Despite playing music under the trappings of “indie pop,” Cults have done quite well for themselves on the long-standing major label Columbia. In a recent interview with Spin, the band speaks about what being on a major means in the modern musical landscape, and along the way express their preference for the days when radio worked on a pay-for-play basis.
While singer Madeline Follin remains mostly mum on the topics in the interview, guitarist Brian Oblivion recalls a story about talking to Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos about how radio today is a “crazy pipe dream.” He calls modern radio practices a “seedy business” and remarks that “The radio was way better when people were paying to get stuff on there.” (It should be noted that this practice, known as “payola”, was outlawed right around the time of the Internet’s rise.)
Later, he expresses his opinion that “a lot of smaller indie labels are giving bands really bad deals and robbing them.” He doesn’t go so far as to specify which labels or bands, but makes a blanket remark that “All these bands are trading their cool points for cash, and [the labels are] making out like bandits.”
You’re on Columbia, but make music that clearly isn’t designed for the kind of mass success that other artists on the roster are trying to achieve. For bands that are aiming at that high level, how do you think they plan to get from the ground level to the top? It seems like there’s nowhere in between.
Oblivion: I’ve had that conversation with a lot of musicians — even with Michael [Angelakos] of Passion Pit, who’s arguably almost there. We were saying that radio is this crazy pipe dream. You can do so much to try to get on the radio. We really don’t do very much, but I know people who fly all the way out to L.A., play a free show, fly to Seattle, play a free show, pay their own money to do that, and the label pays them to go to conferences, shake hands — it’s still this seedy business. I remember he said something like, “You know, back in the day, it used to just be payola. I wish it was still that way,” and I was like “I do too! Holy shit, if we could just pay, and get stuff on the radio.” The radio was way better when people were paying to get stuff on there. Now, these Clear Channel assholes decide what’s going to push advertisements and move hot song blocks. It’s just really frustrating. But without that, you can’t really become a super successful artist.
You’ve been in that weird space of being a major-label act at the same time as having more underground Internet hype. That’s not the most usual scenario in the music world.
Oblivion: I like to think that what we get from being on a record label is, number one, smart people. Everyone who works there is really cool and professional, and not druggy party people like so many people in the industry. And we get more money up front, so we get to go into nice studios and futz around for months at a time. I know indie bands that are really successful who can barely afford more than three weeks in a studio. They can’t make music videos, which is a huge thing our label helps us out with. I have a chip on my shoulder. I feel like a lot of smaller indie labels are giving bands really bad deals and robbing them. You see a lot of labels still give a band a $40,000 advance, which seems like a lot of money, but these days, you split all your money with the label. An indie band ends up in a Hyundai commercial and makes 100 grand, and the label is like “Welp, fuck you.” All these bands are trading their cool points for cash, and [the labels are] making out like bandits.
There’s publishing to consider, too.
Oblivion: Exactly. A lot of labels won’t sign you unless you sign a publishing deal, too. It’s become really bleak, because people are so desperate for attention and validation that they’ll just sign it over. It’s like the new ’60s. We had a publishing deal.
Follin: We signed one when we were first starting as a band, because we had no money.
Oblivion: Before our record deal.
Follin: This company asked us to sign a publishing deal, which was probably way less than we should have got. But we needed quick cash, and got out of it.
Oblivion: So we’re free now.”