Cults Diss Indie Labels, Yearn For The Days Of Payola

By Michael Nelson / October 17, 2013 - 11:50 am

Yesterday, Grantland published a feature titled “Sleigh Bells And Cults: The Indie Pop Left-Behinds,” in which Ian Cohen hypothesized, “The previous month showed us what [indie pop] is in 2013, and in the past two weeks, the latest albums from Sleigh Bells and Cults show us what it was and what it’s not anymore.” Writes Cohen:

[New albums from Sleigh Bells and Cults] have dropped and I can’t remember the titles of the singles let alone the singles themselves. But the problem isn’t so much that they’re disappointing or that they evidence seriously diminishing returns in a very short amount of time — they do. The more curious thing is that in the span of two years, one of indie pop’s bedrock principles appears to be irreversibly outmoded — that there was nothing wrong with melody as long as it was sonically warped to the point that it was clearly something else.

Agree or disagree, Cohen raises some interesting questions, made more so by the fact that one of those indie pop bands, Cults, are on the old-school major Columbia.

In an interview published today at Spin, Cults members Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion discuss their relationship to Columbia, and in the process, come out in favor of the illegal pay-for-spins-on-radio practice known as payola. (Oblivion: “The radio was way better when people were paying to get stuff on there.”) They also decried the limitations and practices of indie labels. (Oblivion: “I feel like a lot of smaller indie labels are giving bands really bad deals and robbing them.”)

Of course both points are hard to debate without a great deal more context. The demise of payola, for instance, occurred more or less in tandem with the rise of the internet, a time during which radio’s impact was going to decrease irrespective of its practices. And “a lot of smaller indie labels” is kinda vague, although I can’t imagine any smaller indie labels are super happy being namelessly lumped into the group to which Oblivion is referring. Anyway, check those questions/answers in full below, make of ‘em what you will.

You’re on Columbia, but make music that clearly isn’t designed for the kind of mass success that other artists on the roster are trying to achieve. For bands that are aiming at that high level, how do you think they plan to get from the ground level to the top? It seems like there’s nowhere in between.

Oblivion: I’ve had that conversation with a lot of musicians — even with Michael [Angelakos] of Passion Pit, who’s arguably almost there. We were saying that radio is this crazy pipe dream. You can do so much to try to get on the radio. We really don’t do very much, but I know people who fly all the way out to L.A., play a free show, fly to Seattle, play a free show, pay their own money to do that, and the label pays them to go to conferences, shake hands — it’s still this seedy business. I remember he said something like, “You know, back in the day, it used to just be payola. I wish it was still that way,” and I was like “I do too! Holy shit, if we could just pay, and get stuff on the radio.” The radio was way better when people were paying to get stuff on there. Now, these Clear Channel assholes decide what’s going to push advertisements and move hot song blocks. It’s just really frustrating. But without that, you can’t really become a super successful artist.

You’ve been in that weird space of being a major-label act at the same time as having more underground Internet hype. That’s not the most usual scenario in the music world.

Oblivion: I like to think that what we get from being on a record label is, number one, smart people. Everyone who works there is really cool and professional, and not druggy party people like so many people in the industry. And we get more money up front, so we get to go into nice studios and futz around for months at a time. I know indie bands that are really successful who can barely afford more than three weeks in a studio. They can’t make music videos, which is a huge thing our label helps us out with. I have a chip on my shoulder. I feel like a lot of smaller indie labels are giving bands really bad deals and robbing them. You see a lot of labels still give a band a $40,000 advance, which seems like a lot of money, but these days, you split all your money with the label. An indie band ends up in a Hyundai commercial and makes 100 grand, and the label is like “Welp, fuck you.” All these bands are trading their cool points for cash, and [the labels are] making out like bandits.

You can read the whole Q&A at Spin.