Indie bands take long road to success -- Acts like Death Cab for Cutie and Secret Machines find ways to retain artistic integrity while achieving mainstream success

By Leah Greenblatt
December 03, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Remember Ned’s Atomic Dustbin? Sponge? Figdish? If you answered no, take a number. They are now little more than sad footnotes of the ’90s major-label signing frenzy — just three of the countless underground acts left to languish when their ”alt” superstardom failed to materialize.

If only they’d waited a decade. These days, many indie bands are finding they can retain their artistic integrity while achieving larger commercial success, and the record companies that sign them are entrusting them with the freedom and financial support to do so. Take Death Cab for Cutie, who recently signed a lucrative multi-album deal with Atlantic. Like the White Stripes and Modest Mouse (now on V2/BMG and Epic, respectively) before them, they toured relentlessly and put out records on small labels for years before considering larger offers. Now they’re reaping the benefits of perseverance. ”What makes us good at what we do,” says frontman Ben Gibbard, ”is the fact that we’ve been doing it organically for the last seven years, you know? No label with their head screwed on straight would want to f— that up.” Indeed, while their deal with Atlantic will confer new opportunities, Death Cab retain almost complete control over their music. And they’re not the only ones to make the leap: In the past year, Le Tigre, the Walkmen, Franz Ferdinand, and Rilo Kiley have all moved on to majors, and most seem happier for it.

So what’s in it for the labels? Brandon Curtis of the Secret Machines, whose Now Here Is Nowhere was released on Warner Bros. earlier this year, sees advantages for both artist and industry. ”Right now, [record companies] seem to be interested in acquiring and participating in good music and seeing if that works,” he says. ”And I really hope it does, because we would all be the beneficiaries of bands that are creative, instead of being created.”