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- Posted on Dec 23rd 2010 11:30AM by James Sullivan
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You have to go back 15 years to find the last (and only other) time that more than one indie album topped the Billboard 200 in a single year. There were four independent No. 1s in 1995 -- two soundtracks (including 'Pocahantas') and two rap records (by Tha Dogg Pound and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony).
More recently, the indies have been gathering steam, chart-wise. Radiohead's 'In Rainbows' topped sales in its first week of release in 2008, as did Pearl Jam's self-released 'Backspacer' the following year.
Other indie albums performed nearly as well this year, such as the National's 'High Violet,' which debuted in May at No. 3, and country upstart Jason Aldean's 'My Kinda Party,' which hit No. 2 upon its release in November. The uptick in indie chart placement is the result of major changes in the music industry, says Billboard's Cortney Harding.
"What you're seeing is a combination of a couple of different things," says Harding, Billboard's music editor and indies correspondent. For one, in the digital age, the playing field has become more level, she says. Major labels aren't paying for "end cap" displays in giant retail stores to overwhelm buyers with their product, as they did in the past. Instead, indie bands can cut deals with e-commerce sites, such as Amazon, to sell their albums at drastically reduced prices in their opening weeks, as both Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend did.
There's also the fact that the major labels have largely left rock bands to the indies while they cast about for the next huge pop superstar act. "Arcade Fire could have very easily signed to Columbia," says Harding. "More mainstream bands are signing to indies."
Rock radio has undergone a "huge shift," now playing many more indie-style bands than it used to. And while retail record stores chase the dodo bird toward extinction, the ones that continue to thrive, such as the Northeastern US chain Newbury Comics, cater to an indie-oriented clientele.
"It's a self-selecting audience," explains Harding, similar to the way "there are no fat people at your gym." If a breakout band like Mumford and Sons has big sales figures in a given week at Newbury Comics, that's because they appeal to a certain group of people.
On top of all that, with record sales down drastically, bands no longer have to sell in the six figures to make the upper reaches of the charts. The Walkmen, for instance, debuted at No. 27 on the Billboard 200 earlier this year by selling 13,000 copies of 'Lisbon,' on Fat Possum, in its first week of availability.
In an era when the majors have adopted a "go big or go home" stance, Harding writes in the latest issue of Billboard, indie labels are seeing the fruits of their efforts to develop long-term careers for their best bands. The trend, she believes, is likely to continue.
"It could be a blip of a year," she tells Spinner, "but I doubt it."