A post-label world? Sonic Youth and Prince look for alternatives

by Jason Gross

5 July 2007


A friend of mine who works for an indie label once said “when artists are ready to pack up and out their albums, book their own tours and do all of their own marketing, then we can start worrying about our jobs.”  He was being facetious of course, thinking that most artists didn’t want to do this dirty work and instead concentrate on their craft.  To some extent he’s right but with other promo opportunities available, this might not be such a far-fetched idea anymore.
Two interesting recent cases made me think of this.  In the first one, the artist still known as Prince cut a deal with an English publication to make his new album available with a future edition of the paper.  Needless to say, the label as well as record stores weren’t thrilled with the prospect of this kind of competition.  Sounds kind of like the furor that the Stones raised when they offered their Forty Licks album exclusively to Best Buy initially- some stores actually pulled their catalog off the shelves to protest. 

In the case of the Artist, he’s not a complacent guy when it comes to music or promo.  His recent comeback of sorts included not just a Grammy appearance that they’re still parodying on Saturday Night Life but also a Superbowl half-time appearance that had its share of controversy.  This isn’t even the first time that he’s given away free CD’s either- on his 2003 tour, he had copies of Musicology handed out to each of the audience members upon entering the respective arenas (that’s how I got my copy).

Seeing that their bottom line is getting undermined once again, record stores aren’t happy that they’re being kept out of the loop.  After all, why is someone going to buy the new album at their shop when they can just get it for free with the paper?  (though you’d have to shell out for the paper, it would be cheaper than getting the album)  Obviously, Prince himself is comfortable with getting all this publicity and giving his audience more than one way to get his music.  Since a best-selling artist is cutting into their bottom line, you can understand why the shops are mad about this.  Maybe part of the answer is making a music store such an unique, inviting experience that consumers will come there whether or not Prince’s album is on sale- for a good example of this, see this article about the Rough Trade shop’s makeover in the UK.

And then there’s the story of Sonic Youth selling a greatest hits collection at Starbucks. Yep, I did a double-take when I heard that also but it’s true and they’re unapologetic about it.  Like Prince, they figure this is another (novel) way to reach their audience and/or potential audience.  Like Dylan doing the Victoria’s Secret ad, this might be ground-breaking in that their deal may make other artists think “if they can do it, then why shouldn’t I?”

Of course, in the case of SY, there’s this indie mythos about “selling out” and such.  No doubt, they also had the same curses hurled at them not only when they signed with a major but also when they kept evolving and wouldn’t remake their old albums, tending towards more melodic pastures.  Ah, if only they could remake Evol and Daydream Nation (which they’re now recreating in sequence on tour) again and again and again and again.  If only they could stay on their own SYR label or sign to an indie label again.  If only they could play small clubs like back in the day.  If only they could conform to the ridiculous expectations that some fans have of them.  I admit I had mixed feelings when I heard about the Starbucks deal but as Thurston Moore explained, they just wanna get the word out about their music and since major labels are collapsing rapidly, bands have to find other ways to do this.  I don’t begrudge them that because as someone who’s been an SY booster for years, I love to tell other people how good their music is and hope that they’ll appreciate it too- that’s not only being a fan but also part of the proselytizing function of being a writer. 

Personally, I try to avoid Starburcks just ‘cause they try to eat up competition as surely as Microsoft does on its own turf.  But if Sir Paul and Brother Ray can get a hit record out of getting a deal with the coffee giant, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that other performers will think the same.  And if the coffee giant is hep enough to work with SY and help ‘em find more fans, why would an SY fan really begrudge them that?  Still, my own rule of thumb remains that it ain’t necessarily bad if a band wants to have their songs appear in commercials as long as it ain’t a bad product or something they support, which is why I’ll be eternally grateful for post-punkers Liliput/Kleenex for turning down thousands of dollars for an SUV ad (especially since the guitarist now works for the World Wildlife Federation).

Of course, some people are going to think that Fergie now asking companies for cash for product placement in her songs is the ultimate insult but as she and her management note, that might be the wave of the future, like it or not.  Remember that McDonald’s had an offer on the table for rappers to tout their product in their lyrics last year (I guess that rappers are the only artists they think can reach their young demographic).  And now with even one of the ultimate old-school indie bands the Fall licensing out their music for car commercials, we just have to face facts and heed what Dr. Eugene Chadbourne once told us:

“Every vital, free-thinking, convention-shattering cultural movement that only the real hipsters know about eventually becomes a car commercial.”

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