Richard A. Martin
WHEN the SEAGRAM CO. recently bought record giant Polygram for $10.4 billion, the event set off a wave of music industry consolidation that threatens to reverse the tide that brought Seattle to the national pop-music forefront. Universal Music Group, the post-buyout behemoth begat by Seagram, has been aggressively trimming its operations. Gone are two record labels--Geffen and A&M--that were among the most culturally significant major labels of the 1990s. (Geffen Records is best known in Seattle as the major that was home to Nirvana and Hole; A&M released records by Soundgarden.)
Thus far, some 500 UMG employees in New York and Los Angeles have been laid off, and 15 well-known labels in the UMG stable--among them Island, Mercury, and Motown--are to be shuffled and compressed, with Geffen and A&M being folded into the Interscope company. Industry insiders anticipate further reductions; most believe that thousands of jobs will be lost worldwide, that Seattle's 12-person UMG office will be hit by cuts, and that hundreds of bands--some of them Seattle bands on the verge of a major record release--will be dropped by their record companies.
A case in point is the young Seattle punk group MxPx. Though the band sold a respectable 150,000 copies of its major-label debut on A&M, it looks to be among those dropped as a result of the shake-up, and Bill Power--operations manager of Seattle's Tooth & Nail Records, the independent label that first signed MxPx--says the band is shopping a live album to new labels because it expects its next scheduled A&M release to be canceled.
Although the consolidation is causing widespread grief throughout the industry, and although Seattle bands figure to suffer from the fallout, the mood in Seattle is surprisingly, almost eerily, upbeat--a function, possibly, of the city's rich tradition of locally grown and sustained music.
Part of the cheerfulness here stems from the sense that many local bands will be spared the consolidation's axe. Ex-Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell, under contract with A&M, and Hole, still under contract with Geffen, reportedly will find shelter under the Interscope umbrella. And while one of Interscope's newest Seattle signees--the Supersuckers--has yet to hear whether its debut major-label release will hit the shelves as scheduled, band manager Danny Bland is defiantly optimistic. "We're not waiting to see if we're dropped," he says. "We're waiting for a release date."
Another part of this optimism has to do with the belief that Seattle was musically better off before Corporate Rock discovered it. The past five years have been filled with the lament that bands here were happier and more productive before major labels swept in and signed everyone to contracts.
Certainly, Seattle record companies were better off before losing their biggest-selling acts to majors, and it should come as no surprise that representatives at Seattle's independent labels are rejoicing at the industry shake-out. Sub Pop general manager Megan Jasper notes that many of the bands to be dropped in coming months are mediocre sellers for major labels, but big sellers for indie labels. "A lot of these bands are selling around 30,000-50,000 CDs," she says. "To a major, these numbers aren't impressive, but to an independent, where overhead is much lower, these numbers are very impressive." Tooth & Nail's Bill Power is similarly excited at the apparent renewed opportunity for indies to sign talented bands. "I secretly like to see them not doing well and having to consolidate," he says. "They'll be less likely to go chasing after indie bands."
With UMG's corporate stewardship certain to make majors more conservative, gloating is practically in order. After all, just prior to Seattle becoming the Birthplace of Grunge, it was the center of America's underground music scene and home to a subculture in revolt against the play-it-safe, big-hit fixation of Corporate Rock. It seemed that you couldn't buy the sense of community that Seattle's bands and indie-label owners shared back then; most of Sub Pop's early record deals with bands were done on a handshake. But when the majors came to town with open wallets, it was more pressure than most could bear, and Seattle lost the independent spirit that helped spawn bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, Mudhoney and the Screaming Trees--all of which signed to majors after developing and maturing here.
In the past couple
of years, there's been a resurgence in the development of homegrown labels and
hints of a strengthening live scene; a recent weekend show at the Crocodile
featuring indie-pop upstarts Death Cab for Cutie and Pedro the Lion sold out
soon after the doors opened. With this momentum, and with the industry digging
into the trenches, Seattle's scene looks poised for another surge. "Whenever
you get consolidation like this," says the Supersuckers' Bland, "it's
probably gonna be good for art.
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