Wednesday, February 26, 2003

The most laughable consequence of the Nirvana revolution was the birth of the fake indie label. Eager to capitalize on Nirvana's success, the major record labels signed lots of independent label bands, causing some purists to lament the indie labels being used as farm teams. The majors bought ownership stakes in other indie labels, causing some purists to wonder whether, say, Sub Pop was still really an indie label if Warner Brothers controlled a big chunk of their stock. When there was nothing left to buy, some major labels resorting to manufacturing indie credibility by setting up new imprints that were designed to resemble indie labels. They used intentionally amateurish graphics and minimized to logos of the real corporate behemoths that were the ultimate owners.

The scheme fizzled. Anyone who really cared about indie cred, who had brand loyalty to SST or the indie ethos in general saw through such chicanery. Anyone who didn't care about indie cred didn't pay enough attention to labels to make the scheme worth the effort. The trend died long before the majors realized that Babes in Toyland and their ilk were never going to have multi-platinum albums and before the cool, marginal bands broke up or retreated to the indies.

I was reminded of this because I just received a mailing from one of the satellite radio companies. Rather like the products on the fake indie labels, it was too conspicuously devoid of corporate logos, too conspicuously "badly" printed to look like a zine on newsprint. The corporate behemoth was trying painfully hard to look like a renegade outsider while also, eventually, promoting that they have ESPN radio, i.e. part of the Disney empire.

I can see the value of satellite radio, rather like cable TV, in the ability to narrowcast. On a recent vacation, my parents really enjoyed the "best of Broadway" station on their rental car's satellite radio; it's a musical taste to which broadcast radio stations can't afford to cater. But the companies shouldn't try to imply their indie cred to the few people who are informed enough to know better. I'm guessing I'll still need to tune in to my favorite college station if I want to hear both Gang of Four and Radio 4.

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