There’s been some press lately celebrating the tenth anniversary of Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad’s book detailing the stories of thirteen American indie rock bands in the 1980s. I haven’t read it since shortly after its release, but I recall the book being fascinating, entertaining and maddening. What I found maddening was how bands seemed to cease to exist once they signed with a major label, or at a minimum how they seemed to become minimized in importance, as if moving from one business model to another diminished them or made their music less good. But several of the bands, like Sonic Youth, Husker Du and Dinosaur, Jr., made terrific records for majors. And if you forced me to choose between the albums the Replacements made for Twin/Tone and the ones they made for Sire, I’ll take the latter. As a listener, I care about the sonics, not the economics.
In a recent interview, Azerrad continues to tout the indie ethic while broadsiding indie bands who cash in anyway they can:
Your book details an “us-versus-them” mentality in the eighties underground scene which really doesn’t seem to exist anywhere nearly as much in contemporary indie bands. Does that mean these recent bands aren’t quite the heirs one would hope for? Have they sold out?
The line’s definitely blurred. Now you have this little
Brooklynindie band called Matt and Kim, or Neon Indian, who have recorded for Green Label Sound, which was Mountain Dew’s label. Mountain Dew is awful stuff. Or Spoon’s music, selling Jaguars. I guess part of it is pragmatic: “Well, we’re not selling records so we have to get our music heard, and to get some money to make more music, we have to license this song for a car commercial.” I’d really like to see the economics of that because it seems like a lot of indie bands do quite well on the road selling concert tickets. I wonder how much they really need the money.
“I wonder how much they really need the money.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. How much they need to rent an apartment this month? This year? Enough to buy groceries? To have health insurance? How about enough to pay for braces for the kids they haven’t had yet?
If anyone should know that the shelf-life of the average band – even the average very good band – is tragically short, it’s the guy who chronicled the Minutemen and Mudhoney. It’s nice to think that members of a band like that can make a good living recording and touring into their dotage, but for most of them, it ends. And few of those endings come with a golden parachute.
Buffalo Tom was better than 99% of the bands that came out of the era, and they still record and play. But bandleader Bill Janowitz is now a real estate broker Monday through Friday because there’s no economic security in being in an indie rock band.
The truth is, a few months away from our 25th anniversary as a band, we still manage to get out there and tour every once in a while, playing to a peak of 1500 in Brussels, or to a low of maybe 75 people in Portland the other night. But like the indie bands outlined in Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life — bands that, in the mid- to late-1980s, paved the way and formed a foundation for groups like us — we still have a devoted, if modest audience. We, in turn, have influenced many bands. And all of that that encourages us to keep trying to balance the cottage industry we have in music business with grown-up responsibilities like families and jobs. But it is increasingly difficult, financially, physically, and mentally, to tour or play to diminishing crowds. Of course we understand. Most of our audience is also in their 40s, and have kids and demanding careers. They live out in the suburbs, most likely. And we have to play weeknights as well as whatever weekend nights we can book. And who wants to go stand around in the rock clubs of their youth on a Monday or Tuesday night?
My advice to every young band out there: Sell as many Jaguars today as you can. Nothing is promised for tomorrow. Providing your kids braces doesn’t make you less of an artist.