The so-called "Big 6" record companies (CBS, WEA, Polygram, EMI/Capitol, RCA and MCA) control the distribution of 85 per cent of the records released in America and the radio air-waves still cater to their tried-and-true favorites plus the occasional newcomers. Yet the two most influential musical forces of the late Seventies, Disco and Punk-New Wave, developed outside of established channels, Disco, originally the province of Latinos and gays, was wholeheartedly embraced by the industry, but the New Wave has spawned an alternative, underground network of small record labels, distributors, clubs and publications convinced that the music business is hopelessly out of touch with the musical times.
"Record companies are still conditioned to the late Sixties style of breaking new bands," charges Greg Shaw; "their whole approach to underground music is completely out-dated." Shaw's independent Bomp label and distributorship was formed in 1969. "The most effective marketing strategy today is to go through import channels. Elvis Costello, to name but one, was broken in this country through imports."
Inspired by the do-it-yourself ethic of the British new wave scene, independent labels and imports are exerting an increasingly powerful influence on the American music industry. Devo, Pere Ubu, the Shoes, the Romantics and 20/20 all parlayed self-financed and independently distributed singles or albums into major label deals. Several majors have attempted to keep abreast of the times by striking up distribution deals with leading British independents--Polydor with Radar, CBS with Stiff, Atlantic with Virgin and A&M with the recently formed International Record Syndicate (IRS).
The Clash's first American release, Give 'Em Enough Rope, barely nudged the lower reaches of the Top 200 album charts but import sales of its debut LP and singles were so strong that the British punk quartet was able to sell out a 12-date tour of 2-3,000 seat halls in February, 1979. English new wave bands 999, Magazine, Gang of Four, Penetration, Ultravox and Sham 69 toured America without the benefit of a Stateside recording contract--acts of unprecedented chutzpah and optimism--and found enthusiastic crowds already familiar with the music packing their club dates. The Gang of Four and 999 subsequently landed domestic label deals.
The Police story is a blueprint for a successful alternative approach to making it in the record industry. Formed in the wake of the British punk uprising, the band released one single on its own Illegal label before signing with A&M. They shattered precedent by undertaking a short East Coast tour in late '77 without any record company support--flying Laker Airways and carrying drums as hand baggage to cut down on costs. When the Police concluded their first proper American tour in Los Angeles in May, 1979, they turned down a $12,000 offer to play a second night at the 3,300-seat Santa Monica Civic in order to perform at Madame Wong's, a small restaurant in LA's Chinatown which only months before had changed its entertainment policy from Polynesian dancers to local unsigned bands.
"There was a lot of resistance to my ideas, initially," reflects the Police's intense, bespectacled manager Miles Copeland. "A&M didn't want to release 'Roxanne' as a single. They told me the way it was done in America is you release the album and take the single when the DJs tell you what to play. I said we know what we want as the single and we don't want a DJ at some s--tass AOR station telling us what we know is right.
"The other secret ingredient we had was the Paragon (booking) Agency. My brother Ian was there and he gave us the license to bring unsigned bands over here American agencies just don't do that because they don't want to know about you until you're on the charts. You can't even get 'em on the phone unless you've got a hit act."
"When I first started bringing the English bands over, I had to turn over rocks to find something," admits Ian Copeland. "I'd almost have to trade promoters an Allman Brothers date just to do me a favor and give me a date for this band.
"We found a kind of circuit, the Rat in Boston, CBGBs in New York, the Hot Club in Philly and the Edge in Toronto. That was it, those four clubs. Each tour got bigger and bigger as the word spread and we were able to add cities to get us further across America. Since then, every little town in America suddenly has a New Wave room."
Ian now heads the Frontier Booking International (FBI), an agency specializing in New Wave performers. Miles created the International Record Syndicate (IRS), an umbrella organization of seven young, aggressive independent labels which are distributed by A&M while retaining complete artistic control over their releases.
Independent labels have traditionally served as a renegade force within the record industry. Fifties labels like Atlantic (then an indie), Chess, Specialty, and Sun brought the black blues and Rhythm & Blues (previously classified/stigmatized as "race" music) and Rockabilly of such artists as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles into the pop mainstream. The first British invasion in the mid-Sixties launched a stream of American one-hit wonders released on small independent labels such as Soma, Laurie, Tower, Bang and Crescendo.
The American music business has since evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry aimed largely at an expanding older audience. It now takes about $250,000 to establish a new band, so the major labels, their sights firmly locked on platinum-plus sales figures, are less and less willing to take a chance on adventurous music; the new independents are stepping into the breach.
"It seems the majors have gotten to the point where they're only interested in selling millions of copies," contends Bob Say, the head of the west coast branch of Jem Records, the largest distributor of import records in America. Jem started in 1971 as a three-man operation pushing a catalogue dominated by progressive rock albums out of a house trailer in New Jersey. Their business mushroomed dramatically when the major American labels turned their backs on the punk bands emerging in England three years ago.
"The New Wave definitely gave Jem Records more prestige in the United States," Say relates. "It created a lot of news, both good and bad, and we were bringing in 80 per cent of the records at the time and we're still bringing in the majority of them."
Currently, Jem operates with a staff of 60 employees and approximately 50,000 feet of warehouse space in the States in addition to a small London office. The company now has two labels of its own (PVC and Visa) and handles those Stiff, Radar and Virgin artists not picked up by a major label.
Fans agree that the quality of import pressings and the total packaging are superior to the domestic editions. Import singles frequently contain songs that never appear on an album and the LPs often feature different tracks. American albums are often a collection