Major Record Labels Try to Copy The Success of Independents

Purists worry that the alternative-music scene is being co-opted

A MUSIC scene that tries to stay on the fringes of mainstream American culture is facing an identity crisis - it's becoming popular.

Independent record labels that reject commercialism and pride themselves on producing anti-establishment music for alienated youth are being bought up by large media companies. The dilemma of independents is that the raw originality that makes them appealing to fickle teens also makes them hot properties in a business where being on the cutting edge is everything.

So many independents that produced the most exciting bands and sounds of the last 10 years are now either owned by or aligned with major labels that some people worry independents are becoming just a boring farm system for the majors.

``If you're looking for a true independent, we're not it,'' says Lyle Preslar, a vice president at New York-based Caroline Records. Caroline and its formerly independent British parent Virgin were purchased by recording giant EMI in 1992. ``We don't want to hold ourselves up as something that we're not and be ridiculed for it.''

After a spurt of buying independent or ``indies'' outright, major labels are now taking a different approach. EMI, for example, allows Caroline - a large indie that distributes over 200 smaller indie labels - to retain completely separate operations and compete with EMI's other subsidiaries.

``What tends to happen is that a really hot sound is developed on the indie labels and then absorbed by the major label,'' Preslar says.

Two trends helped independents begin flourishing in the late 1980s. Technological change allowed independents to produce compact discs for as little as 50 cents each and the major-label focus on superstars such as Madonna and Bruce Springteen left talented bands looking for other outlets.

The clearest and most overused example of how independents became so influential is Seattle-based Sub Pop records. The label, which is now aligned with Warner records, gave the band Nirvana a chance, recording the band's first album, ``Bleach,'' at a total cost of $800.

Nirvana and other Sub Pop bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains eventually went on to sign with major labels, selling millions of albums and launching a multibillion dollar ``grunge rock'' juggernaut that revitalized a rock industry full of aging bands.

Rap, which now rivals rock music in sales, was also spawned from independent labels. Def Jam, an independent that gave breaks to Public Enemy and other rap giants, has been purchased by CBS. Los Angeles-based rap label Epitaph, a struggling independent a few years ago, is now spinning off its own smaller labels.

Independents are also a major factor in the increasing regionalization of the music industry. Chicago's Matador and uncompromising Touch and Go labels; Washington's Dischord; Boston's Tang and Cherrydisk; Chapel Hill, N.C.'s Alias; San Diego's Headhunter; and Minneapolis's well-established Twin/Tone all fuel strong regional music scenes vying to become the next Seattle.

Suburban Boston-based Cherrydisk's story is typical in many ways of the newest generation of independents. John Horton launched the label in the summer of 1992. The label's first album was a compilation of songs from Boston-area bands he liked.

``The job of an independent label is to give [bands] a chance,'' says Horton, the label's only full-time employee.

Cherrydisk currently carries 12 mostly local bands, and Boston-based Letters to Cleo is the most successful. The band's first album, ``Aurora Gory Alice,'' sold 5,000 copies, a hit by independent standards.

Letters to Cleo guitarist Greg McKenna says many bands are ruined by being signed too early by major labels and then getting dropped when their albums don't sell well. Some bands have even gone back to indies.

``Independents give bands much more artistic freedom than majors do,'' McKenna says.

Caroline Vice President Preslar says indies are a crucial intermediary between the tens of thousands of bands and a handful of major labels. Independents give bands a chance to develop musically, he says.

After playing more than 3,000 shows in four years, Letters to Cleo was signed by a major label this month. ``Aurora Gory Alice'' will be re-released by the larger company.

McKenna and others criticize the major labels for launching their own ``fake'' indie labels. Several majors now produce ``independent''-label recordings that give little hint as to their real origin.

The majors hope to gain some of the cachet of being outsiders and break into the extremely loyal group of record buyers who will buy an album because it's from an indie label.

``I have faith that the vast majority of people know when they're hearing something that's not real,'' Caroline's Preslar says. ``We can tell if people are doing what they believe or are cow-towing to the latest lyrical or ideological trends.''

Corporate marketing machines may be closing the gap in their never-ending chase of popular culture, but indie supporters say technological change may never let them catch up. The lessening cost of CD and video production guarantees that new indies will emerge and thrive.

The big labels throw money around, trying to create something that is false, Cherrydisk owner Horton says.

``There will always be independents. There always has to be something underground.''

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