(This is a reply I did to a post on an online webforum.)
I half-agree with what you say but the problem is that what constitutes “lifeless” is such a subjective matter.
For example, you cite JJ72’s ‘Oxygen’ as being genuine and emotional whereas for me they, along with Coldplay, Toploader, Travis, Sterophonics, Manics etc epitomise corporate schmindie rock. All these bands are as pampered, manufactured and heavily promoted as, say Steps or S Club 7. It’s an insult they’re even called ‘indie’ when they’re all major-label student fodder. The labels are simply aiming at a different demographic: angst-ridden teenagers as opposed to little kids who like dancing.
None of the above schmindie bands are doing anything as political or innovative as McCarthy, Big Black, Fugazi, Minor Threat, the Pixies or even Nirvana (who at least were a real band on a real indie label, before being swallowed by Geffen).
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of major label music and have even made some myself. I don’t think being on a major automatically makes you rubbish. But it helps. What it comes down to is art by committee. The kind of machined, planned, soul-less music you hate is the end result of putting profits before art. Endless profiling and plotting by A&R gibbons, ludicrous hyping and records that chart for one week and then drop like stones. And no, all labels don’t have to run that way.
Before the majors killed/bought them off in the indie assimilation of the early 90s, this country had quite a few internationally famous independent labels. Think of Creation (pre-Sony), Sarah, El, Cherry Red, Factory, Mute and others.
Now there’s only Mute left in its original form. How can you compete when the majors are *giving* their records away to retailers? As in other industries, the last ten years has seen a vicious oligopoly develop. The corporations have made the profits, record sales have been spiralling downwards and pop music has been increasingly barren. Repackage, reissue, re-sell, to paraphrase an old indie star.
Bizarrely, in the dance and hip-hop sectors, it’s not such a gloomy story. This is mainly cos these are based on subcultures that the pea-brained corporations have no understanding of. So there’s a lot of small labels, pumping stuff out on vinyl when everyone said it’d be dead by now. Okay, they’re not making huge profits (probably losing money and doing it for love) but they’re releasing great new music.
Of course, if there’s an artist/song that breaks big, then the majors swoop in, do a crap radio edit and clean up nicely, thank you, with little or no investment. They use small labels as nurseries. If a label has enough hits, like Skint, then they’ll just buy it.
But the good news? Well, there are still passionate, moving songwriters and musicians out there, plugging away. You won’t find them in the increasingly irrelevant mass media (goodbye Melody Maker – you won’t be missed) and may have to trawl through mp3.com, similar sites or specialist Usenet groups.
Uplifting music of last year? Well, I’d say the best hip-hop album would be Dead Prez‘ ‘Let’s Get Free!’ which is about as political and uplifting as you can get, this side of simply reciting Trotsky. And it’s on a major label, just to show I’m not prejudiced :-).
As for rock, well, I loved Steve Earle’s ‘Transcendental Blues.’ The production is brilliant, he’s got that great Dylan-esque growl and the songs are just pure pop, with meaning.
Electronic stuff – I’m still grooving to Yoshinori Sunahara‘s ‘Pan Am.’ Again, excellent production, just gets your head nodding immediately. And flowing, melodic instrumental music, a bit Towa Tei in places but that’s no bad thing.
As for real indie – the prize would have to go to Magnetic Fields ’69 Love Songs.’ Now, there’s a modern songwriter I can admire and aspire to. If they were on a major label, would they even be allowed to release a concept triple-album? Not these days…
So yeah, I agree things are pretty bad in the big leagues. But sales can only fall so far before it becomes openly ridiculous. Meanwhile, there’s a growing Net subculture which can help to support and promote new music as much as Napster might harm sales.
I’m optimistic. You can’t kill good music,
love and kisses,