Recently Joe Steinhardt took a moment to ponder the year that had just passed, and didn't like what he saw.
Steinhardt runs one of my favorite music labels, Don Giovanni Records. His New Jersey-based outfit was built, as he tells it, to promote the music his friends made. His label is now blessed with loads of talent, from sweet-voiced singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson -- who will be at Fitzgerald's next month with Against Me! and Cheap Girls -- to the weirdly wonderful Jeffrey Lewis. Anyone who has read even a few of my bits knows I'm enamored of Screaming Females, one of the label's bands and arguably its best-known.
Despite that upside, Steinhardt was concerned. He felt 2013 was the year that independent music "broke," and expressed his worries in a polarizing blog for fvckthemedia.com. I decided to ask him about it and got a couple of other independent labels, including Houston's own Artificial Head Records, to weigh in on his thoughts.
"In my mind, I will always remember 2013 as the year I saw artists using 'self-release' and 'small label' as a marketing strategy," he wrote. "This year, I watched these truly subversive and independent ways of releasing music being used as stepping stones to majors and major indies, with a goal of building hype and mystery rather than as a mark of independence."
That's the crux of his complaint. Steinhardt feels some acts are bastardizing "indie" and "DIY" to gain some credibility. He declined to offer specific examples when asked; smart man. But, his viewpoint might best be exemplified by Macklemore, whose indie credibility has been questioned, particularly following his Grammy wins.
"There have always been users," says Alex DenBaars. "There have always been people who participated in underground music culture because it was convenient rather than because independence from an exploitative system of making art mattered to them."
DenBaars is more a spokesman than a label owner. And the group he speaks for, New Mexico-based Goathead Record Collective, is more a collective than a label. He falls in line with the purist argument in Steinhardt's message.
"Right now, even in my circles, there are pretenders," he says. "There are people who would join the ranks of the very same organizations that have been holding us back our entire lives. They looked at DIY culture and saw a group they could exploit and use to eventually get that MasterCard sponsorship they always secretly wanted."
At home, the founders of Artificial Head Records take a less ideological view.
"Joe states, 'Being independent means something. Independent journalists, artists, musicians, promoters, and labels should either be supporting each other, or what's the point?' says Artificial Head's Paul Chavez. "Well, the point is that bands, labels, writers...many of them aspire to one day 'make it big' and gain the respect and admiration of their family and friends so they can justify the years of toil for their rock and roll dreams."
"If we all lived in Joe's world, none of us ever grow beyond being independent and we would just kind of wallow around in this special hell of being righteous and ethical," he adds. "That may be fine for some, but not everyone dreams the same way."
Story continues on the next page.
These responses have been pretty typical, Steinhardt notes.
"I had a lot of people writing and thanking me, and a lot of people writing and damning me," he says. "Some of the people that wrote to say how much they liked the piece and agreed with it sometimes seemed like they were putting words in my mouth even in agreement as much as people who disagreed with me.
"I've always sort of kept my head down with the label and just made the decisions I believed in, and that made sense to me," he continues, "but I'm starting to see that that attitude may have been doing a disservice because people might not realize that our decisions and our bands' decisions are values-driven and the things we do and don't do are because we say yes and say no and not just because they haven't been offered to us."
As a fan of many of his acts, I asked how I could rectify his argument for "keeping it real" with "keeping it to ourselves." I want everyone to hear good music, after all.
He said I'd missed the point.
"There is nothing stopping an independent endeavor from becoming massively successful, and in fact throughout history there have been independent bands and labels that made small fortunes off of their music," reasons Steinhardt. "Our goal is to put out artists alongside the biggest artists on major labels but on their own terms."
That's what Steinhardt hoped readers would focus on. Being independent shouldn't mean being unknown or unsuccessful. But it should mean unwavering, especially aesthetically. DenBaars and the Artifical Head heads are all behind that notion.
"What is tempting about 'selling out' is all of the support you'd get that you're currently not getting, but what if you got that support without having to compromise your ethical being?" says DenBaars, whose own band, Arroyo Deathmatch, just released its eighth independently released album.
"We have successfully made available costly resources, expert knowledge and useful services to independent artists free of charge," he continues. "We raised money and built a mobile recording studio from the ground up that has already been put to work recording many local and out-of-state artists. We are currently working on distribution, again for free and for independent musicians.
"We are teaching people how to become sound engineers," adds DenBaars. All of this took place during 2013, and all of this makes the entire Albuquerque scene less reliant on the people who would let the world burn for better quarterly figures."
Chavez and his business partners, Walter Carlos and Liz Lee, are working with some of Houston's most exciting talent. The label formed as a means to promote the work of a single band, Art Institute. Within the next six months, they'll be releasing records by Giant Battle Monster, Jody Seabody & the Whirls, Funeral Horse, Hell City Kings and Artificial Head's first-ever compilation, a KISS tribute featuring bands like Clockpole, Omotai and The Linus Pauling Quartet.
"Joe's argument that a band accepting money from a shoe company to get a van and play a show in L.A. -- or wherever -- deflates the integrity of a band's brand as an ethical independent artist," says Chavez. "I completely disagree. Artificial Head is about selling records. We're not a museum -- we don't want copies of your record sitting in a box in our living room for the next five years.
"We want all the bands on our label to grow and achieve their dreams," he continues. "The thinking here is that if the bands get bigger, we'll sell more records, which means we can fund more records and help more bands get to that next step."
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW