Even rock ‘n’ roll revolutions need their pamphleteers. “An Introductory Mechanic’s Guide to Putting Out Records,” a compilation of meticulously detailed instructions for would-be indie recording artists, came out in the heady days of 1991. It was assembled by District songwriters and do-it-yourself idealists Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thompson, who ran the now-defunct label Simple Machines.
The so-called DIY movement, spurred by cassette-hawking artists such as Ani DiFranco, has since become a lot easier to realize, thanks to the Internet, CD duplication technology and other marvels.
Partly for that reason, do-it-yourselfers have become part of the rock mainstream, a far cry from the subversive ethos of D.C. hard-core godfather Ian MacKaye.
And mainstream artists, such as Aimee Mann, have become do-it-yourselfers. “I could not stand being on a major label anymore,” Miss Mann told a public radio program two years ago.
“I had no idea what would happen, and I didn’t care,” she said. “I literally thought that we would just sell records out of the back of a van at shows.”
In 1999, she formed a self-releasing platform called Superego, on which she’s released three albums, most recently “The Forgotten Arm.”
In some instances, do-it-yourselfers have banded together, sharing resources and industry contacts — essentially becoming quasi-labels. Michael Hausman, who manages Miss Mann’s Superego label, spearheads United Musicians, a New York City-based clearinghouse for indie artists such as Bob Mould, the Minneapolis punk scenester who now lives in the District.
“It allows other artist-owned labels to use me and my staff and systems,” says Mr. Hausman, who played drums in the band ‘Til Tuesday, which Miss Mann fronted in the mid-‘80s. United Musicians can do nearly everything a major label does — including radio promotion, online marketing and arranging distribution — only more nimbly.
Meanwhile, the major record companies are shedding dead weight and hurtling toward cost-saving consolidations, even as they pick up hot ex-indies such as Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse.
“It’s all fun to watch,” says Nate Krenkel, who helps run the indie sub-label Team Love with Conor Oberst, frontman of the band Bright Eyes, in town for a sold-out show at the 9:30 Club tonight.
Team Love releases flow through the distribution system of Saddle Creek, the au courant indie label that Mr. Oberst, 24, started with his brother 10 years ago as a humble cassette-based operation.
Despite its growing popularity, Saddle Creek is still essentially a local support system for acts with roots in the Omaha, Neb., scene.
“It certainly makes sense that as [the major labels] consolidate more, there will be more space for indies to grow,” Mr. Krenkel says.
All this suggests the possibility that the music industry is returning to some variant of rock’s late-‘60s/early-‘70s heyday, when independently owned labels such as Elektra, Sire and Island had yet to be absorbed into corporate conglomerates — when, Mr. Krenkel says, “decision-making seemed a lot more music-focused.”
“I like the idea of a lot of small labels,” says Mr. Hausman, describing artist-owned labels as part of a constellation that includes boutique majors such as Blue Note, Verve, Sanctuary and Nonesuch, labels that have traditionally sold jazz and classical music but, lately, have taken on rock and pop acts such as Wilco and Van Morrison. The move seems natural, Mr. Hausman says, since such labels are more nurturing and less dependent on big sales.
Still, there remains a segment of the DIY movement that refuses to rub shoulders with the mainstream. Mr. MacKaye, who continues to run the indie mainstay Dischord Records, is as hostile to it as ever. Then there’s Amy Ray, who records for Epic Records as part of the Indigo Girls and runs a Decatur, Ga.-based label called Daemon Records, which she founded in 1989 to stay rooted in the Atlanta music scene and to provide opportunities for artists with similarly left-wing politics.
Daemon is not officially a nonprofit, but it’s run like one, according to spokeswoman Stacey Singer, who says the label would never, under any circumstances, accept money from an “evil corporate entity.”
True to its communal spirit, Daemon stipulates in its contracts that artists must log at least 15 hours at the label, doing tasks such as stuffing envelopes and carting loads to the recycling center.
Most of the artists it supports never recoup the money Daemon gives them, which is just fine with Miss Ray: She donates money out of her own pocket when times are lean.
Then again, self-releasing records isn’t all that risky a business. It’s far less risky, Mr. Hausman says, than a major label floating a band a six-figure advance and praying it scores a hit.
“In most cases, when you’re signed to a label, they give you some money to make a record,” he says. “You pay them back out of first-monies and a percentage of your royalties. It’s really not a great arrangement [for your band] if your record sells. But if your record doesn’t sell, it’s probably worse for the label.”
There’s one thing the micros and minis, do-it-yourselfers and indies can’t do: None has a back catalog rich enough to support the million-dollar risk of promoting an unknown artist on a national scale. Which means corporate-owned major labels aren’t about to disappear. Only they can afford to pay the costs of stirring up exposure of new bands on a continental scale.
Whether or not we, in our walled-off worlds of IPods and satellite radios, actually want to be pitched on a continental scale is a question for another day.