The declaration of independents

The pop industry is dominated by a handful of corporate giants. Is this the end for bands that dare to be different? Not if City Slang and other indie labels have anything to do with it
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The most common discussion in pop music these days is how it is in the midst of a crisis. Pick up any music paper and you will find repeated references to the tyranny of major labels and the lengths they will go to for instant profits. At the start of every year, hopes are recklessly pinned on a handful of new bands being the saviours of rock. It's no wonder that six months on these same bands flounder, the burden of responsibility having proved too much.

Certainly, corporate mergers and radical downsizing have effectively reduced the industry to four major conglomerates. Even smaller labels with well-known artists on their rosters are hitting the decks - the demise of Alan McGee's Creation label has prompted Oasis and Super Furry Animals to release albums on their own respective labels until they find new deals. But, as many abandoned and unsigned bands are discovering, there is a whole alternative industry operating in parallel with the majors, where a less ruthless approach to music-making prevails.

Christof Ellinghaus, head of City Slang, the Berlin-based label which is about to celebrate 10 years in the business, is very positive about the future of the independent sector. "Because of these mergers there will be a lot more talent out there as loads of artists have been dropped. Now is a really good time to start up a new label."

For more than a decade, Ellinghaus has been quietly serving the interests of a range of acts through a label that he sees as a vehicle for his own musical taste. Perhaps his most recent success is Lambchop, the Nashville-based 12-piece whose latest album Nixon was joyously received earlier this year.

He began life in the music industry as a tour manager in 1987, a job which he laughingly describes as "a disaster". The following year he became a booking agent. "I was booking American bands on the German leg of their European tours. It was just before grunge exploded so I was booking bands like Mudhoney, Nirvana and Lemonheads. I made some wonderful contacts."

Ellinghaus alighted on the idea of starting City Slang after the Flaming Lips asked if he could find them a European label. He initially got financial backing from the German indie label Vielklang, and after just 18 months he bought them out.

Lemonheads were the first to release a record on City Slang, an EP called Favourite Spanish Dishes. This was followed by Yo La Tengo's Fakebook, an album of semi-acoustic cover versions. "That was our first proper album, and it remains a pearl in our catalogue," says Ellinghaus.

The Flaming Lips' In A Priest Driven Ambulance arrived in 1990, though soon afterwards they signed a deal with Warner. "I didn't have a chequebook to wave at them," Ellinghaus explains. "It's sad, but as much as you wish it was about the music, at the end of the day it comes down to money."

Where other labels strive to create their own definitive sound - grunge was associated with Sub Pop in the early Nineties, big beat is now synonymous with Skint - City Slang has a more circumspect approach. Ellinghaus's eclectic musical preferences are reflected in the label's catalogue, from the mariachi flavours of Calexico and the gentle guitars of Wheat to the minimalist electronica of To Rococo Rot.

For Ellinghaus, starting a label is less about championing a particular sound than supporting the bands you love. "The tie between all these bands is quality. Maybe we should be looking at getting chart entries, but that would probably mean dealing with bands we didn't admire. Our ambition is to seek out music out that we like."

It appears that Ellinghaus's benevolent approach is appreciated by his artists, who rarely feel the need to employ a manager (the luckless individual who usually acts as a mediator between the artist and the label). "We try to be a European home for these bands, rather than just a label that licenses them from the other side of the world," he adds.

City Slang has not been without its success stories. In 1991 Ellinghaus came across Hole's Courtney Love. "I had been Nirvana's booking agent in Germany so knew Courtney through Kurt. The industry was a lot more innocent back then. I met up with her in New York and we agreed that City Slang would put out Hole records in Europe. When Pretty On The Inside came out the frenzy started. It was getting huge write-ups everywhere and I was getting approached by all these suited types saying things like 'maybe we should talk'. Let's just say it opened a lot of doors for us. There was a big bidding war in the US, and she signed a US deal with Geffen. But after Kurt died and after Live Through This it was very clear that she was moving in a certain direction and my label wasn't set up for it. It all got out of hand with expenditure - she had an entourage of 23 just when she was touring."

Over the years Ellinghaus has also turned down potential money-spinners, insisting that he could never sign up a band that he didn't admire. "I turned down Placebo mainly because I couldn't stand that guy's voice. But I've also chased bands that I didn't get. After I got the first Pavement demo, I left endless messages on their answering machine but it came to nothing."

He also admits to taking risks. "When I signed Tortoise, people looked at me as if I was mad. The first review tore them apart. But their music was so subtle and different. When I first went to see them play I thought, 'This must have been what Can sounded like.'"

Though the indie sector cannot hope to compete with the big budgeting of major labels, the sheer longevity of City Slang underlines the fact that there is room for indie labels to cater for those with more alternative tastes. As Ellinghaus points out: "I could sign up the next euro-techno or garage group and groom them for the charts, but that would be boring, wouldn't it?"