The following is an edited version of a McClatchy syndicated article including commentary from Daniel Glass (Glassnote), Matt Harmon (Beggars Group) and Jim Mahoney (A2IM) about the growing success of independents at the GRAMMY’s. This article ran in the Arizona Republic’s Sunday Arts section (circulation of 450K) and was sent out to over 100 additional McClatchy papers.
Grammy nods show indie acts gaining in acceptance
The music industry is abuzz with indie-rock act Arcade Fire’s nomination for the prestigious album of the year at this year’s Feb. 13 Grammy Awards.
“The Suburbs,” full of poignant music ranging from moody ballads to grandiose anthems, was hailed as a masterpiece on several music critics’ top 10 lists for 2010, with fans from Bruce Springsteen to David Bowie to Bono also singing the band’s praises.
The nod is the biggest indication that this could be a landmark year for artists linked to independent labels, with Grammy nominations in more than a dozen categories. And it signals a growing sophistication on the part of such smaller imprints as Glassnote Records, run by big-label alumnus Daniel Glass, in recording high-quality albums.
“That recognition says a lot, that out of all the music out there, they (indie acts) made it to this point,” says Gail Mitchell, a Billboard writer affiliated with the Los Angeles chapter of the Recording Academy, which votes on the Grammys.
“They are breaking down the barriers for other indie acts to move forward. It’s a boon for us (radio) listeners because maybe … it will bust that bar wide open and we’re going to hear a wider expanse of music.”
This year’s nominations also help to validate the academy’s campaign to diversify its membership and welcome acts beyond those backed by the marketing muscle of huge record labels.
“The Recording Academy has been very gracious to us,” says Jim Mahoney, vice president of the American Association of Independent Music. “They have been interested in reaching out to us.”
As big labels have struggled and the Internet has provided new ways for music to reach listeners, the quality and reach of independent acts and labels has achieved Grammy-worthy levels.
‘The indies had a connotation for so many years of putting out subpar music, ‘garage-y’ music – underrecorded, underwritten, underproduced, not mastered properly,” says Glass, who’s based in New York. “And guess what? It didn’t do that well (at the Grammys). The truth is, you have to make exquisite records.”
A year after Glassnote recording artist Phoenix won the Grammy for best alternative album, a category where indie acts can flourish, Glass’ latest project – Britain’s Mumford & Sons – is nominated in more mainstream categories, such as best new artist and best rock song (“Little Lion Man”).
Mumford and Florence & the Machine, a second British act that was virtually unknown in America a year ago, as well as indie jazz singer-bassist Esperanza Spalding, will do battle with teen-pop monster Justin Bieber and rising R&B star Drake for the best new-artist trophy.
The contest for alternative-album category is brimming with acts with indie roots – Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses and Broken Bells, as well as Arcade Fire and the Black Keys.
Elsewhere, such left-of-center acts as Carolyn Malachi (urban/alternative), Dweezil Zappa (rock instrumental), the Steeldrivers and Dailey & Vincent (both for country performance by a duo or group) are competing with such heavy hitters as Lady Gaga, Dave Matthews, the Zac Brown Band and Green.
Every nomination for an act with independent ties is a victory according to Terry Tompkins, who teaches music courses and supervises the student-run record label at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “I was surprised when I looked at best new artist and saw Mumford & Sons and Florence & the Machine in there,” Tompkins says. “That’s tremendous.”
A growing reach
The community of acts with independent links has become broader as indie labels form distribution and marketing alliances with the majors and some acts accept deals with bigger labels.
Arcade Fire, nominated for three Grammys this year, is a prime example: Spawned in Canada as a songwriting partnership between Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, the group’s eclectic mix of pop, classical, punk and French sounds brought widespread acclaim on 2004’s “Funeral” CD.
Although Arcade Fire since has shared the stage with U2, played such huge festivals as Coachella and Lollapalooza, topped the Billboard 200 chart with 2010’s “The Suburbs” and seen its songs used in movies, the group has stayed with the indie Merge label.
Drexel’s Tompkins says that despite the blurring of the indie/mainstream divide, it’s not hard to identify the latest crop of Grammy independents.
The final tally
So, with the growing number of accolades heaped upon their music, do the indie acts actually have a chance of winning?
Mark Harmon, president of Beggars Group USA, which overseas four independent labels, thinks the fact that Vampire Weekend’s “Contra” album on the XL Recordings imprint debuted at No. 1 gives the band a chance.
“The nomination is great,” he says. “The competition in the (alternative album) category is tough. We are hopeful we have a good shot at winning. I don’t know that we are banking on it.”
Grammy chapter member Mitchell says mainstream votes in best new artist could be split between Bieber and Drake, giving one of the indie artists a chance to slip in.
For his part, Mahoney, of the independent-music group, is satisfied with this year’s crop of nominations.
“There’s such a sense of partnership or an ownership stake from almost any staff member … at an independent label on each artist’s project,” he says. “To get a nomination, to be recognized by people from the Recording Academy who you could see as your peers is tremendously rewarding.”