What Does The Suburbs Hitting #1 Mean for Indie Rock?
Arcade Fire is an indie band. I don't say that just because they sound like an indie band -- though they do -- but because they're actually signed to an indie label.
All three Arcade Fire albums came out on Merge, a North Carolina-based company that was started in 1989 so D-I-Yers Superchunk could put out their own stuff. Merge is not an imprint tied to major label A&R guys. It's only real association was with indier-than-thou Touch & Go, which used to do their distribution before going (basically) belly up last year, and they're now part of an alliance of indie labels. But that's really just for getting the records to the store -- it's not like anyone there is doing the sort of day-to-day oversight an imprint would get.
And, right now, Arcade Fire has the number 1 album in the country with The Suburbs.
Not the number two -- their sophomore release, Neon Bible, did that -- but the number 1. (In case you were wondering, Notorious B.I.G.'s greatest hits CD which, ironically contains few of his actual hits, took the spot over Neon Bible.)
That's really something.
At this point, it'd be hard to argue that Arcade Fire isn't the most influential indie band in the world. Not just aesthetically, I hope, but across the board.
Radiohead most recently held the title of 'it' indie band, of course. Thankfully, they're undeniably on the wane. They haven't really done much in three years and it's a safe bet you can't recall the title of the most recent single they released -- that'd be "These Are My Twisted Words."
Here's the thing about Radiohead: They're not indie in any way. Not just because their sound is post-rock or alt-rock or whatever you want to call it, but because they've never been on an indie label. They got a huge push from a major label to start their career -- Pablo Honey came out on Capitol -- and that major label, and EMI, its owner, which shifted the band to other subsidies in the following years, stood by them through the relatively unsuccessful The Bends, pumping in cash for their third record, OK Computer, which was recorded in stints at two studios, with breaks in between, while their fragile artistic temperament was catered to in many ways. Radiohead took a break from recording at one point to go on a tour of the States, then finished things up at a Tudor mansion. That's a nice situation, if you can get it.
Then that label helped them utilize the internet to market Kid A, which went swimmingly. So swimmingly, in fact, that the band decided to cut out the middle man. Why work for a label when your profile is high enough to ensure publicity for anything you do, and when you can keep the cash for yourself, right? So now Radiohead is an independent band in that they have no label, but not an indie band signed to an indie label, helping pump profits into the development of other artists.
Arcade Fire, on the other hand, is an indie band on an indie label and God bless them for it. The money they're making for Merge might, for example, find its way to Guided By Voices singer Robert Pollard, or to The Shout Out Louds, or Camera Obscura or Spoon. Or The Magentic Fields, or Wye Oak or Let's Wrestle. In case I'm not making my point clearly: Merge really has a fantastic line-up of artists who don't sell as many records as Arcade Fire but are nevertheless very important and interesting.
So let's all celebrate Merge and Arcade Fire's achievement. They've shown that the collectivist indie label model works.
I don't know the status of Arcade Fire's contract -- maybe they just fulfilled it and will be soon moving on themselves -- but, either way, so far they've been loyal, and by doing things The Right Way they're helping a lot of talented people right now.
No, they're not helping a "scene" filled with their friends by starting their own stupid label, as so many self-important bands do. They're also not helping themselves, like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails did, by keeping their own profits. Instead they're helping underwrite a proven winner, a label that's been successfully putting out great music for two decades.
The point of a record label is, ostensibly, is to make money off music by selling it, then using the profits to make more music, then sell that. Rinse and repeat. It's a beautiful thing, really. Lots of people find fault with the system, but I'm not sure why: Labels help musicians live and create in the hopes that they turn a profit, then they invest that profit in other musicians who wish to live and create. This model has been corrupted at the highest levels, sure, but it's not bad, in an of itself.
Arcade Fire has shown that the indie label model works well. Really, really well, actually. Not #2 well -- but #1 well. Hopefully that can make a difference to some people. Not just in others shamelessly lifting their sound -- we have a few Phoenix bands doing that, sadly -- but in sharing their commitment to the system the birthed them.
It's a system worth supporting.