Beer and Pavement

Goose Island Is Beer’s Sub Pop, Matador

Posted in Beer, Intersections, Rock vs. Beer by SM on April 17, 2012

Folks were worried that Goose Island was ruined forever when they sold out to AB-InBev or whatever they’re called. It seems – at the moment, at least – that those worry warts were wrong.

According to this article from the Chicagoist, GI is using the unlimited resources of its master to expand their barrel program. What does that mean? It means that there will be enough Bourbon County Stout for year-round production.

Let that sink in for a moment.

One of the world’s best, most sought-after, and rarest beers is going to be a year-round release. There will simply be more of one of our favorite beers available at any time of the year. That’s a good thing, worry warts.

This reminds me of labels like Sub Pop and Matador signing big deals with major labels. These indies, realizing the limitations of their distribution and recording resources, signed away something like 49% of their companies to corporate interests in order to get some cash flowing. They then used this influx of capital to promote previously-unknown bands and to give them a boost in touring expenses and recording studios. The result is that they extended their reach and prolonged their lives as productive labels. The bands have benefited as well.

As mentioned above, Goose Island selling out signaled the end of craft breweries for some. However, if GI plays their cards right, it could mean more growth for them and continued struggles for corporate beer makers as their own flagship brands suffer in the wake of quality, craft beer.

So, is Goose Island beer’s Sub Pop or Matador?

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More Proof that Indie Rock and Craft Beer Belong Together

Posted in Beer, Intersections, label art by SM on April 10, 2012

I have a bottle of this from a few years back. Someone gave it to me and said not to drink it. The bottle was old and he didn’t like it. So, I kept it for sentimental reasons. I’ll post a picture one of these days. In the meantime, know that Sub Pop is the indie label that featured Nirvana and you know what effect they had on music.

Accept this post as yet more proof that my incessant writing about craft beer and indie rock is not for nothing. Connections exist, people. Recognize. [Link]

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Ten Signs of an Indie Rock Label

Posted in Intersections by SM 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 SM 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.