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Rock Bottom

Matador Records faces the music.

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Lennon and McCartney. Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson. And now Matador and Capitol Records. In an era of megamergers and music-industry consolidation (think PolyGram and Universal), the union of legendary indie-rock label Matador and major label Capitol seemed to be one that could -- and should -- last. But the three-year marriage, which began in 1996 when Capitol acquired 49 percent of the label founded by music-biz prodigies Chris Lombardi and Gerard Cosloy in 1989, was abruptly called off last week. While the divorce might barely raise eyebrows in today's ever-tumultuous music industry, the demise of the Capitol-Matador relationship can be read as the final chapter in the long, slow death of alternative rock.

Although spokespersons for both Matador and Capitol declined to comment, a company insider maintains that 1998 was the most profitable year in Matador's history. Nonetheless, acts like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Liz Phair (who, notably, is the only artist to defect to the Capitol camp after the split) lost much of their commercial luster on recent releases -- Phair's Whitechocolatespaceegg sold 207,000 copies, a far cry from the gold (500,000 units) status of its predecessor, Whip-Smart, and Spencer's Acme sold a measly 41,000 copies. (Matador's purported high-flying year may have been boosted by back-catalogue sales or foreign-rights revenues.)

The label's whiter-than-white roster of mope-rockers like Cat Power and eternally sarcastic college-rockers like Pavement came off as laughably passé in an increasingly musically (and ethnically) diverse scene populated by boy bands, hip-hoppers, hip-hop? metal hybrids, electronica, and Latin pop. Once the very center of the alterna-rock universe, premillennial Matador looks a lot like a throwback to the early nineties, when glum bands like Nirvana rocked the charts, flannel was all the rage, and "I'm a loser, baby" was the rallying cry of unambitious hipsters everywhere.

The label seemed to wake up to the smell of alt-rock's long-decaying corpse only recently, playing catch-up with newly successful boutique labels like hip-hop indie Rawkus and electronica trendsetter Astralwerks. Matador's lately snagged such un-rockist fare as the techno act Boards of Canada and, more notably, the New York underground hip-hop act the Arsonists. The latter signing, along with speculation that Matador is courting another underground hip-hop act, Non-Phixion, has prompted accusations that Matador is shadowing Rawkus -- a label that has found the kind of success with independent hip-hop that Matador enjoyed with indie rock in its mid-nineties heyday. "Matador isn't the only label riding Rawkus's coattails," says Rawkus A&R rep Blak Shawn. "I do wish that it could have come from a more authentic place, but if Matador wants to take a chance on underground hip-hop, then more power to them."

Matador's new B-boy tastes haven't gone unnoticed by the music media. "I find it more interesting that Matador is releasing techno and rap records than the fact that they're no longer working with Liz Phair," says Rolling Stone's Joe Levy. "But it's hardly the end of an era." Or is it? Implicit in Capitol's unwillingness to continue its relationship with Matador is an acknowledgment that the label's taste-making days are a thing of the past. Could indie-rock-themed nightspots be just a Polly Esther's away?


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