Business as Usual

When midwestern indie-rock pioneers Husker Du and the Replacements signed to major labels in the mid-80s, many underground rock fans felt the earth shudder beneath their feet. Such leaps were unusual at the time, and in his new book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (Little, Brown), Michael Azerrad loosely traces the widening fault lines as money and celebrity ruptured a somewhat unified and vaguely idealistic community. The decade covered by the book ends “the year punk broke,” as the movie title put it, or more accurately the year Nirvana broke, sending a wake-up call to the music biz: in the 90s, the majors would quit cherry picking the best bands and start cultivating the indies as a farm league. They began scooping up bands because they fit a particular mold, not because they broke it.

As Azerrad meticulously documents, the groundwork for the way today’s independent bands operate was almost single-handedly laid by LA hardcore legends Black Flag, who played shows wherever they could find them, with no press or radio support, no distribution for their records, and often no audience for their intense, abrasive music. The infrastructure they helped build still exists–but before the alt-rock boom went bust, it enabled the majors to co-opt the venues, the publications, the radio, the distribution, and the audience for indie rock.

Suddenly independent bands and labels found themselves competing with the big boys on their own turf. In the early 90s important indies like Matador and Sub Pop got involved with majors, and the majors started up behemoth distribution companies like RED and ADA that took business from independents like Cargo. “The stakes were raised for the artists across the board; it was all about getting signed,” says Luke Wood, a veteran of the mid-90s indie-rock band Sammy who became an A and R rep for Dreamworks, signing Elliott Smith and Jimmy Eat World. “You suddenly had a commercial vehicle, whereas before there was no issue about getting signed to a major label and getting on MTV. The kids are so savvy now. The industry has become part of the entertainment culture, so young artists are aware of every part of the machine. These are artists that have maybe played 15 shows in their lives, but they understand the mechanisms of the business.”

When Chicago ska-punk mainstays the Blue Meanies decided to ink a deal with MCA Records in the summer of 1999, they were pretty savvy: they’d already been around for eight years and released three studio albums, a live collection, and a handful of singles. Their 1997 album Full Throttle, released by Thick Records, where front man Billy Spunke is a higher-up, had sold about 10,000 copies–a decent number for an indie but peanuts to a major. Their chances of hitting the big time seemed slim: their snotty take on punk wasn’t anywhere as tuneful or radio-friendly as the work of Blink-182 or Reel Big Fish, two bands signed earlier by MCA. Last September the Meanies released The Post Wave, a bloated and unmemorable production that cost 12 times as much as Full Throttle and sold half as many copies. By January of this year they’d been dropped.

In some ways the Blue Meanies’ story is typical, Spunke admits: “The A and R guy leaves the label and the bands that were with him are no longer looked after.” The Meanies’ A and R man, Rick Bonde, had been the band’s booking agent since 1992. His agency, Tahoe, had represented lots of popular punk acts–Blink-182 and Reel Big Fish among them–but the Meanies were the first and, as it turned out, the only act he signed to MCA. “He was the only reason we considered going to MCA. We had someone in our corner, someone we could trust, someone we’d known for a long, long time, and someone who would champion us,” says Spunke.

Shortly before The Post Wave was released Bonde had a “falling-out” with MCA. “I knew immediately that our relationship with the label was going to be a struggle,” says Spunke. “We were still pretty excited because things were seemingly going well, but we were scampering to find someone to champion us at MCA.” The band even distributed Blue Meanies coffee mugs to the entire staff, but the music industry is flooded with such useless swag. They went ahead and toured behind the record as planned, but when they were in LA rehearsing for the final leg, MCA pulled the plug–including all financial support for the next six weeks of touring.

Recently Thick sent out a cheeky press release announcing that it would reissue The Post Wave. Written as an “open memo to MCA Records,” it catalogs what the band got out of the short-lived deal–a new RV, new musical equipment, two months in the studio with a big-name producer, and small salaries for each of the seven members over the course of eight months. Spunke estimates the total value of these things at around $500,000. “Now we are right where we were two years ago, only we have a record that we produced free of charge, a video, a home studio, a few computers, a pimpin’ ride, new equipment, and some assorted toys,” the letter says.

But one tidbit it omits is that two years ago the Blue Meanies existed–and now they don’t. Spunke says that before the MCA deal the band had reached a crossroads: some members were starting families, and not everyone could afford to commit as much time. “We could record an album, but supporting it with a tour wasn’t going to happen,” he says. The band hoped to emulate the Mekons, making an album every so often just for kicks and then doing a short tour, “like a fishing trip.”

“MCA breathed life back into the Blue Meanies, but at the same time they sucked the air right out of us,” says Spunke. “It was the worst tour I’d ever done in my life. There was frustration, tension, anger, and confusion. It was obvious to the entire band that without that financial support behind us it was impossible to remain a full-time band.” Still, he says he has no regrets, even going so far as to recommend the Meanies’ choice to other bands.

Of the 13 bands profiled in Azerrad’s book, 6 of them ultimately signed with major labels: Husker Du, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, Dinosaur Jr, and Mudhoney. And out of the bunch, only Sonic Youth has continued to record and tour regularly. The pressure to succeed on a larger scale seems to have taken its toll on the rest. In the book’s epilogue, Azerrad quotes Steve Albini from an interview with Punk Planet: “I saw a lot of friends and acquaintances turn their bands, which were previously something that they did out of passion, into a shot at small business. In the course of doing it, they ended up hating their bands in a way that I used to hate my job.” Albini’s band, Big Black, along with Fugazi, Beat Happening, and the Minutemen, all took pains to avoid that rut, but they remain the rare exceptions. It’s like heroin: no matter how many of their peers are ruined by it, people keep lining up to try it themselves.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.