Saturday, January 24, 2009


Beginnings of the Rivalry

In August 1995, Matador Records CEO Gerard Cosloy took a dig at Virgin Records and Richard Branson at that year's Grammy Awards; announcing to the assembly of artists and industry figures: “Any artist out there that want to be an artist and stay a star, and don’t have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos…all on the records…dancing, come to Matador Records”—a direct reference to Branson’s tendency of ad-libbing on his artists’ songs and dancing in their videos. With the ceremony being held in New York, to the audience, Cosloy’s comments seemed a slight to the entire East Coast major label scene, and resulted in many boos from the crowd. Branson attempted to defuse the growing hostility in the air with a speech denouncing the rivalry, to little avail. Later that evening, a stripped-down performance by Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich was jeered by New Yorkers in attendance, to which Nastanovich famously responded, “The East Coast ain’t got no love for Pavement and Stephen Malkmus and Matador Records?!”

Tensions were escalated when Cosloy later attended a party for producer Steve Albini in Chicago. During the bash, a close friend of Cosloy’s was fatally shot outside. Cosloy accused Branson of having something to do with the shooting. The same year, Cosloy posted the $1.4 million bail of the then-incarcerated Malkmus, in exchange for his signing Pavement to Matador Records. Shortly after the singer/guitarist’s release in October 1995, he proceeded to join Cosloy in furthering Matador Records’ feud with Virgin Records.

Pavement vs. The Smashing Pumpkins

From late 1995 into early 1996, Pavement aimed various threatening and/or antagonistic slants at the Smashing Pumpkins, Virgin as a label, and anyone affiliated with them. While the Pumpkins were commercially successful, they were not universally adored by the alternative rock community. Pavement’s 1995 song "Range Life" refers to the band with the lines "Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins/Nature kids…ah, they don’t have no function/I don't understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck", which has been widely interpreted as an insult (although Malkmus has stated "I never dissed their music. I just dissed their status."). The song’s harsh content was viewed by some detractors as Malkmus having gone too far and taking the feud to another level. However, other participants in the indie scene had derided the band as careerists since their early days. Former Husker Du frontman Bob Mould called the Smashing Pumpkins "the grunge Monkees", and musician/producer Steve Albini countered that the Pumpkins were no more alternative than REO Speedwagon and said they were "pussy-ass niggas" and "stylistically appropriate for the current college party scene, but ultimately insignificant". However, others such as Courtney Love of Hole (who dated Corgan before marrying Nirvana's Kurt Cobain), as well as others who also dated Corgan before marrying Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, were vocal supporters of the band.

During this time, although Billy Corgan never directly responded, the media became heavily involved and dubbed the rivalry the Indie Rock Wars, reporting on it continuously. This caused fans from both scenes to take sides with one set of artists or another.

Pavement vs. others

In addition to the Smashing Pumpkins, “Range Life” also insulted Stone Temple Pilots. Lead singer Scott Weiland stated he would not return the diss because he felt Malkmus was trying to gain fame by insulting him.

End of the Feud

In March 1996, during the Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, there was a confrontation in the parking lot between the respective entourages of Virgin and Matador records in which guns were drawn. Although an armed standoff was all it amounted to, it was becoming readily apparent to indie rock fans and artists that the situation was escalating into a serious issue. Local papers referred to the situation as, “the indie rock version of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Not long after, at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York, Scott Weiland and Malkmus also confronted each other outside the venue. Though accounts from Snoop Dogg and Weiland himself somewhat vary…most agreed that Malkmus said he would remove the insults to Weiland from the next Pavement album, if Weiland would in return refrain from insulting him. Their previous verbal abuse was, as found in the meeting, based on publicity. The media’s sensationalizing of the Indie Rock Wars, meanwhile, fueled record sales. Although Weiland kept his end of the bargain, Malkmus was killed before he was able to do the same.

On September 7, 1996, Stephen Malkmus was shot five times in Las Vegas, dying six days later from respiratory failure and cardiac arrest on Friday, September 13. Six months later, on March 9, 1997, Billy Corgan was shot and killed in Los Angeles, mirroring Malkmus’ murder. Both murders remain unsolved today, while numerous theories (some of them conspiracy theories) about their deaths have been pondered.

Following the Rivalry

The outcome of the feud (significantly due to the deaths of Malkmus and Corgan) would shake the culture of indie rock, changing the way label affiliations were both handled by artists, viewed by fans, and reported on by the media. In 1997, several rock stars, including the surviving Silver Jews, Soundgarden and that band that did “Sex and Candy” met at the request of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Ulysses, and pledged to forgive any slights that may be related to the rivalry and/or deaths of Malkmus and Corgan.

Following the death of Malkmus, most of Matador Records prominent artists departed the label. Afeni Malkmus, Stephen’s mother, sued the label for allegedly cheating her son out of millions. Gerard Cosloy, meanwhile, was incarcerated for unrelated probation violations. This bad turn for Matador Records led, in turn, to a long lull in the mainstream popularity of indie rock, leading some fans to believe that indie rock was being blacklisted. Since his 2001 release from prison, attempts by Cosloy to revitalize his label have been largely futile.

Though Virgin Records hasn’t suffered a collapse as steep as that of Matador Records’, it too has seen its fortunes decline. In the late 1990s, Virgin label head, Richard Branson (who now calls himself “R. Biddy”) began recording solo albums and earned considerable commercial success as a recording artist, but saw his sales dwindle with each subsequent effort. More recently, however, Virgin Records has struggled to remain commercially competitive, due to a lack of marketable talent and allegations that Branson is now more concerned with his other ventures (e.g. his attempts at an around-the-world balloon flight).

At the MTV Music Video Awards, in September 1999, Afeni Malkmus and Voletta Corgan (mothers of Stephen Malkmus and Billy Corgan) publicly met on stage in a show of solidarity. Ms. Corgan also offered to help Ms. Malkmus investigate Stephen’s death. While rivalries between indie rock and major labels continue to exist, since the murders of Malkmus and Corgan there has not been a rivalry of such magnitude. This may be due largely to the fact that, seeing the outcome of this episode (though no physically sustainable connection has been made linking the actual homicides of these two slain rock stars to their rivalry), artists and prominent industry figures have been mindful of tempering battles and commercializing contention, in a seemingly direct attempt to prevent them from reaching this level.