The politics of indie rock

Portastatic’s Mac McCaughan takes on the serious issues

In the world of independent music finding a performer with a better-rounded resume than Mac McCaughan is a daunting task. In the late ’80s he co-founded Merge Records which became home to his various projects from Superchunk his archetypal indie rock band to Portastatic his vehicle for various and sundry solo projects. Over the years his musical creativity has grown in tandem with his prowess as a label exec. He’s penned memorable records like Come Pick Me Up and Bright Ideas while signing scene-changing acts like Spoon and Arcade Fire.

While succeeding on both sides of the music business is no small feat what really distinguishes McCaughan from his peers is his willingness to interact outside the comfortable boundaries of the indie scene. While many are content to sit idly by and debate the relative merits of Berlin-era Bowie albums McCaughan serves as a level-headed advocate for independent musicians drawing the attention of decision makers to the interests of a community that often suffers gravely from its insular nature. As he explains many everyday political issues such as net neutrality copyright law and low-power FM transmission are of crucial importance to the future of independent music.

“These are very specific real-world things that can be put into legislation that cause things in our business to go in one direction or another” he says. “But when it happens in Washington it happens at a glacial pace and in small increments. Usually there’s no cataclysmic event that suddenly causes everything to be different.”

Perhaps this slow pace explains why so many stakeholders are apathetic towards the political process. Either way McCaughan clearly has the breadth of vision to patiently track the course of change in government and when necessary to become an active part of the system.

This past fall when the U.S. Senate subcommittee on commerce shifted its gaze to “the future of radio” he was invited to testify. In perhaps the most important congressional address by a musician since Frank Zappa and John Denver stood in defiance of censorship in 1985 McCaughan ran through a litany of arguments against further deregulation of American media. Implicit in his argument was a condemnation of the apparent collusion between major labels and corporate radio behemoths.

“Commercial radio has never been an option for [Merge artists] and I think the brawn of the major labels has a lot to do with that” he speculates discussing the state of an industry that many feel is on the skids. “For the most part people that buy our albums are people who love music and want to support the artists and the labels that they like. It’s possible that the people who are just casual buyers are going to fall away but the fault of that lies with the major labels for driving them away by putting out tons of shitty records and charging too much money for them. It’s fairly basic really.

“I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a turning back from where we are today but at the same time I think it’s still possible for there to be an opening up. Technology is enabling things to happen but will restrictions be placed on corporate interests and people who would just as soon buy up all that bandwidth themselves so there aren’t any competing voices?”

McCaughan’s point of view exemplifies the vast divide that exists between independent and major-label mentalities. Squarely focused on the importance of producing great new albums for fellow music lovers he balks at tactics like filing lawsuits over online file sharing.

“It’s so moronic. Just because they have a lack of ideas they resort to tactics like that” he says fuming. “Music does need to be paid for but you’re never going to be able to threaten or guilt people into buying music. They’re going to buy it because they like it or not buy it because they feel like ‘why should I give my money to this corporation that’s charging me too much for it and then threatening to send me to jail if I step out of bounds?’”

In addition to his personal efforts to affect change the musician has aligned himself with current U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. During the recent nomination race McCaughan’s indie-rock evangelism helped engage a key electoral demographic by quarterbacking shows with Superchunk and Arcade Fire to raise campaign awareness. While Obama did spend time arguing in favour of media ownership reform during his time as a senator it is hard to imagine the head of the world’s only superpower devoting much time or energy to the woes of indie rock.

“The things we’re talking about are complicated and hard to explain to the general public in a way that makes a politician want to talk about them” concedes McCaughan “but in some cases music is involved in much broader issues that Obama has very forward-thinking positions on. Media consolidation isn’t just about rock ’n’ roll and record labels. It’s also about people who want to be able to get their news from a newspaper that isn’t owned by the same person who owns every other media outlet in town.”