Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Things are going to be Touch and Go

The blogger world went viral last week when Time Out leaked that Chicago's indie darling Touch & Go Records might be closing up shop. Turns out the rumors were just that, rumors, but the label did announce big news that it was ceasing the manufacturing and distributing side of their business. Here is a piece I wrote for Gapers Block: Transmission examining how the cutback will affect (and represents) the music industry as a whole given the current state of the economy and the way file sharing has impacted sales.

Touch and Go: The Reverb

While the Touch and Go label is still intact, the announcement that they are ending the manufacturing and distributing side of business may have much more of an impact on the music industry than we realize. The Tribune's Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis of the Sun Times discussed the label's announcement on their respective blogs, as well as on last week's episode of Sound Opinions, raising an interesting point: This change in operations could be devastating on the independent music scene as we know it. For the past 20 years, Touch and Go provided distribution for dozens of small labels across the country, including several Chicago labels. Who do these small labels now turn to for distribution when the business of music is already under such strain financially? And what does this mean for the future of independent labels and bands? This question has been looming for quite a while, and is part of a much bigger concern in the music industry (affecting majors as well as indies) brought on by the internet and file sharing.

One of the indie labels directly affected by the news is Chicago's own Flameshovel, who has been distributed by Touch and Go since last year. "Aside from the direct affect that this news has on us and our label, it is further evidence that something is terribly terribly amiss in this industry," said Flameshovel's James Kenler. "There has been this massive consolidation at all levels that continues to push all of us to sacrifice a large part of the independent spirit that made labels like T&G as great and as successful as they were. Most of the pressure is obviously as a result of the declining value that the evolution of the internet has given both music and the printed word. File sharing and web news have pulled this industry from both sides and the fans themselves have to a large extent completely disconnected themselves from the notion that consumable art has value."

Kot and DeRogatis actually held a public forum at Columbia College in December as part of a Sound Opinions College Tour on the subject of the future of music in this uncertain time. While there is no clear answer, and they don't pretend to have the solution, the problem won't just go away. The Touch and Go casualty may be just the first rock to fall of an avalanche to come. Mac McCaughan of Merge Records (who T&G also distributed until a few years ago) reiterates the worry (and grief) in this statement given to DeRogatis:

"Touch and Go basically allowed Merge to exist as something other than a singles label...we did our first full-length (the Superchunk Tossing Seeds comp)in 1992 because Corey agreed to take on Merge as a label under the Touch and Go umbrella. We've worked with Touch and Go since then -- 16 years -- and they are the most straight-up and ass-busting-for-music-they-love people we know.

"Corey Rusk is the most meticulous, cautious, thoughtful business person I know which is what makes this whole thing so unbelievable and such a bad portent for the rest of the independent music business -- if a company that did everything the right way can't survive in this environment (and the environment existed before the current worldwide financial disaster -- the Bush economic legacy only piled on), then who can?

"This is not even to mention the fact that Touch and Go put out some records that were incredibly important to me long before Merge existed -- Big Black, Scratch Acid, Die Kreuzen, Negative Approach, Butthole Surfers, and later on Slint, Jesus Lizard and the list goes on... -- a ton of records that are just important period.

"It's a sad day for music, independent music and punk rock in particular, and the music business as we know it in the real world."

While last week's news may not foreshadow the end of the music business all together, it may signal the end as we know it today. Until a new business model comes into play and settles in (same with newspapers and other print publications), there are more tough times ahead and probably a lot more casualties.

So, what's next for Flameshovel? They "were actually assembling the press mailing for the new Mannequin Men record that was to come out via T&G June 9th" when they got the call from T&G's Corey Rusk last Tuesday. "At this point," says Kenler, "our #1 priority is to find a way to keep that release date. Beyond that, we're using this event as a chance to take a big step back and take a look at what we are doing in a larger context."

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