For reasons that go beyond underground integrity and ethics, D.C.’s independent music scene has always, by definition, eschewed the major-label music industry. The do-it-yourself rhetoric of punk rock invariably warns that money corrupts music, that corporate promises are unreliable, that the industry is a capitalist machine bent on commodifying artistic expression. In practice, the indie-vs.-sellout argument has as much to do with real economic pitfalls as it does with the obscurantism of a few idealist rockers.
The members of the Dismemberment Plan have always believed that the argument misses the point; if they could play music their way and make a living at it, then that’s what they were determined to do. Early last year, the quirky pop-punk quartet broke with local DIY tradition, leaving DeSoto Records for a two-record contract with Interscope. Even corporate rock’s staunchest critics couldn’t have predicted the fate that would await the groupless than one year after signing on the dotted line, it is finding that the risks of going corporate are at least as great as the potential riches.
“Making records for DeSoto and playing in underground venues has been a fabulous experience,” says Dismemberment Plan singer-guitarist Travis Morrison. “But there are always the basics about wanting to pay rent with your music, and wanting to get out of the swamp of debt that being in a band usually brings.”
The band, he says, never expected a major label to show interest in its music. “We kind of figured our music was a little too wacky and left-field, but they kept after us and eventually wore us down,” Morrison says. “We saw it as an opportunity to relax the financial burden of our band, and also to try our music out on different audiences.”
In May of 1998, just as the band was putting the finishing post-production touches on its debut Interscope EP, The Ice of Boston, executives at Interscope’s parent company were buzzing away in a boardroom, working out kinks in the biggest corporate acquisition in the history of the music business. The Dismemberment Plan’s full-length album is ready to go, but the band now ranks among the least of the label’s new concerns.
Interscopealong with Universal, MCA, Impulse!, Geffen/DGC, Def Jam, and other labelsfalls under the umbrella of Universal Music Group (UMG), a global music conglomerate owned by the Seagram Co. UMG owns half of Interscope and is finalizing a deal for full ownership. Until last year, UMG was one of only six major music contenders in the worldwide landscape of media empires, a number that shrank to five in December, when Seagram shelled out $10.4 billion for the massive music holdings of PolyGram, which includes Motown, Island, A&M, Mercury, Verve, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and London.
The deal makes UMG the single biggest music company in the worldUMG will now account for roughly one out of every five albums sold in the U.S. and 23 percent of the global music industry market shareupping Seagram’s annual revenue to about $17.4 billion. The acquisition represents precisely the sort of corporate maneuverings that Dismemberment Plan’s indie-rock colleagues might have warned them about.
Here’s why: When UMG refers to its “combined musical assets,” it means its artists, labels, and back catalogs, but also its CD manufacturing plants, distribution companies, music publishing rights, mail-order music clubseven concert venues. Seagram owns it all, from the artistic product to the booze it pours at its clubs and concert halls.
In the lexicon of corporate acquisitions, the ugliest part is “restructuring”when one giant company eats another giant company, a lot of people tend to get fired. The restructuring plan at UMG calls for $300 million in cuts to the annual operating budget, with a loss of about 20 percent of its combined workforce, effective this month. The individual labels are being grouped together, and the cuts will eventually hit the artists: Interscope, which is absorbing key PolyGram “workforce personnel” such as U2, plans to level its talent roster at 100 bands.
As yet, nobody knows who will and will not make the cut. “There’s so much speculation out there that we really don’t want to make a comment about what will happen with regard to individual bands,” says Bob Bernstein, publicity director for UMG.
When the acquisition was first announced, Bernstein wrote the press release touting UMG’s new and improved stable of artists: new additions like Hanson, LL Cool J, Luciano Pavarotti, Elton John, Public Enemy, Boyz II Men, and Blues Traveler. When asked about the future of the Dismemberment Plan, Bernstein claims not to recognize the name; even if he did, his lips are sealed. The media, it seems, like big juicy stories about media takeoversafter an initial surge of bad press about the deal, Bernstein’s orders are to keep quiet. “Record companies rarely even release their rosters in the first place, because things are always changing,” he says.
The Dismemberment Plan, like other bands of its stature, isn’t sure where it will stand in the new regime.
“They don’t like anybody to know anything until it’s a done deal,” says Morrison. Meanwhile, the band’s new album, Emergency & I, stands in an almost ludicrous limbo. The Dismemberment Plan’s music is nothing if not good-humored, and Morrison and his bandmates are trying to remain good-humored as well, as they wait to see what happens.
“There’s actually still a pretty good chance for us. Either we’ll survive because we’re so small, or we’ll get cut because we’re so small,” says Morrison. “Either way, we’re just a blip. They don’t even know when the new U2 record is coming out. When you get to this level of corporate activity, and you are who we are, it’s just kind of an exercise in absurdity. Virtually everybody we knew at the company has been fired.”
The future Interscope roster will be a list of superstars: Beck, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Blackstreet, Sheryl Crow, U2, and…the Dismemberment Plan?
Morrison isn’t convinced, but he hasn’t given up yet.
“I think the label people are smart enough to know that you have to have the little freaky bands, too, to make it work,” he says. “It’s probably not going to be a McMusic kind of thing, like a lot of people seem to think. Still, you can always overestimate a business guy in the throes of success.”
Part of the Dismemberment Plan’s challenge will be to see how its music holds up to a new set of standards in the global marketplace. With two full-length records on DeSoto, a handful of singles and compilation tracks, and a history of extensive touring, the band has developed a strong reputation and done fairly well for itself in the underground music scene. But the major-label music industry has much clearer ways for measuring success: strictly by the numbers.
“I’ll never forget, I was out there at Interscope once when we first signed, and on someone’s desk there was a stack of those Soundscan reports,” Morrison recalls. “You’d look at one page and it would be, like, ‘Wallflowers sales in Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas: 6,500,’ and then you’d turn the page and it’s like, ‘Clawhammer sales in Dallas/Ft.Worth, Texas: 4.’ I would love to see a printout of one of those, just for sheer perversity. You know: ‘Here’s the corporate report of the Dismemberment Plan, and it isn’t pretty.’”
The band is clearly not destined for MTV-style stardom, but it will also never be a huge cost liability to the label. Whether the new incarnation of Interscope decides to drop it or not will largely be an issue of tidying up a weird little entry in the ledger. “We don’t have some huge contract, so it’s not really a big plus or minus to them either way,” says Morrison. “The bean counters at UMG probably won’t even know what to make of us.”
By the Dismemberment Plan’s standards, however, The Ice of Boston has already been a huge success. The record has been selling well locally, and the band can barely keep it in stock to sell at shows on the road.
The Ice of Boston EP, produced by local rockers J. Robbins (of Burning Airlines and Jawbox) and Chad Clark (of Smart Went Crazy), features a demo from the as yet unscheduled Emergency & I, as well as one new song and a track from the Resin Records Fort Reno Benefit compilation. The title track was taken from the band’s March 1997 DeSoto release, prophetically titled The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified.
“Whatever…it will all be fine,” says DeSoto label head Kim Coletta, shrugging off the takeover’s possible implications for the Dismemberment Plan. “It’s not like independent music isn’t going to survive this deal. The merger hasn’t really intruded on any of our plans.”
In 1993, when alt-rock-hungry labels were actively looking for the next Nirvana and the next Seattle, Coletta’s band, Jawbox, happened to be one of the most highly regarded bands in D.C.’s flourishing punk scene. She
has a unique perspective on the indie-vs.-major label debate: Jawbox’s decision to leave the independent blueprint label Dischord Records for a contract with the Atlantic Group stirred up its share of underground disdain, but she never gave up on DeSoto. Coletta has helped Dismemberment Plan through its decision to sign with Interscope, and she still primarily regards it as a DeSoto band. As it did for the major-label Jawbox albums, DeSoto will likely press vinyl editions of Emergency & Ivinyl recordings being one of the clearest casualties of music’s digital age.
“I think the cultural setting was much different when Jawbox signed,” says Morrison. “All kinds of things were presumed for them about their philosophies and their lives just because they had been on Dischord. At the time, there were these notions that bands like Jawbox and Shudder to Think were going to be on the cover of Interview magazine or something, even though it was clear that was never going to be the case.”
Besides, Morrison adds, he doesn’t think speculation on the band’s success is very interesting to people anymore. “Most people couldn’t care less about what level of success we reach,” he says, “and they realize that it’s a much more shaded and nuanced decision. It’s not like I’ll be standing at DCCD watching Faraquet one night and then I’ll suddenly vanish and reappear on the TV as some kind of superstar.”
Morrison says the Dismemberment Plan has always had one foot in the underground music scene but has never had any real, undying loyalty to the DIY ethic. Like any band worth its chops, the Dismemberment Plan just wants to rockif not under the aegis of Interscope, then for DeSoto or just about anybody else.
“I wouldn’t say that playing
underground venues took its toll on us, but we’re curious to see how a
different crowd would respond to us,” says Morrison.
And while Jawbox and Dischord labelmates Shudder to Think took a lot of flak six years ago for deciding to try the majors, Morrison suggests that the stigma has largely dissipated.
At any rate, he’s holding out for good news. “We love to play. If everything works out with Interscopeand we really haven’t given up on itthey’ll cover our budget to go out and tour,” says Morrison, considering what it will mean to be on a label with acts like Nine Inch Nails and No Doubt. “We won’t personally make a lot of money off the tour, but we won’t be in any more trouble when we come back than we were when we left, which seems almost a vulgar luxury after doing it the way we did it before.”CP