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Friday September 30th

Empire records

Chart successes mark indie rock's expanding niche

In the early '90s, amid a sea of teeny boppers such as New Kids on the Block, a rock revival known as grunge emerged.

To many music aficionados, it was a welcome relief and a breath of fresh air to the music scene, as well as to the Billboard charts.

The cyclical phenomenon is now reoccurring, as indie bands are filling the spots at the top of Billboard charts once reserved for Britney Spears and company.

Initially, a garage-rock renaissance brought acts such as The Strokes and The Vines to major record labels, which in turn brought their bands to the airwaves.

Now, groups like Taking Back Sunday, Atreyu, Switch and Gauge, and Flogging

Molly are debuting on or moving up the charts, a surprising change for bands many have never heard on the radio or seen on MTV.

Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's director of charts, said both the company and music enthusiasts have noticed more obscure indie rock bands beginning to slide into the top 200.

Mayfield credited the change to the cyclical nature of music and the tenacity of indie labels.

"What's fun about following music is there is only so much you can predict. The only thing I ever hold by is: When the rock obituary gets rewritten, almost as soon as the ink is dry, something refutes it."

While the sudden appearance of these bands might seem unexpected, independent labels have been working behind the scenes to boost the sales and attention given to indie acts.

For example, quirky rockers Modest Mouse have risen from obscurity almost a decade ago on Up Records to secure a major-label deal with Epic.

On the strength of the left-of-center single "Float On," the band's most recent album, Good News For People Who Love Bad News, has been on the Billboard Top 50 for almost two dozen weeks.

Although local indie label Merge Records hasn't had any bands land on the Billboard charts recently, it is aware of what it takes to get them there.

Like many independent labels, Merge doesn't send its records to commercial radio because of the large cost and minimal returns.

"It's so expensive with advertising and promotion to get your record played on commercial radio, it's not worth our money," said Merge publicist Martin Hall.

"Victory (Records) has huge street marketing, so they drive albums that way," Hall said. "If you have the money to spend, that's what it takes to get on the charts."

Victory Records is an independent record label based in Chicago whose bands Atreyu and Taking Back Sunday have had albums garner high placement on the Billboard charts.

The label credits the "Victory effect" - an ambitious form of street-level promotion that gets albums on the charts and in the hands of listeners - for its success.

"Recently, more and more of our artists are debuting strongly thanks to our really aggressive street promotion," said Stephanie Marlow, who works for the label's video and tour promotion.

"We've gotten it down to a good formula. We know our target demographic, and we know our bands," she said.

Hall echoed Marlow's positive view of Victory's promotional efforts.

"It's admirable what they've done," he said.

Marlow said word of mouth is absolutely priceless, and judging from the label's success with its street-team endeavors, this is clearly the case.

But sometimes, guerrilla publicizing can give way to a more corporate approach.

Rolling Stone magazine reported recently on a meeting that occurred between Apple CEO Steve Jobs and various independent record labels, the purpose of which was to increase collaboration between the corporate world and indie labels.

One such company is Sub Pop Records, a Seattle-based label that first signed Nirvana and now plays home to indie giants The Shins and The Postal Service. The two groups have been receiving major attention and gained commercial status on MTV.

The latter's song "We Will Become Silhouettes" is being used for MTV's new reality show, "Laguna Beach."

Jed Meheu, publicist for Sup Pop, said the label has had more success this year than in the last five. The independent label's affiliation with Apple's iTunes downloading site boosts its sales and placements on the Billboard charts as music downloaders peruse the site looking for interesting or obscure songs.

"It definitely helps out smaller bands and labels like ours, because we never have our records selling on Billboard," Meheu said.

"But if you look at iTunes top 100, six of them could be our records - people like us that don't have the money to promote things on radio or MTV."

ITunes also is prevalent on college campuses, making it possible for new music to pass hands on a larger scale than was possible in the older word-of-mouth system.

In addition to the Internet and aggressive publicity campaigns from the labels, Mayfield said, indie-rock bands creeping onto the Billboard charts could also be benefiting from their grassroots aesthetic.

"It's an ingredient more with a rock band, one that happens to be indie or has a lack of funds from a label," Mayfield said.

"That act has more temperament and opportunity to go to clubs, and that doesn't translate to pop and R&B. It's a unique arena for rock. You'll have opportunity to do that, and the temperament of the artist allows for it."

And now that bands are willing to hop in the van and tour to get their name out or gain fans, acts such as Atreyu and Switch and Gauge must have logged some time on the road.

However, there are several key bands that have helped pave the way for some of the smaller bands. While bands like Modest Mouse and The Strokes are on larger labels, Sup Pop boasts rockers The Shins, whose music has been featured on MTV as well as in the film "Garden State."

The attention the group has brought to Sub Pop has also allowed smaller or more unconventional acts, such as power-pop ensemble Rogue Wave, to gain fame by association.

No matter how indie bands have gotten their names out, the results remain the same as relative unknowns continue to secure their spot on the Billboard charts.

"I think all the established pop genres will go through cycles in part because established artists in (the) genre have something meaningful out or exciting new talent (appears)," Mayfield said. "Those things will cycle in and out."

Contact the A&E Editor at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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