our bands become that successful, and partially out of a desire to get out of the business of shitty dayjobs and into the business of making a more lasting impact.

And yet when I ask the question, I can’t help but wonder why, if money wasn’t the main motivator, why it became such a critical issue in 1995 and 1996.

I can’t answer the question.

I think that, partially because of the internet and partially because of my addiction to zines and zine culture, I began to resent reading so much about Dromedary and not seeing the results in a more tangible form.  In reading Our Noise, I’m reading sentiments like “We only sold 1,500 copies of that record – it didn’t do shit.”  For Dromedary, 1,500 copies sold would have been an improvement over anything but Flying Suit.  I don’t think anybody really knew how dismal our sales actually were – I could drop names like Cargo and Revolver and Get Hip and Dutch East when discussing our distribution, but that didn’t mean any of those companies were working particularly hard to sell our records.

So I’d read about Dromedary releases in the same publications that were reviewing bands like Superchunk, Tsunami, and Pavement.  I’d see my posts on message boards and mailing lists alongside posts from the people who were making those records.  But I’d walk into record stores and look for Dromedary releases with no luck.

I also think that it was partially because we suddenly had these real financial responsibilities.  In 1994, we didn’t have much in terms of financial obligations.  Our rent was about $750 a month.  We had a couple of low car payments, some student loans that we had forever to pay off, utilities, stuff like that.  Whatever money was left could go towards anything.  In our early twenties, saving money was a concept that we understood would have been a good idea, but frankly, fifty extra dollars seemed to be much better utilized on a trip to the Village than it did socked away in a 401(k) account where we wouldn’t see it for 30 or 40 years.

Once we were homeowners and parents, we suddenly had real things to think about.  Medical expenses.  College.  Major repairs to things like water heaters or furnaces.  Suddenly, whether or not the Footstone record sold through its initial pressing in the first year became important, because the amount of money we spent making that record could pay for a new furnace.  Or a down payment on a house.

In reading Our Noise, I’m reading a series of quotes from people who were at the forefront of the indie rock movement in the early 1990s.  But in reading the above sentences from author John Cook, about the growing number of indie labels, he touches on something that I was feeling in early 1995: a subtle exclusion that I think was happening with the newer labels – almost a sentiment that we somehow didn’t belong.

In late 1995, distribution was the critical need for Dromedary to grow beyond that point where it was.  Great press, nice reputation, good bands and friends, no sales.  The sales component, obviously, was the most important, and I felt that by focusing on the quality of the bands, the relationships we were building, and exposing people to our records, the sales component would eventually come.

As I repeatedly asked advice of more established indie label owners, though, a common thread continued to appear.

I’d ask the best way to get paid by distributors, or the best way to improve distribution and I’d get answers like these:

Sign bands people know.

The best way to get paid by your distributors is to have something they want.  This way, you can hold it over their heads when they don’t pay you.

If you want to sell more records, put out better records.

That last one was an actual piece of advice that I got from a guy who is recognized as one of the coolest, most knowledgeable, most successful people in indie rock.

Put out better records.

What I knew was that of the labels I admired that had achieved some degree of financial success, all had some sort of distribution arrangement.  Matador was distributed through Atlantic Records at the time.  Merge was distributed by Touch and Go.  Simple Machines was distributed by Southern Studios.

The Hopefuls’ label, a fledgeling label with zero releases under its belt when it got started, had a manufacturing and distribution arrangement with Koch before their first band was even signed.

To me, its interesting to read about this influx of labels, looking to cash in on the newfound success of indie rock.  I’m sure that existed.  And, if any of those people had ever heard of Dromedary at the time we were releasing records, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were lumped into that group of people looking to cash in on the indie rock bandwagon.

Of course it wasn’t that.  It was my desire to play people a great new band that they’d never heard.  It was my desire to give bands an avenue to release records without becoming already this fucked.  It was my desire to document great music that was happening locally.  It was my desire to grow a company to the point where it could offer some degree of financial independence to the owners, as well as financial assistance to the bands.

It’s interesting to read that there was a perception that labels were popping up, looking to cash in.  I certainly didn’t know any.  The people I knew who started labels had done so not because Nirvana got big in 1991.  They did so because college radio turned them on to new music in the late 1980s.  They did so because independent labels like Homestead and Rough Trade and Twin Tone and SST discovered Sonic Youth and The Fall and The Replacements and Husker Du, put out records that found a home left of the dial, and those records spoke to people like Bill Peregoy and Keith York and Mike Hibarger and James Agren.

And me.

~ by Al on October 5, 2009.

6 Responses to “our noise.”

  1. “Put out better records” is excellent advice. It’s actually an obvious statement, when you recognize that “better” has different meanings depending on the context.

    From a purely artistic perspective, I would have a hard time arguing that Slanted And Enchanted is a “better” record than Lippy; assuming a base level of competence (arrangement, performance, recording), “better” is largely a subjective judgement.

    From a business perspective, “better” means, simply: “will sell more records.”

    That is not a subjective measure; it is easily quantified. Talent and artistic vision are only two of several factors that determine whether a record is “better” by this definition. Distribution is another; it’s intuitive that a record for sale in stores will do “better” than one not in the shops.

    But before you get effective distribution, you need to sell records. This would be a Catch-22 were it not true that there is another factor in what makes a record commercially “better”: Fans.

    To acquire the promotional budget you need to sell records to people who don’t know your artist you need to sell records to people who do: the fans. And the more fans a band has…the better.

    So when deciding what records to put out, the smart (or at least, commercially minded) label owner will not only listen for good songs and superior talent; she will also look at the band’s fan base. He’ll be looking for a band with a large, loyal and growing fan base, a band that could sell 1,500 records right out of the gate. And band with momentum, with something going on.

    Was that a consideration for you when deciding what records to put out? Or were you overlooking all those gigs to which hardly anybody came, in the naive belief that putting out an indie CD would, in and of itself, elevate that band to a new level of success?

    The fact that you were eager to release a record by my band suggests the latter!

  2. The “put out better records” comment was delivered very much in a “your bands suck” kind of way. It was shitty advice.

    That said, I get your point.

    Whenever I listened to a band and considered whether or not to put out their record, I thought of one thing and one thing only: whether or not I loved their music. Whether or not they had a huge fan base was irrelevant to me.

    That said, the size of the fan base is, in my opinion, misleading. Plenty of examples exist of tiny little indie bands doing very well simply by virtue of the label they’re on, or through some other fluke. Plenty of other examples exist of tiny little indie bands putting out their first 7″ on some tiny little Dromedary-like label, then moving through the ranks until they become Helmet.

    I wasn’t looking for someone who could put my records into consumers’ hands, I was looking for someone who could put them into record stores. I fully understood it would be my job to sell it to the consumer, but when the consumer couldn’t find it, then selling even 500 copies was impossible. NOTHING I did would make a difference.

    I didn’t consider it naive, I considered it to be part of the process of marketing a band I loved. I’d try and get them exposure wherever I could, I’d try and turn as many people on to them as possible. But if the record wasn’t in stores, it didn’t make a difference.

    And again, I wasn’t looking to sell 10,000 or 20,000 records. I was looking to sell 500 or a thousand.

    -Al

  3. Well, delivery is everything, isn’t it? 🙂
    I find it interesting that you downplay the importance of having fans. In my experience, you can be the greatest band in the world but if you can’t find an audience, you are pretty much toast. On the other hand, we both know great bands that could pack Brownies any night and yet failed to parlay that into a successful career. (I’m looking at you, Oral Groove.)

    Clearly, love of music is a strong motivator for you, as it should be. My point is that running an indie label is hard enough without having to promote a band that has yet to demonstrate an ability to excite significant numbers of people. This is even more true today than it was in the ’90s, when indie music was still relatively scarce. There is no more scarcity.

  4. But would you have even characterized music as “scarce” in 1992, when you were receiving umpteen demo tapes every day for your column?

    A line I’ve been using for years, when somebody points out the technical proficiency of one guitar player or another, applies here as well. If you want to hear a great guitar player, just go to your local music store on any Saturday afternoon. There’s one there, trying out a new guitar. They’ve always been a dime a dozen.

    My approach with Dromedary was always to find some band that spoke to me somehow, and work from there.

    And yes, it used to frustrate me that Footstone or cuppa joe didn’t tour. I learned fron the Mommyheads how valuable touring could be. The partnership we had with the Mommyheads was fantastic – it always felt like there were four guys, working hard on the road, every single day, trying ti help sell records. That was awesome.

    But I also felt like if there was a way to change the model, then the model should be changed. Because it really chapped me to know that the profits were all on one side (manufacturing and distribution), and the work was all on the other (artist and label).

    Most of the rest of this story is going to sound like complaining to you. 🙂

  5. Hi, it’s John Cook. If you got the sense that I was saying there was a mercenary quality to the crop of indies that rose up in the early ’90s, then I wasn’t really communicating my point very well. I wasn’t accusing everyone of trying to “cash in”–and I never used those words. What I was trying to say is that there were a lot of labels whose ambitions expanded beyond simply releasing the music at hand. And that’s not a bad thing! But it often explains why many of them ran into trouble–I think SubPop’s money issues are a good example of that. Poneman and Pavitt wanted that label to be something bigger than it was, and they made decisions and took risks in order to get where they wanted to be, and they didn’t pay off. What I had in mind were labels like SubPop and Moist/Baited Breath, which was spending money renting nice offices on the strength of Metal Flake Mother sales. I don’t think they were in it for the money. But I think there were a lot of little labels that wanted to be “real” record labels, and did the things they though “real” labels did, and spent the money the way “real” labels did, and wound up going out of business because of it. I don’t mean to be judgmental about it–I was just trying to look at how Merge approached things differently than some of their peers; what worked and what didn’t etc. Anyway, thanks for reading, and for writing about the book.

    John

  6. Hi John.

    First of all, its incredibly flattering that you would take time to come here and clarify your point.

    Second of all, the book is outstanding. It’s unfortunate that you’d stumble onto THIS blog entry, and not any of my endless fawning over Merge, “Our Noise,” Superchunk, and Polvo on this blog, my Twitter updates, Dromedary’s FB page and my own personal FB page. That’s the way it goes, I guess.

    In any event, I’m hoping you understand that I’m taking a small point out of the context of your story and trying to relate it to my own. What you’ve stumbled onto here is a chronological account of the evolution and devolution of my tiny label – right now, the story is RIGHT at the point where we were desperately trying to improve our distribution and running into dead ends at every turn. To read in your book that labels were popping up left and right, hoping to be driven to “glory and riches” was a perspective that I hadn’t considered. However, I can definitely see how that perception might have occurred.

    It just wasn’t where I was coming from, nor was it where any of my peers who ran tiny indies were coming from, either. We were doing it out of love of our bands, love of indie rock, sheer stupidity, or some combination of the three.

    But your clarification makes it easier for me to understand your point, so thanks. And for what it’s worth, if I had any idea how to be a “real” record label, perhaps I would have tried, too.

    Thanks for reading, and I hope you can find some time to hang around with us.

    -Al

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