Whether solo or with a major's aid, upstarts make their mark

Countless music industry executives have opined in recent times that their glass is — at best — half-empty. It’s quite another story in the independent realm.

According to SoundScan figures, independent labels as a whole accounted for more than 17% of U.S. music sales in 2004. While that certainly takes into account dozens of respectable-selling albums on indies of all sizes, the past year saw a marked increase in the number of such releases hitting the Hot 100.

“The industrywide malaise that consolidation has brought about has allowed indie labels to get back in the game,” says Or Music co-founder Larry Miller. “I see recent events as signaling a shift toward the European model, where indies make up a far larger percentage of sales. We recognize that the riskiest records to sell are the first 100,000 — and we’ve created a model where we can be satisfied with that on one release, but get well beyond that on another.”

Last year was especially good for three indies — Seattle’s Sub Pop, Chicago’s Victory and Or Music. Sub Pop had its best year to date thanks to releases like the Postal Service’s “Give Up,” which is rapidly approaching the 500,000 mark, and the Shins’ quarter-million-selling “Chutes Too Narrow.” It has been estimated that Victory’s 2004 sales approached the $15 million mark and Or Music’s Los Lonely Boys disc is nearing 2 million sold — with a little help from Sony.

Tony Brummel, who founded Victory in 1989 on an investment of $800, says the label is doing nothing different, just maintaining a staff enthusiastic about the music they produce. “Everyone at this label goes to shows and hangs out, so we know how to find those people and how to tap into where they are more than a major might,” he says.

Sub Pop, now more than 15 years and 400 releases old, may not have the same industry cachet it did at the height of interest in the Seattle scene, but Chris Jacobs, the label’s director of marketing, credits a good deal of Sub Pop’s recent success to its embrace of downloads and other free distribution.

“This is a great time because there are so many more ways to get good music heard,” he says, estimating that the label distributes roughly 100,000 free downloads per week through various sources. “We try to make two songs from every release available for free on every outlet possible. If you’re going to make something available free, you may as well give it away as widely as possible.”

Or Music president and co-founder Michael Caplan shares that enthusiasm, insisting that “downloading is the best thing that’s ever happened to the music business.”

Unlike Sub Pop, which has been 49% owned by Warner Bros. for nearly a decade, Or — which has sold 1.7 million copies of Los Lonely Boys’ self-titled debut in the past year — is still a mom-and-pop operation, albeit one with a twist.

With just seven full-time staffers, the New York-based imprint relies on Sony for distribution and some other ancillary services, a fact that co-founder Miller explains by noting “there comes a time in the life of a semisuccessful release — between 40,000 and 100,000 — when you ask if the label could benefit from the involvement of a major. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Caplan notes Or had little trouble taking Los Lonely Boys to the 100,000 mark inhouse, but needed Sony’s muscle in later stages — “since we don’t have Jennifer Lopez Christmas shows to trade.”

Victory Records could theoretically make that same claim, but the stridently independent rock label has managed to parlay its underground credibility into a number of recent chart smashes, most notably Taking Back Sunday’s gold-certified “Where You Want to Be.” Brummel says the notion of independents existing as a de facto farm team is outdated.

“I haven’t ever spoken to anyone at a major about working together. I’m not anti-major, not anti-anything, but I don’t have an exit strategy,” Brummel says. “Majors don’t help most bands sell any more records, and when bands go that route, they end up 50 times further in debt.”

Sub Pop’s Jacobs sees things the same way. He describes Warners as “an extremely silent partner” whose main role is to provide manufacturing facilities through its Cinram arm. “We both found out very early on that when they got involved too deeply in a project, it wasn’t good for anyone.”

Brummel rejects the notion that there’s a resurgence in the music Victory specializes in, noting the label has grown each of its 15 years. Victory backs its bands as it always has — with grassroots promotion and word of mouth. “We have a community that’s really interested in the bands we work with, a group of people that’s really interested in spreading the word about bands they’re into.”

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