Song Hordes: The Return of the Indie

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Before my wife and I moved out to Portland from Boston, my mother asked if there was anything I wanted from her house in New Jersey to take on the trip with us.

"Yeah," I said. "Can you bring up Steve Holland's records?"

In our family lore, Steve Holland's records are the equivalent of The Ark of the Covenant from Raiders Of The Lost Ark or One-Eyed Willy's treasure map from Goonies. The story went that Steve Holland, my mother's high school boyfriend, had lent them to her more than 40 years ago and that the two broke up shortly thereafter. My mom got the records in the exchange and both went on to lives too busy to be bothered with a bunch of old vinyl. The two faux-snakeskin flip-top boxes of 45s had been buried in a far corner our family's attic since we moved into the house in the mid-'80s and hadn't been played since the late 1960s or early '70s.

When my mom brought them up to our Boston apartment last summer, I was surprised not only by the singles they contained -- Dirty Water by The Standells, Louie Louie by The Kingsmen, You Can't Hurry Love by The Supremes , The Music Explosion's Little Bit O'Soul -- but by the sheer amount of labels. Not just Motown, Stax, Sun and the ones people still talk about, but dozens of others. The orange-and-white checkers of Roulette records, the googie font of Laurie records and the cartoon quote bubble firing from the revolver of Bang Records still entrance me every time I drop the 45 adapter on the turntable and give them a spin.

In the current music climate, we're repeatedly told how consolidation and greed are killing the recording industry and how the Big Three of Universal Vivendi, Sony ( SNE) and Warner Music ( WMG) are turning airwaves and earbuds into a steady stream of auto-tuned Muzak. Shouldn't the sight of all those labels from a high point in music history be making us a lot more wistful?

Maybe they would if the Big Three was all we had and independent labels were ground into dust. Maybe that would be the case if they weren't such a potent reminder that once those London-issued Rolling Stones singles and Capitol-minted Beatles records stop spinning, music lovers eventually branch out and start seeking out the Dave Clark Five, Procol Harum and The Left Banke. That's where the little labels come in, and broadening music minds have kept a lot of them around.

The American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) exists solely to support independent record labels and includes more than 300 as members. Some of those members, like ABKCO Records, would be right at home in Steve Holland's boxes thanks to catalog releases from Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones, Bobby Womack, The Animals, Herman's Hermits and others. Others like Bar/None Records, Matador, Kill Rock Stars and Sub-Pop still have a place in Gen X record collections and are still home to artists like Kurt Vile, Iron & Wine, The Thermals , Low and Father John Misty.

As Billboard points out, those indie labels accounted for 32.6% of all music sales last year., up from 32.1% the year before. That's well ahead of the market share held by Warner (14.8%), Sony (22.5%) or Universal (23.9%). A2IM adds that when you look at the digital sales figures, that share jumps to 39%.

They're also growing that market share in ways that would make the little labels among Steve Holland's records envious. Where the steadfast little 45s had to find their way or pay their way into jukeboxes and the hands of dozens to hundreds of DJs across the country, current indie label singles just need to be in an easily accessible digital format. If KEXP plays a Macklemore song in Seattle or WFMU plays the new Cat Power track in New York, streamed broadcasts and ensuing podcasts take them global. Mollie Starr, a representative for streaming music service Pandora, estimates that 70% of the site's catalog comes from independent labels and musicians, with the AAIM reporting that independent labels account for 40% of all Pandora streams.

Similarly, independent singles make up 30% to 35% of the programming on Sirius-XM's satellite radio music channels. As we've said before, terrestrial radio has very little say in what the popular music of the moment sounds like. Increasingly, it sounds like Jack White's 2012 album Blunderbuss, Mumford & Sons' Babel, Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City and Queens of the Stone Age's ... Like Clockwork -- all indie releases that have topped the Billboard 200 album chart in the last 12 months.

That multi-platform airplay translates to a whole lot of sales when digital distribution brings a song home instantly. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, for example, can move 500,000 of copies of their album The Heist via Apple's ( AAPL) iTunes, Amazon ( AMZN) or elsewhere without begging Warner, Sony or Universal to help them move product. That's great for artists who go out on their own, but it also does wonders for sales of digital singles, which increased 5.1% last year. It also means great things for digital album sales, which jumped 14.10% in 2012.

That would seemingly make Steve Holland's stacks of wax the preserved fossils of indie label history, but vinyl's place in this tale hasn't been relegated to the museum quite yet. For more than half a decade, vinyl sales have been on the rise thanks to a renewed push for vinyl releases and demand for reissues like those from The Beatles' catalog that topped the vinyl sales charts two years ago. Last year, Jack White's Blunderbuss, released on his independent Third Man Records label, was the best-selling LP of the year. He was joined in vinyl's Top 10 by independent-label releases from Mumford & Sons, Beach House and Alabama Shakes, with Billboard pointing out that 67% of all vinyl albums were sold at independent record stores.

The 7-inch single pitches in too, with scores of them making their way onto shelves on Record Store Day each April. When David Bowie, Dan Deacon, Best Coast, GZA, The Hold Steady and Public Image Ltd. all care enough about the format to release singles on it this year, it's clear that at least a few folks want to keep them around for a few more spins.

I'll admit I've added a couple to Steve Holland's boxes over the last year or so, setting aside empty sleeves for new Titus Andronicus, Sharon Van Etten and Husker Du singles. Just as people keep adding tracks to iTunes to keep the Genius function honest and keep giving artists the thumb's up on Pandora ( P) to smooth out playlists, I'm going to keep melding my old I.R.S. version of The Go-Gos' We Got The Beat and with found copies of Desmond Dekker's Israelites and The Walker Bros. The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore). In the record bins that fill in the gaps, SST and Black Flag, TwinTone and Husker Du, Dischord and Minor Threat blend with Priority and N.W.A. and Nas and Get On Down.

Those little labels that Steve Holland spent so much time compiling and that my mom spent so much time hiding meant something. They wove together a colorful pattern that crossed time and genre and helped young music fan push back and consume beyond what they were spoon fed.

If Steve reads this and decides he wants the records back, I'll understand. It's just comforting to know that the legacy of the labels that produced them has held up as well as the records themselves, and that the labels that followed are still creating a sizable singles stash of their own.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post,, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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