Column 248 — Council of Elders; Beep Beep, Thunder Power tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 3:05 pm November 25, 2009

Because of The Reader‘s holiday printing deadlines, this column was actually written two weeks ago. I was going to write a “Gee, these are things I’m thankful for” yawner until the NPR piece mentioned below dropped into my e-mail box. There’s a lot more to the interview than what I’ve summarized below, and it should be required reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in how technology has impacted the indie music business. Too bad Sub Pop couldn’t participate, but it’s hard to beat Cosloy… and Nansel. My annual “predictions” column isn’t due for another month, but I can make this one right now: The ’00s will be remembered as the last decade of the “record business” as we knew it. If a record label really is “a filter, a bank, a promo machine,” as Kill Rock Stars’ Portia Sabin defined it, than Pitchfork is poised to become the biggest indie record label of all time. Fact is, if you can somehow land that elusive 9.1 rating from Pitchfork, you don’t need a record label, and the booking agents and the publicists (and the lazy music journalists) will come looking for you. Someone once asked me how Pitchfork became so important in such a short time. Everyone agrees that their reviews are poorly written (and as Cosloy points out, with their numbering system, no one reads the reviews anyway). To me, the answer was Pitchfork‘s willingness to go “all in” and invest in covering indie music with its heart and soul. With hundreds of new indie records coming out every month, fans needed an easy, convenient, well-organized and well-designed resources to filter through the dross and find the wheat. With no one else willing to step up to the degree that Pitchfork did, they shouldered their way to the front of the pack. And that numbering system didn’t hurt, either.

Column 248: Sound Advice
Indie label owners discuss the state of the biz…

The topics ranged from iTunes to the role of record labels, the “single” to the resurgence of vinyl, bands vs. brands vs. Pitchfork, and in the end, there really was no consensus other than it’s harder to make a buck in the music business these days.

The discussion happened last week when National Public Radio (NPR) conducted an online summit of indie music industry movers and shakers to get a then-and-now take on how the business has changed since the beginning of the decade. The panelists were Maggie Vail and Portia Sabin from Kill Rock Stars (Elliott Smith, Deerhoof), Gerard Cosloy from Matador (Yo La Tengo, Cold Cave), Mac McCaughan from Merge (Conor Oberst, Arcade Fire), Chris Swanson and Darius Van Arman from Jagjaguwar/Secretly Canadian/Dead Oceans (Yeasayer, Okkervil River) and our very own Robb Nansel from Saddle Creek (Bright Eyes, UUVVWWZ). NPR’s Carrie Brownstein was the moderator.

The transcript is online at here — it’s 4,000 words of wisdom from people who have been in the trenches since the Compact Disc was the only game in town.

Matador’s Cosloy got the most interesting (and clever) points across. Discussing the advent of digital file-sharing, Cosloy said initially he thought the technology would be beneficial. “That was before it took only a matter of minutes to download an entire box set,” he said. He went onto say that early downloaders/uploaders were hardcore music nuts who tended to buy more records than anyone else. “In the years to follow, file-sharing became mainstream… and younger audiences had less of a fond connection to things like records stores, record labels, etc.”

In fact, the tone of the entire discussion centered on the relevance of record labels, both to bands and listeners. KRS’s Portia Sabin defined a record label as “a filter, a bank, a promo machine. A source of contacts in the industry.”

Merge’s McCaughan said the ‘net gives consumers access to any music they want. “If you don’t know what you are looking for, it’s like trying to find a good record in a thrift shop. So the label is, as Portia says, a filter or at least a starting point for fans.”

But most agreed that more and more, music buyers have no idea what record label a band is on. If that’s true, that’s a real problem for these guys who partially depend on brand loyalty to get people to consider their new bands (certainly they can’t depend on radio, and never could). Add to that a one-and-done mentality from record buyers and the problem gets worse. They call it “the churn factor.”

“The churn factor is severe; the public burns out on supposed faves very, very fast these days,” Cosloy said. “… I think it is fair to say that anyone who is making a second record is about to contend with it to some degree.”

The rise of the (generally unprofitable for indies) “singles” market — driven in part by iTunes — supports listeners’ short attention spans. “People are more into songs right now than bands, albums or labels,” said Jagjaguwar’s Swanson, who added that his label is actively encouraging some of its artists to only focus on singles, but he was alone among the execs on this.

What they all agreed on is that the resurgence of vinyl is very real, even though its overall share of the market is miniscule. Nansel said Saddle Creek just raised its list price and scaled back packaging (of non-180-gram vinyl) for most of its fall releases, while Cosloy said Matador is introducing a lower-grade vinyl with “more Spartan packaging” for less money.

And then there was Pitchfork, the music news and criticism website that seems to drive the entire indie music world. Cosloy said one of the most effective ways to get people excited about a release is to get a high rating from Pitchfork. “A Pitchfork 9.1 (out of 10) is more influential to the audience and the retailers than a Rolling Stone or New York Times review,” he said. KSR’s Sabin said a 4.5 rating could “kill a record,” but Nansel disagreed. “I’d be inclined to say a high Pitchfork number helps; a low Pitchfork number is irrelevant,” he said. Considering how poorly Creek scores with Pitchfork, that may be wishful thinking.

Nansel went on to say bands playing shows and word of mouth is what sells records. “It’s 1995 from that perspective.”

There was one sobering fact that Sabin threw in that has nothing to do with ’95: “There were 105,000 records released in the U.S. last year,” she said, “and of those, 1,515 sold more than 10,000. So indies now have a greater share of the market that exists, but we still don’t have the part that the majors always had: 500,000-plus (sellers).”

Cosloy pointed out that even the majors have fewer gold records than ever before.

If you didn’t read closely, it all could sound somewhat bleak, especially if you’re in a band. To me, it pointed out that the future is wide open, that the industry underwent (and is undergoing) a complete reset, and those who are willing to anticipate — and embrace — change are going to be fine. Thanks to all this technology, more people than ever are listening to music. Now the labels just need to figure out how to get them to pay for it.

* * *

There are a number of pre-Thanksgiving shows going on tonight around town. On top of my list is Beep Beep at Slowdown Jr. with Thunder Power and Agent Ribbons. According to Thunder Power’s Matt Hutton, this will be his last show with the band and the last time you’ll get to hear several of their songs performed live as he’s moving away from Omaha after Thanksgiving. So send him off in style. $7, 9 p.m.

There’s also a lot going on in Benson tonight:

— Landing on the Moon plays at The Sydney with Blue Rosa and The Answer Team. $5, 9 p.m.
— Matt Whipkey plays a set backed by Scott “Zip” Zimmerman at The Barley St. Kris Lager also is on the bill. $5, 9 p.m.
— Zeppelin tribute band The Song Remains the Same is playing at The Waiting Room. $7, 9 p.m.

Tomorrow: Some free Xmas music and some headlines and (maybe, probably) a review about what happened at Slowdown…

–Got comments? Post ’em here.

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