But actually, the approximate number of CDs released in the United States last year hovers somewhere near the 700,000 mark. Forget about the quality of the music encoded on those many discs: From a purely logistical standpoint, that's an assload of plastic, one that suggests that the indie-label underworld is alive and well.
From sea to shining sea, scores of indie-label owners are still busy putting out lots of weird, cool, obscure little records -- knowing full well that once postage is paid for, distribution is taken care of, tray cards are printed, etc., etc., ad infinitum, they'll be lucky to break even on that kick-ass new full-length from Broken Headband or whoever. This is not exactly a stable existence. But it's also kind of a fun one -- in a masochistic kind of way. At least, that's the way the operators of three very different new local labels choose to look at it.
"Basically, we are doing everything differently from what the majors are doing," says Seth Goldberger, who, with partner David Landsberger, operates Lauan Records, which the pair started as students at Brown University in 1998 before relocating to Colorado the following year. "We don't have the time or the money to convince America that they love a boy band. We are only interested in putting out music that we both love."
Like many indie upstarts, Lauan was formed more as a creative outlet than a capitalist venture. Bound by a shared interest in jam bands -- a genre Goldberger defines broadly, not just in the hippie terms often associated with it -- the pair wanted to document what they saw as an important music scene. Using the equipment available to Brown students, they began recording Rhode Island bands and eventually recruited three artists from different parts of the country (Day by the River, Jiggle the Handle and Vinyl) for a compilation project titled Three Sets. The release was well received, and Goldberger and Landsberger decided to expand Lauan into a bona fide business. Since then, it has released a second Three Sets volume (a third is slated for April), as well as a full-length recording from Day by the River (the release, Watermarks, is touted as the first full-length encoded MP3 CD, a chunky eight-hour recording culled from live performances) and They Live, from San Diego funk band Wise Monkey Orchestra.
Lauan's emphasis on jammy music gave its owners an artistic direction -- and a handy niche market. According to Goldberger, sales of all of its releases have been steady as fans of elongated guitar solos the world over catch wind of the Boulder company. "I shipped an order to Uganda a couple of weeks ago," he says. "I think there are lots of people who love this music. There's definitely an audience for it, but aside from the bigger bands, it's hard to find out about the smaller, regional bands that might be just as good."
Musically, Goldberger's label has little in common with Berserker Records, a Denver-based upstart operated by music fiend (and former Westword scribe) Brad Jones. Yet like Lauan, Berserker's origins lie in its operator's obsession with a certain kind of music -- in Jones's case, the rawking kind, with lots of big, beefy guitars.
"The music is rock and roll, and a lot of it is what was kind of lumped together and called 'stoner rock,'" Jones says. "The idea was basically to revert to the kind of music that I grew up with. Stuff like Black Sabbath -- records I was listening to when I first started getting into music."
Started in late 1999, Berserker was initially affiliated with the nationally distributed, locally based Game 2 Records; now wholly independent, with a staff of two, the label's catalogue includes titles from more than twelve bands from around the country -- including Sour Vein, Spickle, Soulpreacher and Weedeater, whose most recent release, And Justice for Y'All, is the label's bestseller to date. And though Jones operates the label from his basement office in Highlands Ranch, many of Berserker's artists hail, quizzically, from the South -- where they whistle Dixie in front of enthusiastic local audiences.
"It's really kind of strange," Jones says. "There are places where there really aren't that many good rock bands. There are a lot of mediocre ones all over. But in the South, there are an amazing number of great ones -- and people just go crazy for them down there."
Like many indies that find traditional modes of distribution inconsistent at best ("I know that in Europe, it's pretty easy to get our records, but I'll be damned if I can find them here when I look," Jones says), much of Berserker's current promotion is focused on its Web site, berserkerrecords.com. There, Jones -- a freelance Web designer when he's not hyping sludgy rock bands -- keeps fans updated on new releases, posts live shows and maintains an online catalogue. The information is presented in a kind of conversational, between-us-fans tone that's born of a genuine passion for, and understanding of, the music at hand -- qualities all too rare in the world of mega-major labels. And while Jones understands that catering to a target audience may never lead to a wide profit margin, there's satisfaction in filling a void for fans like himself and putting out quality music. Still, he says, the label game is harder than it looks.