The Internet is supposed to solve all that, but the dreams of a level playing field in cyberspace, where every dodgy punk rocker has the marketing power of Time Warner, have been belied by the proliferation of hundreds of thousands of music sites. Plus the growing, grim realization that establishing oneself on the Web may prove even more expensive than conventional efforts.
Still, there is no better way to reach a niche market. And if you happen to be a drum 'n' bass outfit working out of your bedroom in Kiev, the Net might prove the only way to get your music heard by the well-heeled hipsters who don't hang out on Pushkin St. At least that's the logic behind Tamizdat's decision to join the digital fray and begin selling a select catalog of impossible-to-find avant-garde, experimental and rock CDs from Eastern and Central Europe on their Revolutions Per Minute site .
Set up two years ago by Heather Mount and Matthew Covey, the Tamizdat organization was founded to facilitate cultural exchange between the U.S. music underground and the emerging scene in the slowly thawing East. On an almost nonexistent budget, the two East Village musicians managed to host tours by the likes of the Plastic People of the Universe (the original cultural standard-bearers of the Czech Velvet Revolution) and mount showcases highlighting the variety of talent coming out of places previously only noteworthy for their beet harvests and the bad suits of their leaders. Last spring, Mount and Covey moved to Amsterdam, and from their new listening post have greatly increased the number of contacts they had made in past field trips to wilds of Slovakia and the swinging bistros of Budapest.
Still, one has to ask: With all the crummy avant-alternative being produced independently in the U.S. these days, why do we need competition from Eastern Europe? Covey responds patiently, "Because it is not crummy." And then continues, "From New York it looks like we are mostly in the import business. We conceptualize it as a project that was based on working with a lot of people in the nascent indie music scene in those countries and figuring out that what was needed most to make those scenes thrive was contact with the outside world."
Covey goes on to explain that Revolutions Per Minute is an effort to break the cycle of obscurity that affects music outside the North American-Northern European axis. "Most magazines won't do a review unless the album is commercially available," he says. "And the catch-22 is no distributor will take it on if there is no press in that country. So if this stuff is actually available, the Alternative Presses, Magnets and The Wires of this world don't have an excuse not to review it."
The ground covered by the new site is enormous and will ultimately encompass CDs from Albania, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Serbia and numerous other points east, representing more than 30 independent labels. Currently about 150 CDs are being offered; by Christmas that number should have increased by at least another 100.
Despite the potential, however, like all things on the Web, Revolutions Per Minute still has a way to go to live up to its promise. Try to find that special CD by your favorite punk band from Belarus and you'll discover that as of yet the site lists nothing from that backwater for sale. Covey apologetically admits that it doesn't offer anything from almost half the listed countries. "We have made the contacts," he contends, "and are now just waiting for them to get us the music."
Covey almost takes comfort in the slow pace at which the project is proceeding. He says the ultimate goal is to have catalog of the best work from each country, a kind of desert island list from the post-communist world, which documents both the history and contemporary diversity of each scene. This means listening to a lot of music, much of the best of which they hear about through word of mouth.
"Like anywhere there are a lot of labels turning out dreck. So once we establish a relationship with a number of labels that we respect, it's going to be easier to find other good stuff. We have always avoided the approach of blanket solicitation. We have come across e-mail lists of all the Bulgarian record labels on the Web, and inevitably most of that stuff turns out to be bizarre country-western or terrible quasi-traditional ballads."
Today the catalog encompasses everything from the sublime to the arcane; from a double album of Iva Bittova accompanied by the late great Tom Cora to a Croatian compilation, most of which sounds, according to Covey, like "digital hardcore with a little accordion thrown in." A truly DIY project, its founder estimates that, along with the donated work to set up the site and keep it running, the whole thing costs $50 a month.
"By the nature of the current technology, it costs nothing, takes no significant investment or labor to set up a project like this, except for collecting the music?which is really fun. The technology for downloading is costly, and we still don't know how many people want it. After all, we're trying to make this accessible to people who are not Americans."
Farm Team Records The word is that these days your average music act has about two months to make it or break it. If by nine weeks the unfortunate artists in question fail to chart on the radio, their patrons at a major label will become disillusioned and scamper off in pursuit of the next big hopeful. That's when telephone calls stop being returned, tour support starts drying up and the promises that nobody ever thought of writing into the contract get forgotten.
Yet innovative big talent takes time to nurture. Problem is, with the labels so debt-ridden by the merger and acquisition trends of the last few years, time is money, and money is not in abundance these days.
So it comes as no surprise that intelligent entrepreneurs will see an opening where only visionaries once tread. The term "indie label" may soon come to mean nothing more than "farm team for the majors." Some may claim that since the post-Nirvana feeding frenzy that's what most indies have turned into anyway, but the emergence of Straight Line Records is positive proof of just how advanced this process is, and just how completely the majors have deserted the field of artist development.
Created nine months ago as the "pop" arm of the indie Savoy Entertainment Group (which also includes Savoy Jazz and Denon Classical), Straight Line is headed up by Ed Roynesdal (president) and A&R man Frankie LaRocka. Roynesdal's past credits include touring and recording with Joe Jackson and Patti Smyth. LaRocka toured with Bryan Adams and Bon Jovi, and as A&R executive signed Mr. Big and Spin Doctors. And just to make sure that their mainstream credibility is assured, the A&R management team also includes Stan Lynch, a founding member of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, who has also worked with the Eagles, Don Henley and Toto.
LaRocka has no problem with agreeing that Straight Line is "a farm team, developing and breaking new talent." He insists that Straight Line is self-sufficient, but concedes that their business plan would be pipedreams without the distribution deal they have with Atlantic. He is careful not to reveal too much about the relationship, but says, "We make the record and hopefully get it to a certain point, and then, whether it's through CD sales or radio play, a red flag goes up and Atlantic will jump in."
LaRocka insists that executives who expect to get paid more than their most successful artists will find no home at Straight Line. Bands who expect fancy tour buses and extensive road crews should also look elsewhere. This is clearly a new model we can anticipate being adopted by the majors in lieu of abandoned efforts at artist development.
A former drummer who toured extensively in the 80s, LaRocka describes himself as "walking that fine line between being an artist and what the record company needs." As an A&R guy that means knowing how to turn "raw talent" into a commercial commodity. Citing the Spin Doctors, whom he signed and produced while working at Epic, LaRocka reports almost in horror that when he first discovered them playing at Nightingale's they had songs that were almost 10 minutes long. He says about turning them into stars, "I had to go in there and make the songs ear candy to latch on to. We had to cut out all the fat and get to the basics, because the record-buying public has no patience, they want to get to the point right away."
Finding the raw talent before it gets cleaned up for the mainstream is also part of his job; he grouses that the bean counters at a label he was consulting for passed on Creed when first offered the band. That was just another indication that he would have to go it alone. Or, as he says, "The business was more about arrogance, ego and drama and nothing to do with the music."
The label's motto is "Straight Line Records: The Shortest Distance Between an Artist and Its Label." And to ensure that each act is given the attention it deserves, LaRocka promises that Straight Line will not be signing more than two or three bands a year for the foreseeable future. In return, he expects a lot.
"I want to find artists with the same passion and drive we had as kids. People with that work ethic, who know how to get things done." He says that as an indie, the label's limitations are also its strengths. Waiting a year for an album to develop a fan base should prove no problem.
"At the majors, if it doesn't stick its head up right away everybody panics and pulls back. In our case we can't do that with the few acts that we have. We have to slug it out in the trenches, through radio and touring, and that takes time. The cream somehow always rises to the top. You can't bury a hit record."
Currently Straight Line has two releases in the stores: Sun by Lisa Hayes & the Violets (a singer-songwriter outfit with Wallflowers pretensions that seems dead in the water) and Silver Zone, by retro Brit glam boys Glimmer, which is beginning to pick up some radio airplay.