They say music is the universal language. And to some end, beer is just as universal — after water and tea, it’s the most consumed beverage in the world. A raise of a glass, no matter whether you understand the toast or not, is inherently felt, just as one can feel the sensuality of a Serge Gainsbourg song without ever having to know how to parler français. Both the language of music and the language of beer elicit visceral and social experiences, which is why you find so much passion in each scene — especially when that scene sets you in a David and Goliath situation.
I first fell in love with music — like, really in love — when I first heard the opening notes of “London Calling” when I was 14. Paul Simonon’s bass line shot right through me and I was never the same. Fast forward a few years, and I was obsessively thumbing through UK music magazines, sneaking into O’Cayz Corral for shows and stopping by B-Side Records every Tuesday for new releases. I was a student of independent labels’ catalogs (if it had a Touch And Go logo on the back, I had to fucking have it) and I loved talking about music — which is why, after I left Madison, Wisconsin post-college and headed to Chicago, I got a job at one of the city’s well-known, and well-respected, indie labels.
I love the artists I’ve worked at Chicago’s Bloodshot Records for over the past eight years — some of them were already my heroes when I arrived at the label; some of them became my heroes because they’ve persevered in an industry that is bullshit for independent artists. They play to half-empty rooms on weekday nights, deal with broken down vans in the middle-of-nowhere, quit day jobs and give up health insurance — while some goober downloads their album from a P2P, consumes it and forgets about it. It’s a maddening and heartbreaking reality of the music industry these days.
So, while it was hard to say goodbye to the artists and the label I’ve worked for, it was a relief to have the opportunity to champion independent producers who actually have a physical product that can’t be dragged into a virtual trash bin.
But the parallels between the independent music scene of the early ‘90s (and what still exists today, sigh) and the fledgling craft beer scene of today is pretty striking. In a time when six major labels dominated the industry (BTW, that number is down to three, THREE, today), upstarts like Merge, Matador, Lookout! and Sub Pop were experiencing mainstream radio play and retail chart success. When Epitaph released The Offspring’s Smash in 1994, it went on to sell 12 million copies worldwide, making it the most successful album released by an independent label in history.
As the independent music industry faces its challenges, so does craft beer. In the $100 billion dollar beer business, craft breweries only make up about 9% of the market, with The Big Three dominating the rest. Hey, kind of sounds like the music industry, right?
However, things are just getting started and this is an exciting time to be part of the craft beer scene, just as I imagine it was an exciting time to be an indie label in the early ‘90s. The beer industry nearly flatlined after Prohibition, when only a handful of the breweries forced to suspend production came back after the 21st Amendment was repealed. In 1982, there were only about 50 breweries operating nationwide. But then a revival started stirring and crafty brewers were putting out a product that began to surpass the quality of anything found on supermarket shelves. Today there are nearly 2,000 US craft breweries in operation.
Just like how I was never the same when I first heard “London Calling,” my life changed when my college roommate and I wandered down to the corner liquor store and had our first taste of New Glarus. There was something comforting knowing that our beer was being made just a half-hour away, by people who really F-ing cared about what they were doing.
So, about my mid-career pivot to studying and making beer? My life may have taken a major shift, but my passion hasn’t — my love for craft brew is just as great for my love of music, and whether it’s Jon Langford or Deb and Dan Carey, I’ll continue to champion independent artists and artisans.