Progressive Sounds

Technology and Innovation in Indie Music

by Laura Schnitker

9 May 2010


Indie Label Pioneers and the Liberation of Technology

At its outset, the American popular music industry was a business dominated by large corporations. In the late 19th century, the biggest sheet music publishers vied for hits as vaudeville and minstrel shows gave popular songs a national stage. When sound recordings became viable products for home use at the turn of the 20th century, three phonograph manufacturers — Victor, Edison, and Columbia — secured all the patents that were necessary to produce both phonographs and recordings. A variety of music historians have noted how they marketed their products as instruments of cultural uplift and refinement in an effort to distance themselves from the cheap entertainment of jukeboxes. William Kenney, author of Recorded Music in American Life, affirmed that while they recorded and sold many types of music, both Edison and Victor actively promoted opera, symphonies, and military marches, and downplayed their “race” and “hillbilly” catalogues since these were considered antithetical to what American musical culture should be. For nearly two decades, recorded music was their exclusive domain.

In 1915, however, when several key patents expired, the market expanded. Independent labels immediately began cropping up, usually as small enterprises located outside coastal urban centers like New York and Los Angeles. They were operated by businesspeople whose priorities included finding and recording music from local communities in order to serve more regional audiences. Gennett Records was founded in 1915 by the owners of Starr Piano in Richmond, Indiana. In 1922, they won a lawsuit with Victor over the rights to lateral-cut recording technology, which allowed them to press records that could be played on more than one kind of phonograph. Gennett was one of the first outfits to recognize the value of New Orleans jazz, which had recently migrated to nearby Chicago, and they famously immortalized a young Louis Armstrong’s supporting role with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

At the same time, Paramount Records in Port Washington, Wisconsin, was mining the rural music of southern, eastern, and Midwestern areas of the United States. In 1924, Paramount began pressing discs for Black Swan, the first black-owned record company. After Paramount eventually bought out the company, they retained their focus on recording African-American musicians. Paramount’s talent scouts were less interested in discovering national stars than they were committed to serving their primarily black clientele, and wound up recording some of the greatest blues artists of the decade, including Son House, Ma Rainey, Charley Patton, Skip James, and Ida Cox. Thanks to Gennett, lateral-cut recording technology was now in the public domain, and smaller labels were able to compete in the industry.

In their book Little Labels, Big Sound, Rick Kennedy and Randy McNutt provide snapshots from independent label history, and describe some important ways in which their methods differed from the majors. Gennett, for example, generally used staff from their piano factory to operate the studio, and because they weren’t music professionals, they gave their artists creative control. Musicians could hone their own styles and play their own songs, a privilege not often granted by major labels who wanted their artists to record popular published songs. For its part, Paramount figured out that selling records to their consumers via mail-order catalogues enabled them to work around retail centers that refused to sell race records “in fear of attracting too many black customers”.

Gennett, Paramount, and most of the other fledgling independents of the decade did not survive past the 1930s. The Great Depression and the spread of network radio wiped them out and, in what would become a pattern in the following decades, the majors poached their best artists once the potential of their popularity became evident.

Nonetheless, these early independent labels left an important legacy. They helped to create a space in which smaller businesses could compete with the majors, and proved that even modest success could have an impact on the entire industry. Their interest in experimenting with recording technology, and willingness to fight for the right to do it, showed that entrepreneurial initiative in a corporate-dominated industry was a worthy endeavor. And while they often exploited their artists’ ignorance over royalty rights — a symptom of racism that was widespread throughout the entire industry — they did help to legitimize the voices of marginalized communities in the United States by recording their music and preserving its unique sounds for generations to come.

While the newfound ubiquity of lateral-cut recordings that enabled Gennett and Paramount to compete in the industry unfortunately did not ensure their economic survival, it did in fact establish their sonic legacy. The people who refashioned radio music programming forty years later would broadcast many of those aged lateral-cut recording across an infant air wave band, another new technology utilized by an active minority to initiate another wave of independence.

The FM Revolution Expands the Airwaves

In the early 1950s, a radio disc jockey named Tom Storz developed the idea for the Top 40 format when he noticed that teenagers tended to repeatedly play the same songs on jukeboxes. He developed radio programming in a similar fashion, featuring the week’s Top 40 hit songs in heavy rotation. With major networks NBC, ABC, and CBS migrating to television, radio was becoming an increasingly musical medium and Top 40 radio became the music industry’s most profitable and popular method of selling songs. As with song pluggers years earlier, radio stations relied on repetitive, uniform programming to capture young audiences and draw them into record stores. The trend became so widespread that in 1965 FCC chairman Newton Minow complained at a meeting of the National Associations of Broadcasters that radio stations had become “publicly franchised jukeboxes”. It wasn’t long before a growing active minority started to seek alternatives in radio technology that would allow them to broadcast music on their own terms.

The advent of frequency modulation (FM) after World War II enabled broadcasting at higher frequencies than amplitude modulation (AM), and, as Jay Somerset mentioned in his “Retroactive Listening” piece, “The Day the (AM) Music Died”, FM radio was primarily the domain of audiophiles and amateur radio operators for its first couple decades. It was soon realized that FM’s superior sound quality and lower susceptibility to electrical disturbances made it a better format for broadcasting music. The early ‘60s saw a rise in commercial FM stations where music programmers often used classical music to take advantage of the high fidelity. But, according to radio historian Michael Keith, as America was rocked from widespread social unrest, “commercial radio went underground to do some rocking of its own”. By late ‘68, there were over five dozen underground radio stations (also known as freeform, alternative, or progressive) in operation around the country. Many of them, like KRAB in Seattle and KMPX in San Francisco, were broadcasting near college campuses and cities that were steeped in Vietnam-era counterculture.

Susan Douglas, author of

Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination

, acknowledges that there was a number of factors that contributed to the rise of FM radio. However, echoing the attitudes of Riesman’s minority group, she maintains that it was marked by a profoundly anticommercial, anticorporate ethos and a new passion for listening. In stark contrast to the predictable and uniform playlists of Top 40 stations, underground radio DJs featured a wide range of music and spoken word, from Chinese opera to poetry readings by Ezra Pound. They played deeper cuts from the albums of well-known rock musicians, as well as more obscure tracks from those early independent recordings of jazz and blues — Paramount’s recordings had been rediscovered in the 1960s by collectors who reissued them on vinyl compilations during the decade’s folk revival. FM DJs juxtaposed these sounds in creative ways, crafting their playlists out of the audio similarities from seemingly disparate genres and eras. They enjoyed far more autonomy than their AM counterparts and built their shows on moods and muses, which meant for freeform DJ Jim Ladd, that “you could play your show like a musical instrument”.

The comparison to live music points to another important technological development of the 1960s: the stereo system. Whether on a sound recording or an FM radio broadcast, stereo delivered sound through two channels, which gave music more lifelike qualities. Sensitive receivers were designed to intensify the experience of being surrounded by the various instruments coming out of both speakers. Listeners got what Douglas calls “a more geological sense of music” in which every layer, level, and seam mattered. Juxtaposing Buffalo Springfield, Mozart, a Balinese gamelan ensemble, and John Lee Hooker could make aesthetic sense when their common musical elements became discernible.

While FM DJs were not the first on-air personalities to feature hand-picked music that fell under the mainstream’s radar—African-American disc jockeys in the ‘40s and ‘50s deserve the credit for that—they created a new role for DJs as curators of music who provided their audiences with a radio listening experience that was an active and intellectually engaging process. Many FM DJs were record collectors who were looking for outlets for their music, and helped build station libraries with the likes of Spirit, the Doors, Canned Heat, the Youngbloods, and Leonard Cohen, whose music was rarely, if ever, featured on AM radio. Others wanted to share their fields of expertise, like KRAB DJ Gary Margason, an ethnomusicologist and musician who had a penchant for Japanese court music. His colleague, a former KPFA host named Robert Garfias, would go on to set up a department of ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. For them, popular music wasn’t signified by a small, repetitive set of current hits, but rather a broad spectrum of styles, voices, and cultures.

As with independent waves in the past, the increasing popularity of FM radio eventually caught the attention of larger commercial interests, and in the early ‘70s, the corporate giants of the music industry began their takeover of the FM airwaves. They bought and consolidated FM stations and took their usual systematic approach to maximizing audiences by compiling demographic data and record sales figures to create more uniform programming, robbing DJs of their autonomy and homogenizing their playlists. A lot of commercial freeform stations either went off the air or were swallowed up by corporations. However, some managed to stay afloat through savvy business practices and a steadfast commitment to autonomy. WFMU out of Jersey City, New Jersey, for example, is the longest running freeform station in the country. They started broadcasting in 1958, became freeform ten years later, and have adhered to their philosophy of “blending musical styles high and low, from around the world and spanning the history of sound recording” ever since.

The use of technology to reinvent music broadcasting as a powerful and diverse sensory experience would have an important influence as the century came to close. By the ‘90s, Internet technology started to revive freeform radio through online streaming and a subsequent regeneration of interest in sound quality and listening as an active process is now contributing to one of the most recent trends in indie music.

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