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The Death of a Label

Nick Anderson | Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ten years ago, the word indie meant something. Contrary to popular belief, indie is not a style, sound or genre. Indie meant one thing: Independent label. Today, calling a band “indie” says there are two guitars, some poppy melodies and a thousand other bands that sound exactly like it. Almost all of the “indie” bands you listen to, be it Spoon, the Arctic Monkeys, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, or the latest blogosphere darlings are in some way connected to Warner, EMI, Song or Universal. Check out Paste magazine’s excellent piece on the rise and fall of indie music if you want a better understanding of the history.

As indie bands rapidly become a thing of the past, indie labels are following in their footsteps. The latest label to call it quits is the seminal rap label Definitive Jux Records. Jux formed under the watchful eye of El-P, a New York-based producer and recording artist, to combat the exact problem we’re likely to see again soon. Major labels had bought up much of the industry talent and were pushing for over-commercialized albums. While Jux and other indie labels couldn’t compete with the large paychecks, they could offer artistic freedom.

El-P played the game damn near perfect. He was already one of the most innovative producers working, and managed to create a roster of artists with mixed established fan bases and emerging talent. Strong sales and tours from underground names like Aesop Rock, The Perceptionists and RJD2 allowed newcomers such as Cannibal Ox and MURS to find a sound without heavy industrial pressure.

Between 2001 and 2007, Definitive Jux wasn’t the loudest voice in hip hop, but it was the most important. Beginning with Cannibal Ox’s stone-cold classic “The Cold Vein,” ending with El-P’s “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” and including Aesop Rock’s “Bazooka Tooth” as well as MURS’ “MURS 3:16,” Jux could do no wrong. In those six years, there were upwards of 10 masterpieces put out by the label.

Yesterday’s announcement was not surprising. Rumors have been circulating for the past year concerning the inevitable death of Jux. In 2008 and 2009, there were a total of two albums released, one from label freshman but industry veteran Del the Funky Homosapien. The press release confirmed the future release of one more album, the late Camu Tao’s “King of Hearts” but gave no more insight into the future of the other artists. Jux’s hiatus will no doubt see the emigration of the majority of its roster.

In his message to fans, “Of Hooptys and Hovercrafts,” El-P admits the troubles of a traditional label. Beyond its struggle to continue to make a steady income, EL-P points to a personal drifting away from making music as the turning point in his decision. Of course, Jux always served as an extension of El-P, and couldn’t operate in his absence, but the continued rise of music piracy and the ditching of labels by industry leaders Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have caused label profits to fall even as artists’ pockets fatten.

Jux continues to do the best it can for its loyalist fans, keeping their Web site running, providing some show support and continuing to print the back catalogue. There’s no doubt the bigger orphaned talent will find new labels to support their music habit; lesser names may be left out in the cold. For fans of indie hip hop, Rhymesayers continues to market in intelligent Midwest rap, but Stone’s Throw has largely floundered without the late Jay Dilla. It’s a dark day for music, one best accompanied by a moody EL-P track.

Contact Nick Anderson at nanders5@nd.edu