Welcome to the Machine

The women behind "The Mechanic's Guide to Putting Out Records" take up a new battle to save the indies.

Published February 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In 1993, before Starbucks colonized the East Coast and alternative rock became a box to check off on the Columbia House order form, songwriter Lois Maffeo released a tune called "Indie" on Simple Machines, an independent record label in Arlington, Va. The song was a cheer for the do-it-yourself movement, the premise of which was that if you wanted to make a movie or put out a zine or record some music you should do it. "Do it on your own," she sings. "Be just who you want to be/Get it on in the land of the free."

The song could be the Simple Machines theme. Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thomson, the two women who founded the label in 1990, ran it with a freewheeling determination to put out records by bands they liked. Toomey and Thomson wanted to spread the good news: Anyone could do it, if they worked hard enough. Simple Machines released singles by underground bands like Superchunk, Bratmobile, Unrest and the Coctails in packaging that was often as complex and lovely as origami. They also managed to donate proceeds of some records to charities benefiting troubled kids, maintain a small media empire through mail order and nab a spot on Lollapalooza for their own band, Tsunami.

Simple Machines, along with label peers Merge, K, Kill Rock Stars, Teenbeat and Dischord, epitomized the can-do spirit that marked independent rock of the '90s. Toomey and Thomson built their record company -- and helped shape a music community -- on the ethics of playing fair and playing nice. Very nice. Their "Mechanic's Guide to Putting Out Records" -- which they wrote, self-published and sent out for free to 10,000 young bands -- encourages aspiring label heads to send cookies to album-mastering plants in order to humanize business transactions.

That advice seems more quaint than ever, given the current business climate and a seemingly biological imperative for media conglomerates to merge. After Universal swallowed Polygram in late 1998, the Big Six record companies dwindled to the Big Five, which had a lock on 85 percent of the market. Then, just after the recent AOL-Time Warner merger, Time Warner announced that it would acquire EMI, reducing the number of major record companies to four. That, in addition to even more radio consolidation, has turned the music industry into an even bigger threat to independent music than it was when Simple Machines began.

But there's a crucial difference between then and now. In the early '90s, there was no such thing as MP3, AVI or RealAudio. Digitally downloadable music, which allows anyone to deliver a song or a record directly to a consumer, has been heralded as the music industry's exterminating angel for its potential to cut the record industry out of music sales. In theory, the Net removes the distribution advantage that the majors have over indies and gives it to individuals in a way that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. But in practice, with multimillion-dollar Internet companies such as Emusic trying to sign bands to exclusive deals, majors joining with sites like Listen.com and a thicket of technology that grows knottier by the minute, the new music industry -- the online music industry -- is just as intimidating and dangerous to independents as the old.

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Although Merge and Matador each celebrated turning 10 in 1999, Toomey and Thomson didn't reach that milestone. They shut down Simple Machines in 1998. Keeping the catalog in print was prohibitively expensive, and the label required so much of their time that they couldn't tour with Tsunami to make money. And their part-time jobs had turned full-time. Thomson had also moved to Philadelphia, and the commute was wearing.

In the sixth and final edition of the "Mechanic's Guide," they wrote that they were "leaving labels up to the young and the idealistic." Their statement was a bit coy: Toomey helped lead a successful campaign to establish low-power radio and Thomson is a graduate student studying urban development at the University of Delaware.

Both are still dedicated to helping artists survive in the music industry. In December, Toomey and Thomson launched The Machine, an online forum dedicated to exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of digital music, on the indie rock Website Insound.com.

Toomey and Thomson got the idea after researching digital distribution as a way to keep the Simple Machines catalog in stock. After wading through piles of information on the topic, they decided to share what they'd learned and create a space for folks to puzzle out the incredibly confusing subject. So far, they've posted interviews with label heads and artists and hosted chats. They plan to dispense how-to advice on technical matters such as uploading tracks. In a sense, the ongoing project updates the original goal of the "Mechanic's Guide" -- to give power to consumers and the people making music.

So now the women who once sang that "punk means cuddle," who championed the cassette tape even as the CD reigned supreme, have given themselves to deconstructing a medium that's decidedly uncuddly. It's not exactly a vacation, either. "It's almost as much work as running the label," says Toomey. "But it's less of a psychic drain, because I don't owe anybody money."

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Toomey and Thomson's retirement from record-making may seem like one more coffin nail for indie rock. The once-thriving genre comes in only three flavors: noodly, wake-me when-it's-over-post-rock; fey jet-set retro bubble-gum; and, if it's got a pulse and smells a little like punk, emo.

Media attention once focused on the underground began dropping off about five years ago. After courting and wooing indie labels and their artists, the majors have figured out that pre-fab boy bands and pop tarts sell more in a day than Built to Spill will in a year. And alternative rock -- a dubious attempt to make independent bands into viable stars -- now means angsty posturing like that of Matchbox 20. These days, getting someone like Liz Phair on the cover of Rolling Stone seems pretty unlikely. She wouldn't even make the cover of CMJ New Music Monthly; the alternative music magazine that once saved that spot for bands like Velocity Girl now gives it up to slick, major label fare like Buckcherry.

"It's changed," says Slim Moon, the owner of the Kill Rock Stars label. "The market's smaller. There are fewer fans than there were at its peak in the early- and mid-'90s. But if you're talking about stuff that crosses over into electronica, there's a generation of teens and 20-year-olds that aren't just looking at indie rock but other kinds of music. Every few years there's going to be new music or a new idea or a new pose and teenagers are going to want it because it doesn't belong to anybody else."

What the kids want are MP3s. College campuses, thanks to high-speed Internet connections, are so rife with downloading and uploading that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) makes a habit of rapping the knuckles of schools that harbor student pirates. But it's not just kids: Last year, in two days, 150,000 fans downloaded a free Tom Petty single from MP3.com before Warner Bros. quietly moved the single to the label-run Website.

Although the industry is less hesitant than it was only six months ago, it still fears the MP3 format. While the big four struggle to come up with copyright standards and decide what to do about piracy, download marketplaces like EMusic.com and Musicmaker.com have been busy inking deals with indie labels and unsigned artists. "It's so fun to watch major labels get scared," Toomey says. "They were so arrogant about being the only game in town for so many years. Now they've got to compete with people who are actually smart."

Although digital distribution promises unlimited artistic freedom, Utopia is already under attack. In short, the larger online sites are starting to act like the major labels once did. When Nirvana broke, the majors went digging, somewhat cluelessly, for similar underground acts, and some made deals with barely tested indie labels. Now, the dot-coms are mining the same ground. The difference is that they don't really care about finding, much less nurturing, another Nirvana. They're more interested in attaching themselves to a tested brand -- a label or a band with a pre-existing audience -- that will draw traffic to their Web sites.

One employee at a major digital music vendor, who didn't want his name used in this story, called his efforts to sign up indie labels an attempt "to build community around a scene." At the same time, he dismissed similar companies. "They want the recognizable names so they can assure Wall Street."

Sites like EMusic.com, Musicmaker.com, MP3.com, Mjuice.com and Epitonic.com ostensibly exist to sell or to give away downloads. A whole album, delivered as a series of digital sound files, can go for up to $9. Singles sell for a dollar or two a track, and sometimes less.

Matt Jervis, who manages music content and independent label promotion for Mjuice.com, admits that selling downloads isn't keeping his company afloat -- that's taken care of by parternships with other companies and advertisers. It's the same story for the rest of these companies: They all hope to be in place when the primarily digital-only future comes. But in the meantime, with chump-change prices and users who still expect free music, the songs aren't making them much money. That said, having brand-name music does bring them the traffic that can prove they're a worthy investment. Therefore, it makes sense for them to give indies space on their Web sites or give some labels advances on sales, just for access to the label's catalog. In exchange, the labels receive free promotion -- and potentially more sales -- for their artists.

"It's comparable to the interest in the early '90s," says Kill Rock Stars' Moon of the attention and cash offered by these companies. "It brings money into your deal, which is in some ways a good thing -- unless you're too beholden to them." His label signed a non-exclusive deal with CDuctive, which was acquired by Emusic in December. (Kill Rock Stars is in the process of switching over to an exclusive deal with longtime independent label distributor Mordam, which has branched out into selling downloads.) The label also offers free MP3s on the company Web site -- something its 20-year-old webmaster lobbied for.

Moon admits that he was at first "jumpy" about giving the tracks away. "We're in the business of selling music," he says. "But I like to believe that we have really good bands, and the more people hear them the more they'll be sucked in. I'm a forward-looking person, but I have other forward-thinking interests. So Kill Rock Stars is not going to be one of those labels that tries every new idea. We'll just be a few steps behind."

Like Moon, other indie types are trying to figure out how their ethics will survive on the Internet. Toomey and Thomson hope that the Machine can help establish an online conscience. One of the first steps is taking a stand on what they see as one of the more immediate threats: the exclusive deals offered, or sometimes demanded in return for cash advances, by the download sites. Usually, in an exclusive deal, labels hand over the digital music rights to their catalog of past and present releases to one site. The label continues to sell the CDs and records themselves, through traditional distributors, record shops and the like.

"It's a very different media playing field," says Toomey. "A lot more companies are diversified. As it gets more and more consolidated I think it's important for independent artists to know as much as they can. This environment is too fluid and changing for anyone to sign an exclusive deal. These sites could merge three times and you could be stuck with them for several years."

Toomey is right. The speed at which Internet companies make deals and snap up others is unprecedented. In November, EMusic.com acquired CDuctive.com and Tunes.com, the operator of the RollingStone.com and DownBeatJazz.com sites, within a month of each other. Most labels that had deals with CDuctive, now have deals with EMusic.

Insound.com, the indie site sponsoring the Machine, encourages the labels it works with to resist exclusivity. It calls the larger content brokers "meta-labels" and believes that they limit a label's options of reaching wider audiences.

But Jeff Price, who's been running the SpinART label for nearly a decade, doesn't mind exclusive deals. He's got a five-year agreement with Emusic. He wouldn't talk about the specifics of the deal, but according to an EMusic spokesman, the standard payout gives 31 percent of album sales (an $8.99 download fee) to the label and 31 percent to the company. Credit-card fees take 5 percent of the gross, and the mechanical royalty -- the amount paid to the music publisher that pays the songwriter -- takes another 7.1 percent. Twenty-five percent is earmarked for marketing; any of that that is not used goes to the label.

According to Matt Wishnow, one of Insound's three founding principals, when smaller labels sign away the digital rights to their catalogs, they stand to gain advances of $2,000 to $10,000. Another source said that they could earn as much as $15,000.

Price prefers exclusive deals because he learned a few years ago that making his bands' music available to several different outlets did not pay off. Price allowed three different download sites to sell the digital version of the Apples in Stereo's album "Fun Trick Noisemaker." But his non-exclusive agreements wouldn't allow him or the band to have a say in how the record was marketed, priced or formated. EMusic, however, chipped in for tour support, advertising and even printed posters that the Apples designed themselves. Plus, says Price, EMusic can provide him with exposure to AOL and Yahoo, which he could never get on his own.

But did he sell out by making an exclusive deal? No, "although 10 years ago I might have said something different," he says. Price has other priorities now. "I'd like to sell records. I'm 32 years-old. I want to marry my girlfriend. I want to go on vacation. I want to give my employees a raise."

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Tim Owen, co-owner of 10-year-old Jade Tree, home of bands such as the Promise Ring and Pedro the Lion, thinks that the digital companies bear too close a resemblance to major labels. "They all want exclusive three-to-five-year deals, yet the technology is really five years down the road," he says. "They're hot after every indie label they can get their hands on. We wouldn't do a deal with a major, so why do a deal with one of these MP3 companies, when they are going to get bought by a Microsoft or someone in a year or two or three?"

Owen says he and co-founder Darren Walters have been offered six-figure deals for their catalog. Although Owen loves the fact that his mail-order business has quadrupled since he set up a shopping cart on Jade Tree's Web site, he could care less about digital music. "I buy records. This MP3 stuff is for a different generation than mine. It's being aimed at Generation Y, these young kids that don't even know what a record player is."

Well, some of them do. Insound's median visitor age is 23. For that reason, says Wishnow, the site spotlights the newer indie faves. ("I'd rather listen to the Clean or the Replacements myself," says Wishnow, who's 25.) But Insound can't keep 7-inch singles in stock. The site also sells zines, independent films on video and hard-to-find vinyl; it hosts chats with bands, links to Web radio stations, is starting its own label and streams music videos that once upon a time would have been in heavy rotation on MTV's "120 Minutes." "We were looking to create a place where people could come together," says Wishnow. The biggest barrier to the indie rock world is not lack of talent or desire but it's the lack of resources."

Insound aims to provide some. Last spring, the site started its Tour Support series, which helped bands like the Danielson Familie and June of 44 raise money while on the road. Insound made 1,000 CDs, half of which it kept to sell via the site, half of which went to the bands to sell after shows. The bands got to keep their profits.

Clearly, Insound is a business with principles, and it's paying off, if not earning the same sort of major cash infusions seen over at Emusic or MP3.com. But Insound is a different sort of site, one that's trying to do everything for a niche market, instead of trying to aggregate the world. By "neglecting the average music fan since March 1, 1999," as its slogan says, it's now attracting 15,000 users a day. It's done such a good job that CDNow wants to copy it. The online retailer recently sent out letters to independent labels and zines to enlist them in participating in a new project -- turning part of their store into "the equivalent of Insound."

If Insound looks like an Internet incarnation of Simple Machines' brand of D.I.Y., it's not a coincidence. Ari Sass, one of its three principals, interned for Toomey and Thomson. It's something of a legacy, one that's playing out here, on the Machine and elsewhere on the Net where the lessons learned in the early '90s are bubbling up online.

The next decade's version of punk, then, could be an even more business-minded mobilization against the mainstream. And it might look a lot like Insound, which has both indie cred and an investment-banking pedigree -- principal Christian Anthony used to work at J.P. Morgan. "It doesn't matter how many people we market to," says Wishnow, "as long as we're not straying from our ideals."

That's a statement that people like Wishnow have been making for the past 20 years. But it's still remarkable, in its own way, a call for integrity, sounding against the Internet's unlimited potential for selling out.

By Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer is an editor at Elle magazine.

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