Photo by Michael Schmelling
This past September, GQ‘s Aaron Lake Smith ran into Steve Albini at the ATP festival in New York. Albini was relaxing on a couch, and Smith inquired about a quick interview. Albini agreed. Smith, a zine publisher, quickly introduces the major-label question to Albini, which is sort of like introducing the raw-steak question to a pitbull. It so happened that Smith used Sonic Youth’s 1990 signing to Geffen as the bait. Here’s Albini’s response:
I don’t know the exact circumstances of Sonic Youth’s decision, so I’m not comfortable saying they did it wrong. But a lot of the things they were involved with as part of the mainstream were distasteful to me. And a lot of the things that happened as a direct result of their association with the mainstream music industry gave credibility to some of the nonsense notions that hover around the star-making machinery. A lot of that stuff was offensive to me and I saw it as a sellout and a corruption of a perfectly valid, well-oiled music scene. Sonic Youth chose to abandon it in order to become a modestly successful mainstream band– as opposed to being a quite successful independent band that could have used their resources and influence to extend that end of the culture. They chose to join the mainstream culture and become a foot soldier for that culture’s encroachment into my neck of the woods by acting as scouts. I thought it was crass and I thought it reflected poorly on them. I still consider them friends and their music has its own integrity, but that kind of behavior– I can’t say that I think it’s not embarrassing for them. I think they should be embarrassed about it.
I think what they did was take a lot of people who didn’t have aspirations or ambitions and encouraged them to be part of the mainstream music industry. They validated the fleeting notions that these kids had that they might one day be rock stars. And then they participated in inducing a lot of them to make very stupid career moves. That was a period where the music scene got quite ugly– there were a lot of parasitic people involved like lawyers and managers. There were people who were making a living on the backs of bands, who were doing all the work. Had Sonic Youth not done what they did I don’t know what would have happened– the alternative history game is kind of silly. But I think it cheapened music quite a bit. It made music culture kind of empty and ugly and was generally a kind of bad influence.
Anyone familiar with Albini’s legendary anti-corporate rock screed “The Problem With Music” will find this very familiar. Albini has been a die-hard supporter of bands (not labels, not lawyers, not managers) for decades, running his legendary Electrical Audio recording studio efficiently and cost-effectively, refusing to take advantage of the legendary status he’s earned. And, to be extremely clear: Albini’s a die-hard supporter of Sonic Youth as well. He’s friends with the band, and I’m sure they’ll have plenty to talk about when they share an ATP New Year’s Eve bill in a couple months.
What gets lost when this interview is decontextualized and reframed as a beef is not only the nuances of Albini’s own opinions on how band culture should operate, but the strange story of Sonic Youth’s own label biography throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a story that resists ideological classifications like “mainstream” and “indie,” and one that’s fleshed out with good old-fashioned American pragmatism. In a lot of ways, Sonic Youth are anti-Albinis: proud capitalists and Capital-A artists, seeking that ever-elusive label combination of effective distribution, honest accounting, creative control, and cool coworkers.
The fact that Sonic Youth almost got all of those things on their own terms is amazing in its own way. Yet the band’s side of the story is more interesting for the light it casts on the contingent nature of “indie” as a cultural category that artists themselves, despite how they’re portrayed, can choose to completely ignore. We could place these belief systems on a spectrum, with Albini on one end representing the dyed-in-the-wool ideologue, and Sonic Youth, well, tracing a strange path that predicted a lot about how smaller bands and labels operate today.
In the GQ interview, only Smith invoked the ever-contested word “indie.” In an email, Albini clarified his position on the matter:
When I talk about independent bands and music, I mean that the bands are self-sufficient (not needing outside handlers and intermediaries) and that the bands, labels, fanzines and shows are autonomous, cooperative both internally and within the sphere of peers, and not subject to a greater corporate entity.
Albini’s ideals are noble, and shared by hundreds of bands and labels that have achieved a large degree of success by adhering to their own version of them. What I’d like to explore, however, is what can happen when these ideals get mangled by ostensibly “indie” labels as crooked as the majors themselves, and the course that a band dedicated to its art might opt for otherwise. As it happens, Sonic Youth is a perfect case study.
In the GQ interview, Albini doesn’t get the chance to go off on the messy, often downright unethical reality of many 1980s indie labels. But he knows all too well that indie was far from “well-oiled” in the 1980s, when Sonic Youth were trying to gain a national foothold for their music using indie’s rickety infrastructure. He gets a few great shots in this 2006 Magnet article about notorious indie imprint (and one of Sonic Youth’s first labels) Homestead Records, run by Wharton Business School grad Barry Tenenbaum:
“My favorite retarded trick is he would make the numeral and literal amounts of the check different, so our bank couldn’t cash it,” says Albini. “It was like dealing with a small child who’s trying to hide cookies under his pillow. I’m sure it did earn him a small aggregate profit, being so duplicitous about everything. But it seems like so much work to be that devious about small amounts of money.”
Albini dismisses the notion that human error was to blame. “You can’t have a mistake on every single statement without it being intentional,” he says. “It’s impossible. Just by chance, you’d get one of them right, you know?”
Sonic Youth were also dealing with a label with oft-impeccable taste but less-than-savory business practices. An amazing quote from the Magnet piece:
Thurston Moore recalls some bad vibes during a business meeting with Homestead management: “Bob Bert, our drummer at the time, said we have an important meeting with Barry, and that we should tape it. It wasn’t like we were trying to sneak the tape in and record the meeting. We were going over some brass tacks with Barry, who’s a totally old-school business dude… Talking to this guy was like talking to the parents in the Peanuts cartoon. It was all ‘wah-wah-wah.’ I could see the look in his eye when he saw the red light on the Walkman. He was completely freaked out by it. He made us turn it off, and the mood in the room just turned nefarious.”
Sounds an awful lot like a garage-sized version of the Reviled Mainstream Label Tactics, doesn’t it? And a version of same which came at a crucial point in Sonic Youth’s career. At this point, they were big enough to embark on their first national tour– arranged by Homestead’s long-suffering genius Gerard Cosloy– but without the strength of a financially secure publicity infrastructure to guarantee a consistent turnout.
Most importantly, according to Michael Azerrad’s seminal American indie history Our Band Could Be Your Life, there wasn’t an inkling of Albini-esque anti-mainstream ideology in the band:
“At that time, there was no such thing as ‘Be proud to be indie,'” Moore says. “Being indie was just sort of like, there was nothing else you could be– major labels had no interest.” Sometimes a feeler would go out, though– Warner Brothers had once asked for a copy of Bad Moon Rising.
Moore was the band’s own biggest promoter, enthusiastically angling to get SST’s attention– at the time, the Southern California label was the American indie. His campaign entailed leaving the signature “Hello to Black Flag from Sonic Youth” in venue bathroom stalls, but that’s not the half of it. Azerrad claims:
…even the whole Creedence/1969/Americana concept (of Bad Moon Rising) seems like a calculated attempt to ingratiate themselves with SST… (whose) beloved Minutemen outspokenly championed Creedence Clearwater Revival.
SST was happy to have Sonic Youth, and by all accounts it seemed to be a perfect fit. The label added a touch of New York avant-garde to its stable of increasingly eclectic punk, and compared to Homestead, SST represented a quantum leap in visibility, coolness, and actual album advances. The band responded with a stunning two-album run: first EVOL, which garnered their first national press, followed by the even more amazing Sister in 1987. A bit of support goes a long way.
But it wouldn’t last long. Soon, Moore started sniffing similarities to Homestead. Again, from Our Band:
“SST’s accounting was a bit suspect to us,” Moore says, an alarmingly common complaint of SST bands. The band was also disturbed that the label had been firing employees. “We didn’t like what was going on over there– it seemed sort of odd,” says Moore. “People we liked were being let go.” (…)
By 1987 SST had started to show unmistakable signs of hubris, such as releasing over eighty titles that year, a ridiculous amount even by major label standards.
Sonic Youth’s split from SST was far from amicable– it took litigation to get their masters back from label owner Greg Ginn– and again, the band sought help. They called up their old friend Paul Smith, who ran Blast First, a licensing label that distributed U.S. indie luminaries in Europe, and who was trying to start a U.S. label with Sonic Youth as the crown jewel.
Like Albini, Moore is a tireless advocate of bands he likes. But the similarities stop quickly– Moore’s not afraid to recruit those bands to join the major leagues. Azerrad explains the band’s role in Smith’s entrepreneurial endeavor:
In 1987 Smith set up a New York office and began trying to lure all the UK Blast First artists, including Dinosaur Jr. (SST), Big Black (Touch & Go), the Butthole Surfers (Touch & Go), and Sonic Youth. But despite Sonic Youth’s enthusiastic lobbying, none of the other bands made the move. Even worse, Big Black’s Steve Albini was annoyed at them for trying to spirit away the best-selling artists on his good friend Corey Rusk’s Touch & Go label; Sonic Youth’s relationship with Albini was never the same.
Breaking from SST was both a good and bad idea for Sonic Youth. They escaped what Lee Ranaldo famously described as the label’s “stoner administrative quality,” but were left otherwise adrift with a fledgling go-getter managing what would become their magnum opus. The band didn’t sign straight up with a major, Azerrad notes, because they wanted to avoid a delayed release and aim for year-end critics’ lists. Instead, they opted for the quicker route of Smith’s cobbled-together partnership with fledgling SoCal punk label Enigma, owned by EMI and with Capitol’s distribution muscle behind it, for the U.S. release of Daydream Nation (Blast First handled European distribution). Capitol unsurprisingly had no idea what to do with Daydream, and thus totally botched the handling of one of post-punk’s defining achievements, leaving it a quintessential critic’s album for years.
But to Moore, this was more a failure for Smith– with whom the band had a falling out– and less one of “major label” culture. Moore didn’t believe in the indie/major dichotomy of Albini, Jello Biafra, Maximum Rock’n’roll, and the like. Far from it. Instead, he saw indie culture slowly creeping into the corporate world as an opportunity. Azerrad highlights the rationale that led to the band’s ostensible Faustian bargain:
…the indie scene wasn’t an alternative network of dedicated music fans anymore, it was now just another industry looking for increased market share– and not doing it very well. If that was the case, Sonic Youth figured, why not work with people who knew what they were doing? “I didn’t feel any allegiance for the independent scene anymore, that’s for sure,” said Moore, “because it was in disarray as far as I was concerned.”
I think it’s much less important to wonder if Sonic Youth were ultimately “right” or “wrong” in seeking a major label deal, and more interesting to consider that the band– in spite of its art-world and punk cred– at its core privileged pragmatism over ideology. In 1990, Geffen released Goo.
David Geffen had been a major figure since starting the Laurel Canyon indie singer/songwriter haven Asylum in the early 70s. He started his namesake label with major funding from Warner in 1980, and 10 years later, he would sell that to MCA, become a billionaire, and found the more boutiquey DGC as Geffen’s more progressive, “new talent” imprint. By 1994, thanks to Sonic Youth’s adept scouting and desire to see their favorite bands make it– along with DGC’s cash– the world had been introduced to Weezer, Beck, and Nirvana.
In a July 1992 Spin interview at the height of the grunge/alternative feeding frenzy, Thurston Moore defended signing to DGC for three primary reasons: working with cool, knowledgeable label folk; working on music without holding a day job; and most importantly, working with a label more on the up-and-up than Homestead or SST. Given the band’s pragmatism and their general lack of ideological indie fervor, it’s an understandable move:
Thurston Moore: “Look, we’re able to work 24 hours a day at making music. We don’t have day jobs like most of the musicians we know, working in record stores or copy places.” (…)
It’s a different time now. The majors all have alternative departments staffed with people from the indie scene. We could have waited and signed now, and yes, we probably could’ve gotten more money. Big deal. We signed for a rather modest amount so we could have complete control over the music.” (…)
“I don’t think most of our fans understand what goes on politically in corporate rock. Let’s face it, we’re living in corporate America. And you know what? This record company treats us better than any indie label ever did. I don’t like the term, but I guess the operative word is professional.”
Kim Gordon: “When we were on some indie labels, a lot of times the label was learning as they went. And they didn’t have the resources we enjoy now. We don’t work for DGC, we work with them.”
The “we’re living in corporate America” bit of this interview sticks out to me, and to be sure, this sort of ambivalent observation is the sort of thing that Albini detests. It is what makes indie purists puke. But it makes for an interesting alternative view of indie culture. Think about how totally 80s Sonic Youth’s career had been to that point: They’d seen the worst aspects of corporate culture– shady financial dealings, zero respect of labor by management– while on two tiny indie punk labels. Should they be faulted for thinking a boutique major with incredible distribution power couldn’t be that much worse?
Speaking to Pitchfork.tv’s Nitsuh Abebe in 2008, Moore specified the band’s reasons for making the DGC leap:
…when we first signed to Geffen Records, it was cool, they were like friends of ours. Ray Farrell from SST Records was working there, Mark Kates, who we knew from college radio, was working there. It was at this time where a lot of people coming out of the scene that we developed together in the 80s, you know, with independent music, were, sort of, getting work at major labels, you know. Post-college radio… so it just kinda made sense, to some degree, that we would sort of, like, work together on this.” (…)
I’m grateful they put our records out. And it was also a sort of secure situation. I mean, we had health care, things like that.
Perhaps those who subscribe to a worldview such as Albini’s don’t view it this way– and there’s plenty of reason to believe them– but being able to make music for a living, with health care, while working right alongside one’s trustworthy indie pals, seems like a dream job, despite having to dirty one’s hands with corporate associations. In a 2008 interview with the Seattle Times, Moore talks a bit more about the reality of what “indie” can mean to musicians from an occupational perspective:
Geffen Records, at that time, was kind of considered an independent, among those other major labels… the label was a self-sufficient label that utilized the WEA– Warner, Elektra, Atlantic– distribution system… And they had a little house. Their office was like this old, little house on Sunset Boulevard, sort of a holdover from a great era, the late-60s, early-70s L.A. music scene.
For Moore, resisting Geffen out of hand because it had “major” corporate ties made no sense; what he saw was personality and uniqueness, friendly co-workers who seemed to give a shit. And of course, long-awaited exposure.
And boy did they take advantage of the exposure. It goes without saying that Sonic Youth released some amazing music on Geffen– polished a bit from the Homestead and SST stuff sure, but polished mostly very well– and crucially, released that music to a ton of kids like me. At 15, I saw the video for “100%” on MTV, and whoosh, my hair seemed to want to stop being cut. I got my Santa Cruz skateboard out of the garage, and thanks to the 6’5″ rail-thin Moore, I felt lucky to be tall and gawkily skinny for the first time in my life. The “Youth Against Fascism” lyric “I believe Anita Hill” and Kim Gordon’s “Swimsuit Issue” introduced me to a feminist perspective on sex and power. I got a gig as a college radio DJ, and I proselytized to my handful of listeners with one of the band’s most infectious songs, “Bull in the Heather” (“it’s not totally representative of their sound, but it’s more like what Lou Barlow did with ‘Natural One’,” I’d say). I thought then and still think that Moore’s DGC-backed 1995 solo album Psychic Hearts is ridiculously underrated. “The Diamond Sea”: All 20 minutes of it.
From my fannish perspective, a new Sonic Youth album every two years was an event. From the band’s view, however, things got complicated quickly. Deregulation and mergers spiraled out of control, MTV ceased being anything other than the VMAs, a liquor magnate took over the pocketbook. This sort of thing is what makes indie dudes say “I told you so!” Moore explained to the Seattle Times:
I don’t want to complain about Geffen so much, but it just became a company we didn’t have any sort of personal relationship with for a number of years at the end there. They kept hiring and firing people at such a rate that it didn’t do anybody any good… people disappear and are replaced with a whole other crew of new, young hopefuls wanting to break into the corporate record industry. That happened consecutively, to the last two or three records there, and it was disastrous, in a way (…)
I always thought, at some point, the perception of any band like us that’s on a label like that, it gets somewhat devalued just because of the personality of the label, which is sort of faceless, in a sense.
By 2008, when Sonic Youth left Geffen after 18 years, when most music fans think about major labels, they aren’t thinking good thoughts. We don’t think of them as musical curators, but musical litigators. It’s one of the ironies of music culture that the strongest brands are still the smallest labels. Yet it never mattered with a band like Sonic Youth. Think about the steadiness of their catalog over those two decades: Nine albums, a few dozen great songs. I discovered Dirty at 15, and I’ve grown up with them as a constant companion.
Matador grew up, too. Three years before Sonic Youth set off to be indie-famous on a major and age incredibly gracefully, Cosloy was getting Matador off the ground. And two years after the band reunited with the good dude from Homestead for The Eternal, they would play Matador’s 21st birthday party as one of the label babies. As a symbolic bookend to the other end of their recently-ended 18 year relationship, they focused their set mainly on their classic immediate pre-DGC run: EVOL, Sister, Daydream Nation.
The indie that Sonic Youth came back to isn’t totally different than the one they left; it’s just bigger and, in many ways, stronger. In the Pitchfork TV interview, Lee Ranaldo explained the band’s DGC decision by raising the ever-important question of distribution:
…when we moved to a major, it was partly for better distribution, and that situation is not really the same anymore. I mean, a record label like Matador can pretty much distribute as easily as a major, at this point. And in a way, because they’re music lovers, they’re a little bit more savvy about where they can get the records, in a certain way.
While Sonic Youth were on DGC, some interesting collaborations were taking place just slightly out of most people’s everyday experience with music. In 1993, sniffing the dollar signs of alternative but knowing that keeping their corporate name out of the equation was key, Warner Music Group formed the Alternative Distribution Alliance with Sub Pop. ADA now circulates Matador’s music (and a ton of other indies).
Distribution and promotion are the keys to successful indie; they always have been. The good, long-lasting indies know this–Secretly Canadian started its own distribution arm while still servicing only voracious European fans of the first Songs: Ohia 7″ back in 1997, and by 2009, they were self-sufficient enough to help out a few of the labels dispossessed by the shuttering of Touch & Go’s distribution arm, and they now work with Warner not for marketing or creating hype, but to get Yeasayer and Bon Iver into Best Buy while still using their own connections system to service the (remaining) local indie stores. It’s easy to focus on the hierarchy-free web and peer-to-peer networks as an unsustainable infrastructure for music culture, but that’s only part of the story. Indie labels are accelerating music culture faster than the corporate labels could ever hope to, and they’re getting strategically corporate with their distribution methods to do so. Warner’s a pipeline, not a boss.
And maybe the best thing about this situation is that those who know about these connections by and large don’t care at all. Which makes me think that maybe Sonic Youth’s signing to a major in 1990– spurred by pragmatism, bad histories with dodgy indies, and just the right amount of youthful/artistic naivete– laid some of the foundations toward helping us be okay with the right kind of corporate assistance 20 years later. The New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones recently opined that “the difference between major and indie labels now has less to do with aesthetics than with the way bands conceive of their careers.”
It’s a lovely thought, and one that Steve Albini himself might agree with. There’s a quote in that GQ interview that got completely ignored in lieu of the pageview-friendly faux-beef. It’s one of the best descriptions of making music I’ve ever read, and it bears repeating:
Most people in their daily lives are pretty reasonable. A lot of people that end up being in bands give themselves license to act like assholes because they’re involved in music. If they didn’t see the music world as separate from the real world, most people would continue to behave honorably in their interactions with the music scene. I don’t think that what Shellac does is remarkable, really. I feel like it’s just normal. There’s a perversion of normal ethical standards, indulged and encouraged by a music industry that feels more important the more it is removed from regular life. For those of us in Shellac and the other bands we admire, being in a band is just part of normal, regular life. You don’t act like an asshole when you go to the barber. So why act like an asshole when you’re in a band?
Albini gets a lot of press when he rants, not just because he’s cranky, but because he’s incredibly smart and well-spoken– enough to serve as the primary exponent of a Puritanical artistic ideology that we’ve equated over the years to “indie.” But that doesn’t mean he’s completely right. It’s possible to work with a corporation– to dip one’s toes in the waters of the imagined “mainstream”– without turning into an asshole, cheapening the music you’re making, or serving as a footsoldier for greedy corporate executives. You can get the money to make a video like “Dirty Boots”, a romanticized document of so much of what it felt like to be a surburban teenager in the early 1990s. You can work with a corporation, if you play your cards right, without necessarily working for a corporation. That’s what indies like Matador are doing.
Perhaps more importantly, though, I think this minor online kerfuffle, as blown out of proportion as it is, serves only as evidence for a broader cultural shift. The fact that Albini’s ideas– as idealistic and inherently positive as they are– seem somewhat archaic in 2010 highlights that the now-three-decade reign of the punk-derived indie ideology doesn’t necessarily resonate with that many of us anymore, and is perhaps fading away for good.