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Two Indie Advocates Sort Out the Postal Service Copyright Saga

By William B. Higgins and Chris A. Kukstis, Crimson Staff Writerss

Chris: Who ever said that commercial tie-ins are a good thing? When the Postal Service—a popular band on Subpop combining the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard (who is as portly as he is whiny) with the poppy glitches of Jimmy Tamborello from Dntel—agreed to a deal with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), politically correct crunchies everywhere praised this indie-rock spirit of compromise. But they seem to critically overlook the fact that by this deal, an allegedly DIY band and an allegedly DIY branch of the U.S. government have agreed to a mutually beneficial deal that I think is enough to brand both as sell-outs. The conflict started in the summer of 2004 when the Postal Service band faced a copyright infringement lawsuit from the Postal Service mail service. Why did the USPS care? Because the Postal Service band had earned far more fame and record sales than are appropriate to its label; its debut Give Up became Subpop’s second highest all-time seller, behind Bleach, the debut from another group of proud sell-outs. And also because the band’s burst of popularity was deemed nominally threatening to the massive government organization. It seemed certain that the duo, whose name comes from the very service they used when combining their contributions while both artists toured separately, would have to change their name. This sort of thing happens in rock, and has led to the English Beat’s name change from the Beat, and Dinosaur Jr.’s name change from Dinosaur. Question: have you heard of the Beat? Have you heard of Dinosaur? But to avoid what probably would have not been so big a deal—or possibly to get Ben Gibbard to stop crying—an agreement was reached: Postal Service (band) gets to keep their name, for better or worse, and the USPS is capitalizing on it, selling the band’s music in their post offices—which I’ve noticed far outnumber Newbury Comics—and having the band play some private carrier functions. I haven’t been more shocked with indie rock since, well, The O.C., and I haven’t been more shocked with our friendly and oft-disgruntled postal staff since I called home as a first-year to find that my father had dissolved his business and become a carrier. I can only imagine how Gibbard and Tamborello will modify their sound to suit their audience of small business owners and penpals, but I have to think that some DIY compromise is going to be made.

Bill: My friend, you forget that the (music-making) Postal Service never adhered to a DIY ethic in the first place.  Subpop’s a good label, but thanks to those lovable longhairs from Seattle it’s anything but underground these days, as recent successes like The Shins will attest.  You sign with Subpop, you lose your DIY card.  For most bands this is not a problem because Subpop gives them such a nice deal: They get big distribution and decent promotion while still maintaining their indie credibility; they get immediate critical attention, but won’t be thrust so far into the limelight as to lose their private lives.  And it’s not as though Death Cab, Ben Gibbard’s day job, has been a young upstart act anyway.  These guys are old hands on the circuit, as close to an establishment as indie gets.  (In fact, they just announced a new deal with Atlantic, so you can scratch the indie label entirely.) The Postal Service project was hyped from the outset and a prepackaged audience greeted the LP at its release.  Some of the songs were so good that they began to make the rounds in dorm rooms and on soundtracks (witness Iron and Wine’s pretty cover of “Such Great Heights,” featured in Garden State). This new deal with the USPS doesn’t change anything.  First, after stumbling upon such unexpected crossover success, it’s perfectly understandable that the band would want to hang on to their name. It’s maybe less reasonable for the USPS to suggest that anyone could confuse this little band with a centuries-old, Lance Armstrong-sponsoring, mail-carrying monster, but I guess they’re entitled to their copyright. Regardless, under the terms of this deal the band will continue to make music as they would normally; they’ll just be able to sell it in a lot of new locations. I think it’s kind of a cool solution.  Since when has it been a bad idea to expose greater numbers of people to fresh and arguably good music?  A colorful record display could perform a public service: it might distract post office patrons, however momentarily, from the soul-sapping reality that they’re waiting in line at the godforsaken post office.  Don’t hate, Chris.

Chris: Bill, I consider it a bad idea to expose underground music to a wider audience when I am skeptical at the new audience’s willingness to accept the music as the artist intends, and when I feel that an artist would be likely to compromise their art for the sake of filthy lucre. In this example I can see the Postal Service going either way. The popularity of the first album was buoyed on the strength of “Such Great Heights,” an excellent single that condenses everything good about the Postal Service into a compact pop window; the album sticks to that sound entirely, and the band does little to branch out. Second showings from the Strokes and Interpol have proven exactly how a band of the moment with a distinct sound, usually captured on a lone popular single, can come up short of innovative ideas on a sophomore effort. There is no doubt that a band so gimmicky as to name themselves after their gimmick would have a similar problem following up a disc like Give Up, and with the added pressure of licensing with the U.S. government, I could see how we might not see a release up to the debut’s par for a long time. More, though, there’s something that just strikes me as wrong when I imagine the Postal Service band performing corporate gigs for the USPS. It might be something about what they wear: uniformity has never been a praised attribute of the indie circles. Your laudation for Subpop basically paints them as a compromise between the laissez-faire experimentation permitted by an indie with the potential for record sales of a major. Isn’t this hypocrisy? Should independents consider finances at all, beyond that which is necessary to record their albums? Can you have it both ways? The answer, if we’re to believe in indie rock like Victoria believed in Santa, the way I want to believe in indie rock, is no. And Bill, don’t even try to summon Death Cab’s fame as a way of legitimize this deal—independent or not, they suck and besides, no one is trying to take that name. But it’s both members of the Postal Service (band) that have enjoyed the most fruits of this attention-getting scandal: their album remains for the 90th week on Billboard’s top independents, and supplies background music for many of MTV’s shows. If this trajectory continues, and people get to conveniently purchase their music at every zip code, they might even be on MTV in the form of video artists. And we know we can’t have our indie rock heroes and villains doing that, right? Though I did kinda like “Float On” ...

Bill: I can certainly understand your fears of a sophomore slump from the Postal Service, considering how well they managed to capture that weird sound of theirs on the debut. Half their initial appeal to me was how different they sounded from most of what else I was listening to at the time, and of course that card is played out now. It’s completely possible that they’ve peaked, that their good luck will sour and that the follow-up will be quickly and deservedly disowned. But even if they’re headed down that familiar dark road, I think we should pause before we assign blame to the promotional muscle of the USPS. You say there’s added pressure now because of this licensing deal, that the band will feel compelled to out-gimmick themselves to cater to a new audience. I don’t see it. The USPS isn’t known for its discerning tastes in indie rock. I tend to think they’ll be satisfied no matter what the next record sounds like. And any new fans the band wins through product placement in post offices across the country are gravy to them now. At the end of the day it’ll be their same old constituency shelling out the cash that keeps bread on the table. I’m just not convinced they’ll have to compromise artistically at all. As for your gut-level complaint, your conviction that the deal just smacks of something foul, well that’s a real, legitimate problem. You’re an idealist, my friend. You want to believe in Indie, the idea of great music divorced from money and beyond the reach of the industry machines. It’s a nice thought for sure. But in practice, few musicians seem to want to starve. They want nice houses and cars and to be rock stars. They usually don’t care that you heard of them first. Personally I like to see talent rewarded with radio play and airtime on music networks. I’d rather America’s youth grow up on organic stuff like the White Stripes than the next shrink-wrapped commodity the labels anoint for pop stardom. And it’s good to see bands make it on the quality of their songwriting, not the brand of cigarette they smoke. The Postal Service is doing something new and different to spread their music without losing one speck of artistic control. More power to them.

—Staff writer Chris A. Kukstis can be reached at kukstis@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer William B. Higgins can be reached at whiggins@fas.harvard.edu.

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