Friday, May 8, 2009

Yeasayer and Indie Labels

Yeasayer, a self-proclaimed (even if jokingly, but a true statement) Brooklyn buzz band (check out episode 75, part 4, 6:30 in), inhabits a spot in pop music somewhere between where melodious Beach Boy vocal harmonies meet ethnic/tribal beats with a pure, groovy, dance rhythm.

Comprised of four members, Chris Keating, Anand Wilder, Ira Wolf Tuton, and Luke Fasano, the band fuses elements from countless different genres to create a genre-less sound (Foster).  They’ve toured across the country, overseas, and have been on the bill for several large festivals, including Lollapalooza, and the upcoming Bonnaroo, all while on a very small independent label known as We Are Free, consisting of only three employees and a recently hired intern (Foster).  Pretty damn impressive for both the band and the label, right?  So, why did Yeasayer decide to do it this way instead of on a larger label?  What is it that indie labels are doing and have been doing for years for the music industry?  What do indie labels provide to bands that major labels do not?  In this post, I’m going to be discussing some possible answers to these questions, and to the larger question of why bands in general would choose an indie record label over a major one.


For the research on this, I took an ethnographic approach by conducting interviews, examining scholarly sources, and finding as many video interviews that I could of Yeasayer on the web.  I was not only able to talk to fans of the music about the idea of indie labels vs. major labels, but I was also able to get in contact with Jason Foster, one of the three employees at We Are Free, which proved to be a great resource.


Since around the 50’s with the explosion of rock and roll, indie labels have served a very important role in the music industry.  They were defined through a set of beliefs about the importance of musical ‘difference’, the declaration of an ‘alternative’ cultural sensibility, the Romantic myth of the artist, and, ultimately, the need to maintain a business and cultural separation from a record industry defined and utterly dominated by the major labels (Lee). 

Peterson and Berger pointed out in their 1975 study that, in the time period from 1956-1959, new competition in the music industry came from a “spate of under-financed independent companies like Atlantic, Chess, Dot, Imperial, Monument, and Sun Records,” not from the big movie industry transfers into like Columbia, MGM, 20th Century Fox, or Paramount.  

These new independent labels increased competition within the music industry and subsequently helped bring more diversity and innovation to the industry.  Indie labels brought new diversity, but the majors still had effective control over the distribution and exposure in the popular music market.  Over four-fifths of all the artists in the annual pop charts in the 80’s were manufactured or distributed by the top four record companies (Lopes).  In an essay published in 1996, Peter Alexander reported that six large international firms accounted for nearly 98 percent of the output.  Thirteen years later though, things are certainly different, due much in part to the evolving technologies of today.

Today, even more so than in the past, indie labels are bringing newer, more experimental, more diverse music to the industry that targets niche audiences, widening the range of sounds available for consumption.  Indie labels’ proximity to their desired audience (they often use grassroots approaches to distribution and publicity), their market specialization, their willingness to experiment with recording technology, and their self-sustaining infrastructure (they also often stay within the indie realm when manufacturing) allow indies to bypass the restrictions of majors and produce a brand new music (Hancox).  Changing technology is also making it easier and easier for smaller labels to compete with majors.  The Internet has made it incredibly easier for a band to get their name out there, and also the creation of digital download services is making distribution on a wide scale much easier.  Jason Foster from We Are Free highlighted this in one of the questions I asked him:


Distribution is shifting as digital downloads are becoming the predominant way to sell records so I put a lot of focus on my relationships with those at iTunes, Emusic, and the like.  Yeasayer sold more through digital distribution then physical in fact, but this number may change now that the stores are more familiar with the band.


So sure, technology is making it easier to get bands out there (on a domestic and international level), but still, why choose a small label instead of a major?  As seen in my first set of fieldnotes, MGMT, a fellow Brooklyn band, that released their album within a month of Yeasayer’s, has about 47 million more plays and 12 million more profile views on their Myspace page than Yeasayer does.  MGMT signed to Columbia, a major label, which could be why they are so more widely known.  Why not sign to a major label when these are the results of it?  I will be trying to answer these questions in the next section.


One reason for choosing an indie label over a major one, that seems to be a shared thought between both bands and fans alike, is authenticity of the music.  Steve, a fan of Yeasayer, and only one of the seven people out of fifty that I asked who knew Yeasayer, touches on this point of authenticity in an interview that I conducted with him:   


Guitarist for Yeasayer, Anand Wilder, also touches on this point in an interview conducted on


With a major label I feel like there’s somewhat of a disadvantage because you’re on a major label, people kind of assume a level of inauthenticity with the product.  I could see more of a backlash if we, if our next album, we went completely pop, and we were on a major label, I could see there being a way bigger backlash than if we put out a super pop album that we made in our basement.  ‘Cause there’s just more of a story with that, like, these guys made shit that sounds exactly like Britney Spears in their basement.


On indie labels, bands are free to flex their creative muscles without the pressure of anyone but themselves deciding how their music is going to sound.  No one but the members of Yeasayer writes their music; they are the mind, We Are Free has others help fulfill their ideas and thoughts (Foster).  On a major label, which is a lot of times concerned with making the most money out of a product, a producer may be chosen by the label and his ideas put upon the music, in the interests of the label, not the band.  Creative freedom is something that could be lost when on a major label, while it is kept in tact on indie labels.

Another reason for choosing an indie label over a major one could be comfort and trust in the people that will be working with the band.  On a major label, a band can be just one of upwards of a hundred (check out the list of bands on Columbia), and if they are a new signing, they could be low man on the totem pole, stuck in the shadows of bigger acts on the same label.  On an indie label, bands are one of a handful, each getting the attention and creative freedom they need.  When asked how We Are Free got Yeasayer to sign to their label, Jason Foster, after sketching out a brief summary of how he got in really early and hit it off well with the band right away had this to say:


The music industry can be a scary place where people make promises they don't keep and say things that are far from true.  So it’s most important to work with people you are comfortable with, share your ideas, and allow you to pursue your vision as an artist.


All in all, it seems that Yeasayer, and indie bands similar to them, choose indie labels over major ones because of creative freedom, authenticity of music, and trust and comfort in the people on the labels that work closely with them.


So where to once an indie band gains a wide range of popularity?  For some, it would be on to a larger indie, just as Yeasayer is doing now, switching over to a larger indie with more manpower, while We Are Free continues to manage them.  But for others, they shift over to larger major labels (a prime example is Death Cab for Cutie’s switch from Barsuk to Atlantic for the release of Plans and Narrow Stairs).  This switch from indie to major after gaining success leads me to question some things that I would like to explore through further research: what do fans think it means to sell out, and also what do bands themselves think it means to sell out?

Word Count: 1,520


Alexander, Peter J. “Entropy and Popular Culture: Product Diversity in the Popular Music Recording Industry.” American Sociological Review Vol. 61, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), p. 171-174. JSTOR.  

First Yeasayer picture:

Hancox, Aaron M., “Under One Roof: Independent Record Labels & the Proliferation of Rock & Roll.” Popular Musicology Online Issue 5, Style & Interpretation, 2005. 
Jason Foster, We Are Free, interview

Lee, Stephen. “Re-examining the concept of the ‘independent’ record company: the case of Wax Trax! Records.” Popular Music Vol. 14, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), p. 13-31. JSTOR.  

Lopes, Paul D. “Innovation and Diversity in the Popular Music Industry, 1969 to 1990.” American Sociological Review Vol. 57, No. 1 (Feb., 1992), p. 56-71. JSTOR.  

Peterson, Richard A., and David G. Berger. “Cycles in Symbol Production: The Case of Popular Music.” American Sociological Review Vol. 40, No.2 (Apr., 1975), p. 158-173. JSTOR.

Second Yeasayer picture:

Steve interview

Sun Records picture: mystery-t.gif


Monday, April 20, 2009

Wald's "Mexican Ballads in the Modern Age," Critical Review

In his article, "Mexican Ballads in the Modern Age," Wald discusses the corrido (the Mexican ballad that the title refers to), and it's newer, more hard-edged version, the narcocorrido, which emerged in the early 1970s.  Both have continuously acted as a sort of newspaper, delivering cultural information to their audiences.  The narcocorrido has received some negative stigmas and has been related to ganster rap because of its tales of drug trafficking, gun fights, and general violence, but even with the shift in subject matter, the music itself has still remained relatively unchanged.  Even though criticism has arisen surrounding the narco trend of the corrido, Wald wants to point out that corridos have still remained extremely popular due to the fact that people actually believe in the songs, and if the artists wanted to, as Enrique Franco is quoted, "they could make a revolution."

Question: Corrido's have become a very popular form of music, has broken into top 10 charts, and is a large money maker for record labels, all the while, holding on to it's roots, and from what I understand from the article, is still solely(?) sung in Spanish.  Why do you think that the corrido has been able to hold such a strong tie to its roots when other music/musicians (I'm thinking Shakira and others that had songs not in English) changed their ways to fit the surrounding culture?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wayne&Wax "We Use So Many Snares" Critical Review

In "we use so many snares," wayne discusses various methods for producing reggaeton, the rise in fans of the music producing their own reggaeton beats, and the 3+3+2 syncopation that's played on the snare (the snare being any one of hundreds of snare sounds).  Fans, and even some bigger producers alike, are using a software programs called FruityLoops to produce these rhythms and beats, and because the software is so easy to use, it's making it easier for more and more so called amateur producers to make good reggaeton beats.  Reggaeton has been spreading around the world from its contested roots (puerto rico or panama), and it's becoming more and more a popular form of music for all kinds of people.  One thing that Wayne makes sure to point out a few times is that reggaeton is internet/digital music par excellence and this fact could be the reason why reggaeton is starting to spread throughout the world.

Question:  Do you think as many fans of other music genres attempt to recreate/make their own rhythms/beats as those of reggaeton do, or do you think it is more accessible and easily done for fans of reggaeton because the syncopation is more standardized?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Field Notes #2

So, I've decided to shift the focus of my project a little bit to what I mentioned in the end of my first field notes post.  I've decided to do a sort of comparison between Brooklyn bands on major labels (MGMT) vs. Brooklyn bands on indie labels (Yeasayer).  I emailed an interview, well interview questions, to Yeasayer a little while ago and am still waiting on their responses, and hopefully I get them before the final topic post's due date.  Some examples of questions that I sent them were: 
"Where are all of you originally from?" 
"Why did you decided to settle in Brooklyn?" 
"What made you ultimately decide on signing with WeAreFree and what's it like to be on a smaller label?" 
"How influential is WeAreFree on the musical creativity process, if they are at all?  With the upcoming album, did they choose a producer for you, or is that your own choice?"

I also found some great videos of interviews with Yeasayer.  Here's one, courtesy of, where they discuss the making of pop music, production values of songs, and feelings about major labels:

Here's another video, courtesy of, that focuses on the Brooklyn scene in general, and Yeasayer and other bands such as Grizzly Bear and A Place to Bury Strangers talk a little bit about the shift of the NYC music scene to Brooklyn:

In this one, courtesy of, Yeasayer performs 2080, a single from their album All Hour Cymbals, for KEXP, then they answer a few interview questions about such things as where they're all from and how they got their name out there.  I guess what I found most interesting about this video, which I just saw for the first time tonight (Monday, April 13) was that new york noise decided to show their Yeasayer segment and their MGMT music video back to back. I'm not sure why they did this, but I like it, and it makes me feel like I've picked two bands that other people maybe are trying to look at together too. Anyway, here's the video:

So, I'm going to be trying to look at why bands choose indie labels over major labels (with the focus being on those that I've chosen from Brooklyn).  I may also be exploring more the idea of selling out, what it means to other people, what it means to bands, etc.  I'm really hoping that Yeasayer gets back to me by the time the final blog post is due.  I also am going to try to get in contact with MGMT, and if I can't do that, I'm hoping I will at least be able to talk to one of Columbia's reps to see what they do in terms of producing their bands, and also how the promotional aspects of their company works.  Along that same idea, I think I'm going to see the same thing with Yeasayer's label We Are Free.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Interview excerpt: Steve

Steve: ...I mean I always consider MGMT like party music, it's kinda like dance-pop, you know...
John: ...right, right, right...
Steve: ...pretty accessible to the masses
John: ...right, right.  What do you, a, how do you, how do you feel about, a, the fact that MGMT has blown up, you know, recently, and maybe it's appealing more to the in crowd than it was when it originated?
S: Um, I mean it happens, you know?  It's, I feel like, there are certain bands that are, have a tendency to blow up just because their music, like I said, is more accessible, and they have that pop sound to them.
J: All right, all right, um, do you think the fact that MGMT signed to Columbia, a major record label, and Yeasayer signed to a very small record label called WeAreFree, they're one of three bands on this label, do you think the fact that MGMT is on Columbia makes it easier for them to get bigger?
S: I mean it definitely makes it easier for them to get bigger, but more so, I feel like the larger influence is Columbia, um, pressuring them to kind of change their sound so that it is more appealing.  Whereas I feel like when you're on a smaller label you don't really have those pressures, so you're, kind of like able to do more with your music, I feel like whereas MGMT, I feel like their music and their sound is kind of like set now.
J: Right, right.  So I mean...
S: On their most recent album, I guess it's their only album.
J: Right, right...
S: It's the only album I've ever heard from them.
J: It's a, that's what I was thinking, it would be interesting to see what their next a, next album sounds like...
S: Yeah.
J: ...if a, I feel like major labels might put producers in there, is that what you're saying?
S: Yeah, definitely producers, who a, I mean whose soul job is to produce music to make money, you know?
J: Right, right, right, sell to the masses.
S: Yeah, so, I don't know, I feel like Yeasayer, Yeasayer definitely, for me, is like the cliche indie band, so there's like, there's tracks on there that maybe a large amount of people would be able to listen to and enjoy, but for the most part it's kind of like a whole piece, you have to listen to the whole album cause the ups and the downs, whereas MGMT I feel like every track on there could be a single almost.

S: Well it's tough, it's tough to sell an album when you don't have like, a single off of it, you know?
J: Right.  Or a single that gets airplay?
S: A single that gets airplay, yeah.  So, I can't really listen to the Yeasayer album and pick one song that's just like, oh this one, I could play this on the radio, because you need to listen to the whole album, and get a feel for it, you know?
J: Right, right.
S: Cause one song evolves into the next, whereas with the MGMT it's just like, oh, this song's, this song could definitely be on the, oh yep, this one's, this one's real good too, oh, this one's really dancy.  And there's like three or four that just, now we're hearing them all the time.

J: ...a company run by two people, like yeah they can get it out on the internet, but as far as airplay and stuff, and like getting the name out there more, it's like, if you have like a big, you know, representative, you know, I mean...
S: No, I definitely felt that way, like there's a lot of, indie bands, I say indie with quotes, that a, you hear songs from, and you're like, oh, wow, this could totally be on the radio, like how could people not love this song, you know like this would appeal to a ton of people...
J: Like stuff from Liars, and like...
S: Yeah, even some Animal Collective, you're like, like their most recent album, it's like, everyone should like this song [laughs], it's a really good beat, it's like, but a, because it, maybe because they're on an indie label they don't have the promotions, so they don't, um, yeah, they don't make it on the airtime, you know?  It's hard to say though, because we're not in the world of music...

(Audio of the whole interview to come, as soon as I work out the kinks with audacity on my computer)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Back's "New Ethnicities and Urban Culture," Part 2, Critical Review

In the second part of Chapter 8 in "New Ethnicities and Urban Culture," Back explores the different amounts of inter-racial happenings that occur in the black musical scene in the UK, the development of a south Asian music culture, and the recent dance-hall culture of the 90's. As boundaries were breached by certain posses and sound systems, such as Soul II Soul, the separation between reggae and soul in the 70's became harder and harder to distinguish.  Social mixing was primarily seen in soul music spaces, but with the breakdown of the separation between soul and reggae, races, as well as different classes and genders, began mixing and intermingling more throughout genres.  MC Apache Indian helped to increase this mixing of too.  After the emergence of bhangra music in Britain, a distinct British Asian culture developed, and Apache Indian helped to spread this music (well, his music was described as bhangramuffin) throughout races, as he was able to play to crowds of blacks, whites, and Asians.  In the 90's, a new fusion of reggae/hip hop/ragga began to emerge, jungle.  Jungle helped to even further bring together different people.  DJ Kenny Ken puts it perfectly when he says, "certain men a few years ago wouldn't have dreamed of talking to a white person and the same the other way around... but now we're under the same roof ravin', laughing and joking together..." (p. 234)  With the development of newer variations on the reggae sound system music, and the breaking down of boundaries between genres, different people more easily and more readily mixed.  The music had the great ability to overshadow wider distinctions such as race, class and gender.

Question:  Reggae had the ability to break class and race barriers in Britain, do you think that Hip-Hop did the same in the U.S.?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Back's "New Ethnicities and Urban Culture," Part 1, Critical Review

In Chapter 8 of "New Ethnicities and Urban Culture," Back discusses the development of black leisure spaces, such as dance-halls, in post-war Britain and the subsequent restructuring of black working-class life.  He identifies the importance of dance-halls, and the sound systems in them, during periods of political strife, as the sound systems "become both a source of alternative news and an arena for black unity and autonomy." (p. 199-200)  The dance-halls are also important, according to Back, because they "provide a microcosm, controlled by black people, in which young black men and women work through in symbolic form the variety of their experiences, conflicts and desires." (p. 202)  The development of dance-halls in the UK was very important for the working-class blacks because it helped give them a place where racism was non-existent, where black was the host, and where history could be rewritten.

Question: Like how the dance-hall music of the UK began, were there any other types of music that started out by simply creating leisure spaces where people didn't have to worry about the struggles of day-to-day life?