Punk- Rejected from or defying the music industry?

Abstract:

This paper explores the divisions between major labels and independent labels on punk music releases. New forces such as the internet and file-sharing have diminished CD sales in recent years, but there are many ways for independent labels to innovate in order to sell music and to maintain a strong fan base. The punk music scene has always focused on going against the mainstream, and has survived for many years on independent labels. This paper will focus on how independent labels can still survive and compete with major labels through innovation and creativity. The paper will argue that there are many differences in content and themes of punk music between major record companies and independent labels, due to factors arising from the increased concentration, conglomeration, and integration of the music industry.


Punk Music: Major Labels vs. Independent Labels

Punk is a lifestyle and genre of music that usually stresses anti-establishment themes such as DIY (do it yourself). However, the musical ‘establishment’, or major record companies, often delve into diverse genres when there is an opportunity for profit. In this paper, I will chart ten CD’s from my collection in order to determine whether they belong to major or independent record labels, and attempt to discover differences in content, themes and style. Further, I will touch on the aspects of concentration, conglomeration, and integration, to see what effects they have on my music collection.

Table: Ten CD’s from my music collection

BAND

ALBUM

RECORD LABEL

PARENT COMPANY

TYPE OF LABEL

The Clash

London Calling

Columbia

Sony Music Entertainment Inc.

Major

Dead Kennedys

Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

Decay Music

Manifesto Records

Independent

Dystopia

Human=Garbage

Life is Abuse/ Misanthropic Records(Brazil)

None

Independent

Germs

The Complete Anthology

Slash Records

Warner Music Group

Major

Nausea

The Punk Terrorist Anthology Vol.1

Black Noise

None

Independent

Nightchains

Metal to the Bone

Dead Master’s Beat (Germany)

None

Independent

Oi Polloi

In Defence of Our Earth

Nikt Nic Nie Wie (Poland)

None

Independent

Ramones

Leave Home

Rhino

Warner Music Group

Major

RatosDe Porão

Crucificados Pelo Sistema

Speedstate Records (Japan)

None

Independent

T.S.O.L

Who’s Screwin Who?

Anarchy Music

Cleopatra Records

Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After looking through ten albums from my music collection, I was not surprised to find that a majority of the CD’s were released by independent labels. Because punk music started as an alternative underground genre fighting the homogeneity of mainstream music, signing to a major record company could lead to a band being labeled as ‘sell-outs’. This could seriously undermine the credibility of a band among its fan base. On the other hand, major record companies might not want to sign most punk bands due to themes that do not suit the values of their parent company. The concentration of ownership by several large corporations of the music industry could “give us reason to believe that a whole range of ideas and images- those that question fundamental social arrangements, under which the media owners are doing quite well- will rarely be visible” (Croteau & Hoynes, 2002). In this case, anti-corporate and anti-capitalist lyrics do not fit in with the major corporations’ values of efficiency and profit-making.

Major labels and independent labels do not have the same expenses when it comes to producing, releasing, and marketing albums. Major labels typically sell CDs for a retail price of $15.99. Since three out of my ten albums were released on major labels, this is the typical breakdown of where my money for those CDs went:

$0.51 Musicians’ unions

$2.40 Packaging/manufacturing

$2.46 Publishing royalties

$2.40 Retail profit

$2.70 Distribution

$4.80 Artists’ royalties

$5.10 Label profit

$7.20 Marketing/promotion

$8.73 Label overhead

$3.89 Retail overhead

(Cohen, 2004)

With independent labels, the cost of a release is not so clear. First, many independent labels don’t spend so much on marketing and promotion. Second, different labels can have different arrangements with artists, sometimes allowing them to keep the rights to their music which would eliminate the need for paying royalties. Third, with independent labels, it is often the responsibility of the artists to produce and record their own albums; the label plays the role of distributing and selling the albums.

I spoke with Christopher Maier, the business manager of German label Dead Masters Beat (which re-released the album of Lebanese heavy metal band Nightchains from my collection). He explained to me how his label would typically breakdown the costs of a CD release. Typically, on the first album release for a band, a thousand copies of the CD will be made. The band receives ten percent from the release, which is equivalent to one hundred CDs. Also, one hundred copies are distributed for promotion purposes. With eight-hundred copies left for the label, each album is sold at a retail price of 10 Euros. The only cost incurred is that of manufacturing, about 1.5 Euros per CD. The remaining 8.5 Euro per CD is profit for the label. DMB sell the CDs exclusively from their website, which Maier sees as both a positive and a negative thing. He said that it is harder this way for people to find the album, but that his label has chosen not to “sell CDs to distributors, because they buy at lower wholesale prices and then sell the albums for a higher price. Wholesalers usually earn more money than musicians… If we would get better distribution, then there will be too many costs” (Maier).

Due to the fact that major labels spend so much money on advertising, promotion, and distribution, it is harder for independent labels to get their music heard to the masses. However, there are innovative ways in which artists can get their music sold and gain a fan base. The internet has emerged as a medium not only for easy distribution and promotion of music, but also for fans to reach out and connect with others from all over the world. Independent labels have managed to utilize social networking and other aspects of the internet for promoting and sharing music (IndieLab). When it comes to punk music, the internet has allowed for local punk scenes to shift to a global scale. Indeed, the strengths of independent labels “have always been their ability to build up solid bases of fanatical loyal fans and the internet has only helped focus that talent (IndieLab, 2009). Interestingly, trade has become a key aspect in the distribution of punk or metal CDs. I received many CDs of my collection (such as the Ratos de Porao and Oi Polloi albums) through trading with punks in Sweden and France. Many independent labels and distributors also trade CDs (Maier). This is an interesting alternative to the pure profit driven goal of major record companies, and it allows for an artist’s CD to be circulating throughout the world.  Independent labels were also innovative in realizing that fans “still loved a good physical product and invested in custom artwork, packaging and… special limited edition vinyl releases” (IndieLab, 2009). Where major labels may be cutting costs in favor of increased promotion and advertising, independent labels can maintain a quality product while still turning a profit.

The music industry has been moving towards more and more concentration, integration, and conglomeration. This greatly affects the music that is released, as well as the diversity of artists. Underground artists and independent labels must distinguish themselves by going against the homogenization of mainstream music. Major labels today are not looking for cutting-edge artists, but for “safe acts to guarantee a return on their investment” (IndieLab, 2009). Values such as increased profit and efficiency at all costs can greatly diminish the quality of music that is released today. For these reasons, integration, which refers to a media corporation buying either other media companies or buying all the “aspects of production and distribution” (Croteau & Hoynes, 2002) is becoming more important. This can be a negative force for independent labels, as their music releases can effectively be shut out from the mainstream music industry. However, factors such as utilizing the internet, gigs, and low costs of producing CDs can still allow for independent labels to keep making a profit. Concentration and conglomeration of the music industry are illustrated in the fact that four major record companies have bought many smaller labels, and that these four companies now dominate the mainstream music industry. Major labels are expected to turn a profit, and any content that does not do so will be largely excluded; this had led to the “homogenization of media products… [and] the growing concentration of power and the limitation of media access (Croteau & Hoynes, 2002). Another negative consequence of the increased concentration and conglomeration of the music industry is that it is difficult for “alternative media voices to emerge” (Croteau & Hoynes, 2002); in other words, there is a mainstream message and worldview that is usually portrayed through the mass media, and ideas that are too critical or too different could be shut out from the major label industry all together.

There is a noticeable difference in style, content, and lyrical themes between the major label recordings and the independent label recordings in my collection. With the major label recordings, the structures of the songs are more simplistic, with catchy choruses and rhymes. Also, the songs on major label recordings typically do not exceed two or three minutes in length; this structure is a better fit for the radio. With independent label recordings, the lyrics do not always focus on rhymes, but sometimes have a more free-flowing form (which could be considered less ‘catchy’ and less appealing to the average consumer). When it comes to lyrical content and themes, the major label punk recordings focus on themes such as alienation, everyday problems, teenage boredom, and venting frustrations. These themes are still acceptable to a major label, because they do not direct the listener to a specific cause to fight for. In fact, the lyrics seem to be almost apathetic. This allows for a specific target audience that will consume these albums, consisting of mostly teenagers. For example, “Looking for a way out/ I put my foot out of line/ Really like to break out/ I feel so confined” (Germs, 1979). The Ramones lyrics express similar themes, “It’s TV’s fault why I am I this way/ Mom and pop wanna put me away/ From the early morning movie to the late late show/ After it’s over nowhere to go”. (Ramones, 1977).

On the other hand, the lyrics from the independent label releases focus in on social, economic, political, and environmental issues. They still include themes of alienation, but this alienation is instead directed towards a cause, and perhaps even a call for individual action. Oi Polloi illustrate this in songs such as Thin Green Line:

“So here we are- a thin green line/ Into the nineties, running out of time/ Extinction of our planet has already begun/ But don’t let them tell you that nothing can be done/ Some of us are angry & fighting back/ Non violent direct action is a means of attack/ No, we’re not giving up without a fight” (Oi Polloi, 1990).

Nausea discuss topics such as alienation from the greed of corporations and their destruction of the earth; the song Self Destruct begins with the lyrics “Look at this world man has created/People dependent on greed and hatred/ Wars between religion/ Wars between races/ Still fighting battles/Their ancestors started/ You destroy/ You exploit/ We condone/ We self destruct” (Nausea, 2001). Additionally, the Dead Kennedy’s song Pull My Strings is a direct criticism of the music industry and the homogenization of mainstream music; “Is my brain small enough/ For you to make me a star/ Give me a toot/ I’ll sell you my soul/ Pull my strings and I’ll go far” (Dead Kennedys, 1987). These themes that include many anti-capitalist references as surely not suitable for the major record companies, specifically due to the fact that these are not the messages and ideas that would be profitable to spread to the general public. For music to remain in the mainstream, it should not be overly critical of any of social or economic structures; this could alienate advertisers as well as the mass media corporations themselves that benefit from these structures (Croteau and Hoynes). Also, for these messages to remain credible, artists cannot sign with major labels unless they are willing to be “moulded and market tested and shaped by the major label machine” (IndieLab 2009). The major labels need music that is potentially profitable, and too much focus on the problems of today’s world is very potentially un-profitable.

I have been listening to punk music for over eight years now, and I consider my value system as largely shaped by what I have learned through this music scene. First, I have learned to be critical of everything, and to not take in any information blindly. This has made me more media literate, because I have learned not to trust the mainstream media, and to constantly read between the lines of the information I am bombarded with on a daily basis. Second, the values and culture in the music that I listen to can be considered universal, as it encourages one to fight against the social, environmental, political, and economic issues that exist both on a local and global stage. I also felt the needs to introduce and adapt these ideas to my own local context by starting a punk band. Our plan is to currently keep our songs available for free download on a file-sharing site, and later to start an independent label where we will release our own albums and other Lebanese or Arab bands, and promote the local punk scene through live concerts and festivals.

Conclusion:

 

Although it is typically thought that an artist needs to sign with a major label to be heard, independent labels have been successful at “taking quirky cutting edge acts and building them loyal fan bases… Indie signings aren’t always suitable for a mainstream audience but the right label will find the artist’s nice and exploit it” (IndieLab, 2009). The punk music scene has been successful at doing this since its emergence in the late 1970’s, which is evident by the large amount of fans that not only gather as online communities, but also at festivals and gigs. In many ways, punk bands that are released by independent labels are more authentic and credible artists, because they interact with their fans and are not hidden behind the clout and fame of major labels. This allows one to have a more intimate experience with music, rather than simply listening to the Top 10 hits which are funded with large amounts of money for marketing and promotion by the major record label. In fact, I usually download albums for major record companies illegally, and buy CDs from independent labels, just to make the point that I want to support authentic artists, and not ‘artists’ that are nothing more than mass-produced clones.

.

References

 

Cohen, W. (2004, October 12). Walmart wants $10 cds.

Retrieved from www.rollingstone.com/news/story/_/id/6558540

 

Croteau, D., & Hoynes, W. (2002). Media/society: Industries, images and audiences. Pine Forge Press.

IndieLab. (2009, October 2). Indie labels. IndieLab.

Retrieved from http://indielab.co.uk/blog/2009/10/the-indie-labels/

IndieLab (2009, September 25). Major record labels. IndieLab.

Retrieved from http://indielab.co.uk/blog/2009/10/the-major-record-labels/

Discography   (Lyrics cited)

 Dead Kennedys.  (1987).  Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.  Manifesto Records.

Germs. (1979, 1983). The Complete Anthology. Slash Records.

Nausea. (2001). The Punk Terrorist Anthology. Black Noise.

Oi Polloi. (1990). In Defence of Our Earth. Nikt Nic Nie Wie.

Ramones. (1977, 2001). Leave Home. Warner Bros. Records Inc & Rhino Entertainment Company.

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