I guess it was around 2002 when I got bitten by the indie bug. I was pissed at the way the major labels sued consumers and cheated artists – and I had discovered the wonders of college radio. Back then I listened to KTSW from Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas (then known as Southwest Texas State University), which turned me onto so many great bands & artists: …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Cornelius, McLusky, Elliott Smith, Interpol…
I figured who needs the majors? I started paying really close attention to an artist’s record label and if they were on a major label, I would avoid their album or try to get it used. I wouldn’t even download it. Eventually I found out it wasn’t as simple as I thought. I knew who the major labels were, but a lot of times what seemed like a small label turned out to be a one-off, owned by a major. At some point I discovered a tool called the RIAA Radar, which will tell you if any artist or label is affiliated with the RIAA.
There was a period of more than a year when I wouldn’t buy any CD without first running it through the RIAA Radar to make sure it was truly indie. I’ve since gotten over that. Too many of my favorite artists are on major labels and one-off labels. Am I going to give up The Dandy Warhols? I don’t think so. I also don’t blame artists who sign to major labels. There are certain services a large label can provide that an artist can’t always get on a smaller indie or by going it alone, services like promotion and tour support. I totally understand why The Decemberists signed to Capitol (I still liked them better when they were on Hush Records though). It’s a risk though. A band might lose artistic control, or might find that it can never recoup the money the label puts in.
That old attitude I used to have, of “they signed to a major, they’re dead to me now” just isn’t practical or fair. Artists have to do what they have to do. It would be nice to stay in a hotel room instead of sleeping on floors while on tour. I get it.
However, it still makes sense to use the RIAA Radar. It can show you things about the music you love. Years ago when I used it, I was surprised at how many bands I thought were on indies were actually not. For example, Built to Spill used to be on Up, a true indie, but they later went to Warner, obviously one of the majors. Trail of Dead used to be on Merge, one of the big indies, but later went to Interscope, which is part of Universal Music Group. (BTW, in the ’90s, there were six major labels. The majors currently consist of the “Big Four” – Warner, EMI, Sony, Universal. I understand EMI is having trouble, so we may be down to a “Big Three” before too long. The Wikipedia article on record labels is pretty informative if you want to learn more.)
Now when I use it, what strikes me most is how many high profile artists are self-released or on independent labels. For example, I felt a little twinge of conscience when I posted that Vampire Weekend video early on. They’re high profile enough, I was sure they must’ve been on a major, but they’re not. Totally indie. Beggars Banquet, which put out so many great postpunk albums and 4AD, which put out albums by bands like Dead Can Dance and His Name is Alive, are RIAA safe. I kinda thought those might be sub-labels of some major label. Daptone Records (featuring Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) and Truth & Soul Records (Lee Fields) are straight up indies.
And thanks to the distribution possibilities of the internet, a lot of artists are simply doing it on their own, without even small label support. It’s pretty exciting to see that change unfold.
And BTW, if you’re interested in independent record labels and the DIY spirit, you should read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the American indie underground in the 1980s. I have a lot of respect for those artists and their labels, which include: SST, Sub Pop, Dischord, Touch & Go and K Records.