|« Fake Fictions Fading Out||Friday Quick Links »|
Feature Thu Oct 22 2009
Like, duh: Anyone who's paid attention to the music industry over the past five years knows that it's changing. Last year, Trent Reznor offered up two Nine Inch Nails albums for free download under a Creative Commons License, while more notably, Radiohead self-released its 2007 album In Rainbows for a price that was chosen by each individual customer--an approach so famous that it is now simply called "The Radiohead Model."
The model, it seems, works for those bands whose fans number in the millions and the number of albums they've sold add up to even more. But in the not-so-much-a-news-flash department, even indie bands are feeling the pain of a post-label music industry: your favorite music stores continue to get steamrolled by big box retailers in smaller cities; you can now count the number of major independent distributors on one hand; and indie labels are cautiously operating.
In Chicago, there's at least one musician who is trying to navigate the future of the music industry, while cultivating a label-type community of artists. Casey Meehan, who performs under the name of Jitney, started the "netlabel" Rock Proper last November after realizing that he and his friends were putting lots of time and money into recording albums, but had few ways to get it the music out there. "[Rock Proper] started out as a connection of our friends' networks--we were in this lucky and unlucky place that we realized there were all these great records that professionally recorded and needed to be released," Meehan said.
So, Meehan--with the help of local musician Joshua Dumas--created Rock Proper as a means of distributing his friends' albums. He decided to offer the music as digital downloads only, since "we felt that a lot of people were taking CDs and burning them anyway." The goal of the project, Meehan says, is not about being in the record business, but for "connecting people and music, and thinking about it in a different way." So far, it seems to be working modestly: A year after its launch, Rock Proper is home to 18 full-length albums available for free download from a sonically-diverse community of (mostly) Chicago artists, that have been downloaded about 20,000 times in more than 200 countries ("including Macedonia!", Meehan proudly proclaims).
Amongst its dozen-plus releases, the debut line-up of Rock Proper's catalog includes Meehan's project, Jitney, a dark-pop journal of his days as a Chicago cab driver; a psychedelic offering from Where The Moon Came From, featuring indie-rock darling David Vandervelde; and the Guthrie-esque rock of Andy Wagner, who has two albums available via Rock Proper. "I wanted my records to reach new listeners," Wagner said on his decision to offer up the albums on the site. "And I was honored to be in the company of, and very fond of, the bands [on Rock Proper]."
The bands that Meehan decides to feature on Rock Proper is a careful decision: "We decided a while ago that we were going to act as a filter, make the whole body of work speak as somewhat of a cohesive artform," Meehan said. "If you trust us, you'll be more inclined to come back and check out the new stuff."
One album that has brought people to the site is that of ex-Wilco member and engineer, Jay Bennett, who died earlier this year at 45. Meehan's friendship with Bennett began before Rock Proper was born, in Bennett's Pieholden Studio--which Meehan helped relocate from Chicago to the Champaign-area a few years ago, and where many of the Rock Proper bands recorded albums.
Bennett had two albums in the can and a promise to his fans to release one of them by the end of the year. He chose Rock Proper for what would be the last album he'd release while alive, the intimate Whatever Happened I Apologize (The other album he had ready remains unreleased). "A lot of people were surprised that an artist of his size and history was embracing the new model," Meehan said. "He could have got it on some sort of label, but he chose this method to reach as wide as an audience as possible."
To date, Bennett's solo album is the most-downloaded Rock Proper album--but Meehan sees that people are sticking around for just more than the higher-profile releases: "A win for one record is a win for all the record--many people will just go to the site and grab just one record, but some people will grab all the records," Meehan said.
On deck for Rock Proper are two non-local releases: early next month, the site will debut the Ohio rock-pop group, The Sun--a band that has gone through "the major label squeeze by Capitol," according to Meehan (indeed, a January 2009 post on the band's Virb page says: "New Record Shelved; Band Disbanded")--as well as the second Rock Proper release from New Orleans' Steve Eck.
The label is also planning on celebrating its one-year anniversary early next year with a showcase, but Meehan feels that Rock Proper still has some growing up to do: "Right now, we're really just scratching the surface of what it could be," he said, "I think year three is where it will really start to fall into place."