In November 1988, R.E.M. released their sixth studio album, Green. The record was an exclamation point at the end of a hectic but successful five years for the Athens, Georgia, quartet. Starting with 1983′s Murmur, R.E.M. released an album a year and was constantly on tour, which led to a steady increase in mainstream popularity and record sales. Their previous album, 1987′s Document, went platinum and spawned a Top 10 single, “The One I Love.”
Despite this positive momentum, Green felt like a career re-launch. Although the record maintained Document‘s vocal forthrightness and bright production, it also showed marked musical growth. You can hear R.E.M. stretching and redefining their sound: Peter Buck traded guitar for mandolin on several tunes, including the gentle “You Are The Everything” and the gnarled folk of “Hairshirt,” while the elegiac “World Leader Pretend” added cello and pedal steel and somber piano. But Green‘s rock-leaning songs also felt like departures, whether aggressive and harsh (the metallic “Orange Crush” and slow-burning “Turn You Inside Out”) or danceable and trifling (the ’60s-inspired bubblegum-punk of “Pop Song 89,” the goofy, gooey hit “Stand”).
With this newfound sonic crispness also came greater lyrical clarity. (The band even printed the lyrics to “World Leader Pretend” in Green‘s liner notes, marking the first time they had ever made such a concession.) Michael Stipe was starting to move away from abstraction and toward more concise wordplay that didn’t hide behind cryptic or obtuse phrases. The record wore its emotions on its sleeve, veering from serious to silly, somber to joyful; its songs encouraged living in the present (“Get Up”) and thinking globally while acting locally (“Stand”), but also addressed the effects of the Vietnam War (“Orange Crush”) and explored the social isolation of a young burn victim (“The Wrong Child”).
Perhaps not coincidentally, Green was also the first R.E.M. album released on a major label. Prior to its release, the group signed with Warner Bros., leaving indie label I.R.S. Records. In a 1989 Rolling Stone cover story, R.E.M. cited subpar international distribution as a major reason for the switch; in David Buckley’s book Fiction: An Alternative Biography, I.R.S. Records’ switch to a U.S. distributor that didn’t view R.E.M. as a priority act, was also cited.
Although they weren’t the first college-rock darling to sign with a major — The Replacements and Hüsker Dü had done so years before — R.E.M. was by far the highest-profile group to make the leap. Even though Warner Bros. was known for being artist-friendly (the band retained creative control, and Buck frequently cited the artistic freedom Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman had while on the label), it was still a corporate behemoth to most indie fans. Drummer Bill Berry noted in Rolling Stone that some young fans “think of Warner Bros. as literally like a monster, just something that consumes and spits out. I think a lot of kids wonder how we fit.” Indeed, R.E.M. was a down-to-earth band that was often considered a reaction to ’80s music’s excess; they resonated with those who didn’t identify with the mainstream. Moving to a major label — away from the underground — felt like a small betrayal.
The thing is: Green didn’t feel like a major-label album. Despite the accessible pop sheen of “Stand,” the band was clearly aware that the song was a joke — Stipe once told MTV that he “wrote the most inane lyrics that I could possibly write” for it — while “Pop Song ’89″ poked fun at the kind of vapid music often released by, well, major labels. Plus, Green‘s lyrical directness didn’t necessarily make it transparent; Stipe constructed songs that had many layers of meaning and interpretation. “World Leader Pretend” was often associated with the Cold War, though it can also be read as someone struggling to overcome self-sabotage.
Reviews of Green in Trouser Press and Rolling Stone acknowledged the album’s quality, even as both pre-emptively (and pointedly) stressed that the album didn’t show any signs of selling out. Berry felt compelled to bluntly address the accusations. “My response is, like, Guns N’ Roses,” he told Rolling Stone. “Great band, by the way. I love ‘em. But it’s like they’ve got this ‘fuck you,’ ‘rock ‘n’ roll kid’ attitude, and they sell 7 million records. Their first record. And here we are on our sixth record — Document was our fifth full LP, it sells a million records, and ‘R.E.M. has sold out.’ But Guns N’ Roses gets all these accolades. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. I really don’t.”
In the 25 years since Green‘s release, this same discussion — band signs with major, has to answer for it — happens any time a prominent indie act makes the jump; just ask The Shins, Gaslight Anthem or Death Cab for Cutie. Being on a major is often viewed as a tangible sign of success, an accomplishment that’s easy to grasp because it shows measurable progress. Rarely is it met with the kind of rabid discussion that followed — and still follows — R.E.M.’s decision.
Maybe that’s because these days it’s more difficult to figure out who’s on a major and who isn’t. The ease with which the internet facilitates discovery and sharing eliminates many of the distribution obstacles bands such as R.E.M. once faced, and the egalitarian nature of the digital music platform has lessened the exclusivity once associated with certain record labels; on a glowing screen, an MP3 is an MP3, no matter who released it. Perhaps Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, himself an indie artist, described the shading of the two worlds best: “Indie music likes to think that it’s all grassroots, but it’s really the same as the marketing and everything of major music, just a little bit lighter.”
The idea that indie-sounding music must be on an indie label is also losing currency: Take Oklahoma space cadets Flaming Lips and Grammy-winning indie darlings Arcade Fire. The former has been on Warner Bros. for more than two decades and has grown into a popular live draw. Counter-intuitively, however, the Lips have made some of the least accessible music of its career in recent years — from albums full of ambient electronic and abstract noise to heavy psychedelic and proto-metal signifiers. The Flaming Lips’ recent records are far less “radio-friendly” than Arcade Fire’s music, which has echoes of ’80s alt-goth staples (The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen) and superstars such as U2 or Bruce Springsteen. Both bands have found their own way to a similar place: Both are arena-level headliners with a strong sense of artistic independence.
When Death Cab for Cutie signed with major label Atlantic, after 2003′s Transatlanticism, their approach was decidedly philosophical. “We made that very un-indie-rock move of actually succumbing to our ambition as a band, and saying, ‘You know what? I want as many people to hear this band as possible,’” frontman Ben Gibbard told The AV Club in 2005 As a result, Death Cab for Cutie expanded its sound — and fan base — while still retaining full creative control. In the end, the stigma of signing to a major label has all but vanished; career ambition and creative sincerity are rarely thought of as mutually exclusive goals today. For that shift in perspective, we have R.E.M. and its leap of faith with Green to thank.