ALWAYS IN NEED OF A NEXT BIG THING, MAJOR LABELS DESCEND ON THIS LATEST INDIE HOT SPOT.
On a recent Friday night in Columbus, Ohio, a garage-turned-art space-turned- recording studio called Magnetic Planet is the site of a hastily arranged concert featuring Gaunt, Appalachian Death Ride, Moviola, Lincoln Logs, and Monster Zero-a sampling of the city’s formidable, if largely unknown, rock & roll roster. Despite the thundering punk-pop, the BYOB event has a disarmingly casual air; there’s no cover charge and virtually no distinction between the musicians and the slacking audience from Ohio State. It may not look like the future of rock & roll, but in the current clime of the music biz, it’s a record-company executive’s dream. Major labels have been on the hunt for the next hitmaking hamlet since well before the orgy of Seattle signings. In fact, the search for the Next Big Scene dates back to the early ’80s discovery of R.E.M. in the boho enclave of Athens, Ga. Since then, Austin, Tex., Champaign, Ill., Chapel Hill, N.C., San Diego, and even Halifax, Nova Scotia, have been candidates for the title. Says artist and repertoire (A&R) director Liz Brooks, 25, of Virgin’s Vernon Yard Recordings: ”To be aware of what’s going on, you need to delve into regions of America other than New York and L.A., or even Seattle or San Diego.” These days, one such region is Columbus. Like any good ”scene,” it’s a midsize burg located near universities, dominated not so much by college kids as by alumni types who still live and dress like undergrads. Also essential: a sound (in this case, equal parts punk and lo-fi melodic stuff, a la Dayton act Guided By Voices); at least one sub-indie record label; a record store that serves as an outlet for local product and as a general locus of activity; and a culture-over-commerce ethic embodied by an impresario with a hand in many aspects of the music-making process. In Columbus, that impresario would be Bela Koe-Krompecher, 26, founder of the Anyway label, employee at Used Kids Records, and sometime promoter of live events. Like most indie stalwarts, he’s not in the biz for bucks. His three- year-old label, with 20 singles and a couple of EPs to its credit, is a break-even proposition run out of his home. Koe-Krompecher and other locals find the major labels’ attempts to colonize flat-footed: For one thing, the corporations usually jump on a scene too soon. ”Look at Seattle,” says Koe- Krompecher. ”All those bands were friends, they were all on (the label) Sub Pop, they were all in bands together. They had that going on for years, so they got to be good, because nobody f — -ed with them. Since then, it’s lost something.” ”A&R has changed a lot since the whole ‘alternative’ thing happened,” agrees Brooks. ”Almost any band that’s got a successful indie release is being courted. I don’t think there’s a scene now that would be left alone to develop.” Yet at the same time, she notes, many reps try to grab some of a band’s hometown authenticity without getting to know that town and its music. ”A lot of A&R people aren’t comfortable unless they get to a band through a lawyer. They don’t want to go up and talk to a band and say, ‘Hey, I liked your show; I think you’re cool.’ ” Even when majors do sign someone, it’s often with an eye to style over substance. They don’t want something different, just something Alternative. ”I talked to this woman from Columbia about a local singer-songwriter,” recalls Koe-Krompecher. ”She was like ‘Yeah, there’s this VP at Columbia who loves her, but we’d heard she’s an alcoholic. And we want somebody who we can work with.’ Then she said there was a Chicago band they (liked). They hadn’t recorded, but they have the right image. It was Veruca Salt. I’m thinking, ‘Here’s a woman who writes beautiful songs and they’re concerned that she drinks.’ It was insane. To me, that insults the music.” Jerry Wick, 27, of the local punk band Gaunt, believes the majors’ strip- miner mentality demeans consumers, too. ”They’re being tricked into buying music that’s got an A&R machine behind it,” says Wick. ”It’s like McDonald’s: The reason they’re the biggest chain is because they have the most powerful commercials, not because they have the best food.” The closest thing to a genuine Columbus breakout of late is the New Bomb Turks, whose third neopunk offering, Information Highway Revisited, recently came out on Crypt/Matador (an Atlantic affiliate). But Turks singer Eric Davidson, 27, retains the requisite indie disdain for the majors. ”We haven’t pimped ourselves out to any of (them) yet,” he says with a laugh. Given the current mainstream vogue for low-rent punks like Green Day and Rancid, it seems unlikely that the majors will let up in their attempts to wrench some kind of product out of Columbus’ scene. Come what may, Koe- Krompecher sums up the thanks-but-no-thanks attitude toward Rock, Inc.: ”I don’t need to turn on MTV to find something that makes me happy,” he shrugs. ”It’s right outside my window.”