Independent Label Fest Comes Up Lame

Since its inception four years ago, Chicago’s Independent Label Festival has been a magnet for local criticism, much of it warranted: Major labels predominate, rather than the indie labels the name suggests; the bands it attracts are frequently stylistic copycats; it’s poorly organized. Even past employees have lambasted it for lacking a practical mandate. Most disturbing, however, is that Chicago’s most influential independent labels–Drag City, Touch and Go, Ajax, Thrill Jockey, Carrot Top–and the city’s best bands have consistently opted out. Their most common explanation for their noninvolvement has been, “Why bother?”

Why, indeed? The music business is overcrowded. Flip through thousands of CDs by bands you’ve never heard of at any record store, particularly in the cut-out bins, and it’s clear that there’s a serious glut in the market. As for rock-biz confabs, there are already two huge ones–CMJ, in New York, and Austin’s South by Southwest–and the death of the original, New York’s New Music Seminar, would seem to indicate that the industry can’t support many more.

But ILF founder and executive director Leo Lastre doesn’t see it that way. “When we started, there were lots of bands getting signed without realizing what they were signing,” he explains. Now, for $150, a hungry young band can purportedly learn how to make high-quality recordings; how to release good-looking CDs; how to be savvy with the A and R scouts who will inevitably be attracted by their high-quality, good-looking CDs; how to use copyright laws to prevent other hungry young bands from stealing their terrific monikers. Unfortunately for the A and R scouts, this year’s lineup is less interesting than ever; and unfortunately for the bands, the ILF is short on nearly everything that makes conferences like CMJ and SXSW work.

No convention is better than its band showcases. Most of the business happens in the nightclubs, not in panels. Judging by the high concentration of club owners, booking agents, publicists, and media types that descend on these conferences, the need to create a word-of-mouth buzz about young signed bands or veterans with a new album now drives these events at least as much as hopes of discovering unsigned acts. To be taken seriously by the industry, convention organizers have had to attract major acts. SXSW was instrumental in fomenting a True Believers reunion a few years ago, and last year CMJ organizers got a rare Brian Wilson performance. CMJ has thrived because its organizers go out of their way to program exciting music, including many European acts making American debuts. The ILF has somehow failed to attract even the city’s more interesting bands–Tortoise, Gastr del Sol, Red Red Meat–much less its most popular. Festival literature claims Veruca Salt, Triple Fast Action, and the Wesley Willis Fiasco as success stories. But these bands attracted significant attention that had nothing to do with the ILF, and none seems to have benefited from the sort of lessons taught in its panels. The Fiasco has seemingly disintegrated; Triple Fast has foundered; and unless their next album extracts them from creeping anonymity, Veruca Salt will earn blip-of-fame status at best.

The ILF’s schedule this year includes a spate of locals, a deluge of mediocre and largely unknown out-of-town bands, and a handful of significant acts–Polara, the Frogs, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Menthol, to name a few from the underwhelming list. According to Metro publicist Katherine Frazier, who programmed shows for the ILF two years ago: “Its biggest problem is that while other festivals book all of the shows, the ILF mostly has to rely on what the club owners have booked.” If clubs participate at all–historically, the highly respected Lounge Ax hasn’t–it’s sometimes by simply allowing the ILF to hang its logo on a show that’s already set. Dawn DeBias, an A and R rep for Columbia Records who will serve on an ILF panel, says the only two “buzz bands” will be Skinny, the local Bob Mould proteges formerly known as Jason & Alison, and 22 Jacks, a derivative LA pop-punk combo comprising vets from Wax, the Adolescents, and Face to Face.

When pressed for details about the ratio of indies to majors involved, Lastre began spouting some nonsense to the effect that it’s no longer about majors and indies, it’s about multinationals and nonmultinationals. The truth is that successful indies like Touch and Go and Thrill Jockey generally have their own networks for discovering bands, and though their bands may play at conferences, the labels don’t actively encourage it. According to Touch and Go publicist Naomi Walker, a label like hers has little to gain from being involved and plenty to lose. “Major-label talent scouts attend these things and presume that the acts are up for grabs,” she says, “and that’s the last thing we want to be involved with.”

One person likely to benefit directly from this year’s ILF is Tim Sweeney, an LA-based independent music consultant who will appear on the ILF’s radio panel. Sweeney has just published his Guide to Releasing Independent Records, a manual that covers most of the topics discussed by ILF panels, and in more depth. The slim volume carries a hefty $25 price tag, but somehow it still seems like a bargain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph of Leo Lastre (captioned “Gathering the Flacks”) by Yael Routtenberg.