"'You're not punk and I'm telling everyone'/Save your breath I never was one"
Punknews.org reports some pretty big news: Against Me! has signed with Sire Records. For those that don't know, Sire Records was the home of a number of influential acts in the late-'70s/early-'80s (like Talking Heads, the Ramones and Madonna). It's also a major label. Against Me! is a folky punk act that has released records on non-major labels like No Idea and Fat Wreck Chords. Is there any reason to get all in a huff about this? No. Has this ever been a reason for me to get all up in a huff? No.
As someone who was introduced to modern rock music through artists on major labels, I never had a problem with bands signing with major labels. Being someone who didn't have a lot of access to music other than the radio and MTV, I didn't feel compelled to find what else was out there. When I got sick of what I heard and saw on regular programming, I started looking elsewhere. I always judge music by how it makes me feel; not which label puts it out. I never thought label choice would be a distraction from listening. As Elvis Costello put it once, it's like getting a box of Corn Flakes and eating the cardboard.
It wasn't until I got into face to face that I even heard of the idea of "selling out." The band had recently put out a record on a label that had ties to a major label and some fans felt the band lost its credibility by doing such. A thought that is almost always thought is that the band was going to dumb down its sound for more money so more moronic and passive fans could into them. Did it happen for face to face? Nope. Do I think it will happen for Against Me!? Nope.
I think it's a legit fear to think that a band will change rather dramatically over time, especially when they sign with a major label. It does suck when you see a band that you like and feel like they're playing to robotic paying customers instead of human beings. It sucks when you want to say hi and ask them a question but you can't because there are bouncers and managers blocking you off. The experience is more impersonal than it is personal, but you can't blame a band for attracting a large audience.
How bands get noticed is still a hazy situation. Exposure through magazines, tours, songs on the radio and MTV are ways, but there are so many other ways. Major labels have some of the widest-reaching resources you can find, but so do a number of smaller labels. Historically, this wasn't always the case. Several smaller indie labels now have access to the same resources that only majors once had. I think that's a great thing, but at the end of the day, it's what I think of the music that draws me towards or away.
I once heard that a band sells out once they leave the garage and play a place where people pay money to see them. That's taking it a little too far, but it's a good argument. Probably the most cited example of selling out is going back on one's word. Jawbreaker got a lot of crap for signing with a major after swearing that they'd never sign to one for years. Sure, the band looked like hypocrites, but as it was revealed later, signing with a major was a last-ditch effort to keep the band going. In the case of Liz Phair, she unapologetically polished her sound for a larger audience. As a casual fan of her's, I didn't have that much of a problem with her last two records, though the sweeter flavors in her sound are not as welcome as they are for others.
Being one's self is doing what is best for one's self. No one else knows what's best for you other than yourself. Fans think they know a band by what they say in the press, at shows and on their records, but that is only a small part of who they really are. Every band has a different experience and it's better to have an experience instead of not having an experience at all.