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