Indie Revelations

Chapter 5: Cool Video Connections
by Alex Cosper

Some of the artists I connected with in 2010 experienced exciting video opportunites. Roosevelt Radio from Berkeley is one of those acts. I met the group's singer Ben Ross and keyboard player/singer Sarah Morgan on September 19, 2010. We talked a lot about what was happening online. He still liked MySpace, whereas I was more excited about ReverbNation. I brought up how ReverbNation was a fast-rising website and how MySpace had become a fast fading website. But he still liked the design tools MySpace offered better. What I like about ReverbNation is the uniform layout that lets you instantly find what you're looking for, like a song.

In all fairness, MySpace was the prima donna indie music website of the mid 2000s thru 2008 or 2009, whenever Facebook became king of social networks. MySpace was the most comprehensive place to find a lot of indie artists by region. But ReverbNation suddenly had a more uniform presentation that made it easier to navigate for someone like me, searching for good songs. MySpace, like Reverbnation and many other aggregate/platform sites for musicians, lets anyone upload anything, including demos and music that sounds nothing like pop.

Roosevelt Radio stood out among the MySpace band pages because they have a very professional sound that fits radio compared to a lot of what I was hearing. My first impression of their song “Midnight” was that it could be played on alternative and rock stations. It also has the potential to cross over into other formats the way Maroon 5 did. It sounds like melodic rock, which is the core of a lot of indie pop. Their radio-friendly sound caught my attention whereas a lot of indie music deliberately sounds as if it’s not trying to conform to a radio format.

Ben wanted to know my opinion about release dates and how important they were. My opinion is release dates are important to the major label world because they like to get projects coordinated where a lot of stations are playing the song at the same time, which is good for chart positions. But in the indie world release dates aren’t as important. I also said the only rule in indie is there are no rules. We’ve moved into a new era where we’re not bound by the old rules and it’s okay to break superficial industry rules.

Roosevelt Radio has played shows in San Francisco at the Rockit Room and in San Jose. The instrumental version of the song “Midnight” was chosen for a fashion video showcasing Pussycat Doll Vanessa Curry in Los Angeles. On top of getting tied in with a major label act, Roosevelt Radio was produced by Chris Wonzer, who produced Christina Aguilera, New Found Glory and Joe Cocker. The band invested thousands of dollars in crafting a professional product. A lot of indie bands don’t worry about who the producer is, but experience does make a big difference.

I joked with Ben how a lot of history researchers might come across his band pages via Google by accident, searching for info on President Roosevelt’s fireside radio chats. “You should say in your promotions the new deal is Roosevelt Radio,” I cracked. “You can also say the remedy for the recession is Roosevelt Radio.” I was actually half serious.

Indie pop has an attitude that mixes seriousness and fun together. It’s a sonic statement that something can be commercially viable and cool at the same time. There’s really no reason for anyone to think of music being one or the other. Since it’s a business it needs to have some seriousness to it and since it’s an art there’s nothing wrong with it being fun at the same time.

Naturally, I think of bands I know personally when I hear terms like "indie pop." I’ve known songwriter/guitarist Jeffry-Wynne Prince since my 90s radio days at KWOD in Sacramento. I stayed up to date with his music projects and went to some of his shows. He stood out from a lot of local musicians because he understood what radio music was. He didn’t just see modern rock as a far off hidden corner of the world. I interviewed him on October 23, 2010 to talk about his latest project with his wife Kimberly. It’s called The Kimberly Trip.

One of the things that amazes me about The Kimberly Trip is they made a video for the video game Rock Band. The animation is mind-blowing compared to the standard video on MTV. The song for the video is called “California” and has an 80s new wave flavor almost like a quirky Missing Persons song with a power pop feel.

“The Kimberly Trip was formed to fill a musical void,” Jeffry-Wynne explains. “In almost every sense, all popular musical sub-genres of the last 60 years that have come in to fashion never truly disappeared ... they morphed into something new and continue to evolve and thrive. You can look at the current metal bands, for instance, and draw a line straight back in time to find their roots. The one genre that this has arguably not happened with is 80's new wave.

"While lots of bands cite various new wave artists as influences, there hadn't been a movement that represented what new wave would have sounded like in 2001, had it continued to evolve on its own instead of being split into college rock and tepid techno-pop. We wanted to create a sound that was the evolutionary sonic thread from Scandal, Blondie, Missing Persons and Berlin ... to something current, with witty lyrics about being a nerd/geek/dork in the 21st century. We decided that all of the songs would be about the journey of the average, slightly nerdy girl in high school, through self discovery and adulthood ... hence the band name.”

The Kimberly Trip tapped into that theme with their 2007 album Popularity Contest. When new wave hit in the late 70s it was the indie pop of its time. The song “Heart of Glass” by Blondie was very characteristic of the sound. It essentially broadened the barriers of pop, mixing electronic sounds with electric guitar.

Jeffry-Wynne understands the difference between what radio does and what the indie world has become. He knows that musical success is not so much rocket science as it is determination to be true to what you’re about. “I'm afraid my description of what we are doing sounds self-important and serious, and it couldn't be more opposite,” he clarifies. “The reason we wanted to be a new wave band was because we don't take ourselves seriously, and in addition to the music sounding fun, it makes a great backdrop for our quirky lyrics.”

Although The Kimberly Trip have gotten radio airplay outside of America, they are more likely to be heard by fans of Rock Band. “California” is the lead off track from the band’s 2010 release Generation Stereotype. I asked Jeffrey-Wynne how they were able to make that amazing animated video of the song for Rock Band. He told me, “Right before the release of the CD, we were approached by a fan/friend/programmer that does work for the game Rock Band. He offered to get us onto the XBox-LIVE version of the game, so of course we said ‘yes!’ The video is basically a screen capture of our song being played in the game. We love that we are in a video game and super-stoked to have been included in the first 100 tracks launched for X-Box LIVE. We are currently re-tracking some additional songs for inclusion in the game, as well.”

The band has sold thousands of CDs but sees downloads as important in the shifting sands of the indie music biz landscape. “CD sales had been our main staple of income for years” reports Jeffry-Wynne, “but there has been a definite change in the music buying climate. We still sell CDs at live shows, but everywhere else, digital media seems to be the way it is headed. I have no issue with CDs becoming the impulse buy at the merch table, and downloads being the serious music consumer's main choice for support. As long as people want to hear us, I'm thrilled.”

Jeffry-Wynne thinks the band has made a difference locally in Sacramento with their live shows. They’ve been successful at attracting a loyal following at decent size venues for several years now. A lot of the gigs are put together by the band at venues they create. “In our primary market,” Jeffry-Wynne says, “there really is not much of a live music scene anymore. Even the bands that get recognized by local awards and things don't really have any kind of impressive draw at clubs. In some ways, it was even worse for us because our demographic tends to be younger AND older than the typical bar crowd. In 2004, we started doing shows completely on our own. The first one was at my house. We sold tickets online and recorded a live CD for everyone that attended. We started playing more private events, which included a headlining show at the Crest Theatre in December of 2005.“

They continued along this path until 2007, when they started renting out warehouses and putting on full multi-media events with synchronized video, full lighting rigs, effects and a digital sound-system. They also put on costume contests, themed events and things to make the audience as much of the show as they are. The shows are different enough, that people invite their friends so it has grown from the first warehouse show of 12 people to the 2010 series that have all pre-sold to capacity, weeks in advance of the show date.

So isn’t this type of live success exactly what major labels want to sign? Like many artists of the indie revolution, Jeffry-Wynne is cautious not to jump at big offers, knowing already what the illusions can be like.

“The only dealings we have had with major labels have been disastrous,” he reveals. “In more than one occasion, we have signed distribution with major labels and it has not only not helped, every instance it has cost us money. Luckily, the majors never got involved with our artistic decisions ... just with our distribution ... but still, we entered into these deals because we thought it was the right thing to do at the time, to get our music into more people's homes. On each of the 3 occasions, it was under the advice of someone we trusted, so we did not go in blindly ... that said, I do not see us doing anything under someone else's umbrella anymore. Being independent allows us to run our own business in any way that we see fit.”

It's hard to find any artists anymore who have nice things to say about major labels. Throughout the year I read articles about lots of big name artists who had critical things to say in the press about the music biz. Trent Reznor, David Gilmour, John Mellencamp, Justin Timberlake and Radiohead's Thom Yorke all had critical things to say in the past few years about how the music biz is run ahd how artists are unfairly exploited.

The most stunning statement I read about the music biz was by Mick Jagger, who said that the Rolling Stones didn't make any money selling all those zillions of records in the 60s because the label wouldn't pay them. Mick claimed, as reported by The Daily Rock, "if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t." Mick says that period was the early 70s thru the late 90s.

The music industry peaked in sales in 1999 but has struggled throughout the 2000s. In fact, revenue had fallen in half by 2009. Meanwhile, indie music's market share has grown to a third of all sales. So is it possible for indie just to become the new pop? Anything's possible but most likely CD sales will continue to decline while download sales increase, which has been the trend since the late nineties. Music played on commercial radio still accounts for most of the biggest selling artists.

But is radio absolutely necessary anymore to have a hit? Not really. Not when you consider what TV did for American Idol artists and what YouTube and video games can do for indie artists.

"We have no answers on what the indie world needs," Jeffry-Wynne admits. "I think the artists that make great music, that are going to be successful on their own terms will continue to do so. I still believe the whole thing (music) works because of the song. As long as there are great writers, things will be fine."

Continue to Chapter 6: Themes of the New Century

© Playlist Research. All rights reserved.