Beer and Pavement

Much Ado About Nothing

Posted in Intersections by Zac on February 14, 2012

Some people worry about the silliest of things. It seems another craft brewery (or cidery?) has been purchased by one of the big, corporate bad guys. The worry is that our corporate overlords will buy up all the good breweries and make us drink only rice-adjunct, industrial swill in cans.

On the surface, this sounds like something about which I should also be worried, but I’m not. Typically, I’m as anti-corporate as they come. I prefer craft breweries (as designated by BA) and indie labels. However, a capitalist economy is cannibalistic. This is what happens.

In many ways, precedent for an independent industry such as craft beer can be found in indie rock. There were indie labels well before the current craft beer movement took off. These labels were nearly wiped out through corporate takeovers before seeing an underground resurgence in the 80′s and a boom in the 90′s. During that boom, particularly in the mid-90′s, indie labels were signing deals with major labels almost as fast as indie bands. Many are still tied to major labels, taking advantage of corporate resources and distribution channels.

We indie rock fans (read: middle class, white, college kids, mostly male) feared for the indie labels. There was a thinking every time a Matador or Sub Pop signed a distribution deal with a major label that the days of innovation and creativity would be lost. Guided By Voices would be replaced by the Backstreet Boys. Sebadoh would record with orchestras and Phil Spector turning the nobs. Cat Power would do dance numbers in her videos a la Madonna. The end of indie was upon us.

However, that’s not what happened. Sure, some indie labels folded or changed their rosters to suit their corporate overlords, but most thrived in this system. Matador improved their distribution, garnering attention for some of their more-deserving acts. Sub Pop kept their doors open and lights on thanks to profitable deals with the devil. Still, other labels like Merge maintained their independence, putting off their eventual success in favor of slow-but-steady growth.

The success of indie labels traversing corporate waters is the ideal predictor for craft breweries now having to deal with the big brewers, or BMC. Some have openly worried that Goose Island will lose its edge now that it is owned by INBEV. On one hand, AB-INBEV has purchased naming rights based on several area codes, hoping to capitalize on the “localization” of Goose Island’s 312 Urban Wheat. Conversely, their beer geek favorite line of bourbon barrel-aged brews, better known as Bourbon County Stout, still seem to have a spot in the lineup. I suspect one will soon be able to find Goose Island everywhere, providing at least one craft-like beer choice wherever one goes. Additionally, consider all the new beer drinkers Goose Island will bring to craft beer. It seems the gloom and doom expressed over this buy-out is short-sighted and a bit hyperbolic.

Another fear is that some craft brewers are getting too big, emulating the practices of the industrial beer producers. It was worried that Stone would grow too large with its expansions of the last five years. New Belgium is slowly overtaking the lands east of the Mississippi. Sam Adams has long been a punching bag for craft beer fans intent on searching out only the rarest and most extreme of the craft beer scene. However, larger does not necessarily mean the quality will drop off. If anything, the successes of these breweries mean that more drinkers will find that beer is more than fizzy yellow stuff.

The same thing has happened with indie labels. As Matador, Sub Pop, Merge, and others have grown, so has their reach and influence over music in general. Arcade Fire’s Grammy triumph last year is a perfect example of this. A large reason Arcade Fire was so successful was that Merge’s policy of letting bands make all the decisions allowed them to control how they were marketed. Merge’s success over the years meant that this marketing message would reach a wider audience than once thought possible. Growth is not necessarily a bad thing.

Although I love to see small, independent businesses succeed as they are, I also recognize that some have to make concessions in order to survive. Utilizing the resources and networks corporations can offer can be a good thing as long as it doesn’t affect the product or a company’s standards. The same can be said for growing larger and expanding. As long as the beer and music remains of high quality, I’m not sure that I care how they do it. (This is assuming that there’s no slave labor or some other immoral business practice involved.)

When overreaction over supposed trends in craft beer happen, all we have to do is look to indie rock for how these things will turn out. Often, when craft breweries practice small, steady growth in an effort to put out a quality product the way they want to, good things happen. The worry over craft beer selling out is an unfounded one. The good will survive this time much the same way indie rock has survived its own flirtations with major labels.

Update: As I was considering this topic, other developments that caused additional stress in the beer blogosphere. It seems that craft breweries are closing. Now, some have the proper perspective to not fall for the panic, but others are worrying that the market is over-saturated. I seem to remember a similar lament in indie rock 15 years ago…

Honestly, there’s not really a trend or all that many people actually talking about it. I just wanted to post that song. The over-saturation of the market has been suggested, but it seems unfounded.

Ten Signs of an Indie Rock Label

Posted in Intersections by Zac on November 12, 2011

One feature of this blog has been to use beer/ indie rock to inspire posts about the other. Today’s post does that. This time, I read this post at Boak & Bailey’s Beer Blog detailing ten signs of a craft brewery. They explain their reasoning for such a list:

We were pondering the hard-to-define, much-loathed term “craft beer” again this morning and decided that, rather than a firm definition, it makes much more sense to think about indicators or signs.

The following list, off the top of our head, is not exhaustive and, clearly, we’re not suggesting that any brewery needs to be able to tick all ten to be considered to be making craft beer. Equally, some of these apply to breweries that, instinctively, we wouldn’t consider craft brewers.

Since I have often made the connection between the craft breweries and indie labels (beers are the equivalent of bands on a roster; vintages the equivalent of albums), it seemed to me that a post detailing the ten signs of an indie label might also have some merit.

Like, B&B’s list, mine is off the top of my head and will only be enriched by your comments.

1. Vinyl is among the formats offered and is often their best-seller. Vinyl is saving the record industry, IMHO. It’s not doing anything for major labels, but it benefits high quality music for niche markets. Plus, with the addition of a “free” digital download, record collectors like myself can have their cake and eat it too. Extra bonus points for labels who also sell cassette tapes.

2. Their releases are found in real, mom-and-pop record stores. Sometimes, depending on distribution deals, one can find an indie release at Target or Best Buy, but this is the exception, not the rule. I know that I can pretty much find a label’s entire roster in small, independent record stores. In fact, record stores depend on indie releases to keep their inventory unique and attractive to the discerning indie music fan just as much as the labels depend on the stores to sell their product.

3. There is a unifying aesthetic to their releases’ artwork and/or music. Whether it’s the fact that labels have limited resources for graphic design or they got into music because of one particular genre, indie labels tend to be more focused aesthetically than their corporate brethren. There’s no better example than early Sub Pop. Before it was known as grunge, the music from Sub Pop just sounded like Sub Pop. And the graphic design, featuring blurry, black-and-white images of flailing guitarists with simple, block lettering denoting the band’s name, was as identifiable as the music.

4. Indie labels are connected to the underground scenes of the 80′s or 90′s in some way. The former underground rockers of our youth eventually turned the business side of the scene, opening avenues for other artists or simply giving them their own outlet for distribution. These legends eventually grew weary of the road and recording studios, often choosing to sit at a desk while younger bands carried the torch. The indie label has a clear lineage that begins in the 80′s hardcore scene. Those same characters play a large role in today’s scene as well.

5. There are actual t-shirts and other memorabilia featuring the label. No one wears an “Epic” or “Warner Bros.” t-shirt. I have yet to see a punk with a pin reading “Sony” or “Atlantic” next to his SST pin. In some arenas, it’s cool to promote your corporate overlords/sponsors, but not with music. Sure, kids wear t-shirts for their bands regardless of label, but only those who follow indie bands will wear a K Records or Merge t-shirt.

6. They are active on social media. Maybe this is just because I only follow indie labels, but a quick search of labels on Facebook and Twitter reveals that indies are way more active and engaging than major labels. I have had actual conversations on Twitter with various indie labels. I also depend on regular updates via Facebook for a label’s release schedules and/or roster tour dates. Because they are small companies with a personal touch, indies thrive at social marketing.

7. There is often one major money-making band on an indie label’s roster that keeps them afloat. Merge has Arcade Fire. Pavement is still listed on Matador’s roster. Sub Pop had Nirvana, then Iron & Wine, then Band of Horses, then Fleet Foxes…etc. Jagjaguar features Bon Iver. There are even better examples out there, but the fact remains that depend on bands who pull in major label-like dollars keep indies afloat. The good part about these bands is that they make enough money to resist overtures made by major labels and they insure that their indie labels will continue to put out great music by lesser-known artists because the profits keep their books in the black…or close to it.

8. There is at least one artist on the roster that is mostly there for street cred or simply out of loyalty. The best indie label rosters resemble the major label rosters of the ’70′s. In those days, someone like Bruce Springsteen could struggle for three albums before finally breaking big. On the other end of the spectrum, older artists find their final resting place on labels that love and adore them to the point that they’ll continue releasing their work despite diminishing sales. Dinosaur Jr still has a label because Jagjaguar gives them their due. A guy like Eric Bachman has time to hone his craft because of the credibility he built during his years with Archers of Loaf. Indie labels are loyal and they make sure good music gets heard, even if it doesn’t appeal to everyone.

9. Bands on their labels may define or establish their own genres and sub-genres with each release. I’ve mentioned Sub Pop before, but they are yet again another great example. There was grunge, then they seemed to single-handedly bring back folk music in more recent years. Other labels that may feature specific genres might include Fat Possum, De Stijl, Astralwerks, Jade Tree, etc.

10. Artists are seen as…well…artists or people as opposed to commodities or assets at a corporate label. Often, people at an indie label see each other and their artists as co-workers or clients at least. The focus is not on the profit they can make from a band. Rather, it’s about getting the music to fans. And the deals artists often sign with indies are so much more fair than what major labels will provide. Bands get a bigger piece of the pie, better representing the part they play in the final product. Sometimes, this can be for a loss or minimal profit, but it seems to pay off in the end as most indie labels are doing well at the moment despite the industry’s struggles.

What did I miss? What would you add to this list? Do you have examples that disprove my assertions or examples that add further proof? Contribute below.

On Business

Posted in Beer, Intersections, Manifesto by Zac on October 12, 2011

I know little if nothing about business or economics, at least not formally. That said, the following conversation happened on Twitter yesterday.

(Be sure to follow Kristen on Twitter if you’re into that sort of thing.)

There were some Tweets in between these, but you get the point. The general idea is that the media is missing the point when reporting on the failings of various industries, especially the two I obsess over. There are clear distinctions between smaller businesses who use innovation to sell traditional products and larger corporations that employ traditional methods to sell new products. Growth and sustainability happen in these smaller ventures. They sell quality over hype, depending on word-of-mouth (via social networking) and they do it in a way that’s easy to maintain.

Indie labels and craft breweries are equivalents in their respective industries. They both depend on the quality of their craft to bring them financial success. They both have large corporate entities to contend with as said corporate devils continue an incestuous practice of mergers and buy-outs. They both prefer innovation in business practices and marketing to sell quality craftsmanship. There’s a focus by both to engage intellect of the consumer by staying above the fray, never appealing to the lowest common denominator. When it comes to steady growth and sustainability, these sub-industries have the answers corporations can’t see through their greedy lens.

Take an indie like Merge. From pretty humble beginnings, this tiny label has built one of the most impressive lineups in the industry, among indies and majors. Yet, they did this while giving their artists a generous share of their album sales and limiting the growth of their label. Artists were allowed freedoms in recording and artwork as long as the tiny label could afford it. For years, they struggled out of a small office in Chapel Hill, NC. Eventually, their model which valued their relationships with artists over profits has led to a record label that actually makes a decent profit, even as the record/music industry dies a slow, painful death.

Some indies try the growth-at-all-costs model their corporate overlords use. Sub Pop – on more than one occasion – has flirted with disaster via major label marketing practices. (Interestingly, Nirvana’s major label breakthrough and a distribution deal with a major label actually saved Sub Pop from bankruptcy on separate occasions.) Sub Pop grew too big at a couple of points in the nineties, signing every band in sight. However, they stretched themselves too thin, featuring a lineup of quantity over quality. They learned their lessons, made some savvy business deals and have found a way to survive as an indie, maybe the most beloved of the sellouts.

Craft breweries have followed a similar track as indie labels. Dogfish Head is a brewery that has placed ideals over profits. They, like other breweries, have cut back on distribution while they slow growth in an attempt to maintain the quality that put Dogfish Head on the map in the first place. As far as marketing, DfH has opted to appeal to the senses as opposed to sexists. A DfH brew belongs at the table with a gourmet meal and that’s what sells. They don’t rely on ads the way Budweiser does. No. DfH’s marketing plan is to brew tasty beers. Too bad Budweiser hasn’t tried that one.

Of course, there’s been some buzz in the beer industry as A-B-InBev purchased craft beer stalwart Goose Island. While there are signs that ABI will stay out of Goose Island’s product, there are already signs that even GI will just become another marketing machine, void of substance that towers over hype. ABI purchased the rights to area codes all over. The plan is to release area code-specific versions of GI’s very popular 312 Urban Wheat Ale. This does not bode well for GI’s future as a pseudo-craft brewery enveloped in a corporate culture.

As corporations continue to push for world denomination through obscene expansion and hostile takeovers, small craft industries are thriving during tough economic times. Consumers know value and will spend their money on it when their cash flow is low. Plus, profits go much further when a company puts said profits toward employee pay and benefits, monitors slow-but-steady growth, and allows the quality of their product speak for itself.

It seems the business models of craft breweries and indie labels should be the models for all business. Not only are they successful – even with an increasing number of competitors, but they have created situations that are sustainable, benefiting everyone in their company. Will there ever be an indie or craft brewery earning as much income as their larger, corporate foes? Doubtful, but maybe that’s the point.

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