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Indie music world tunes in to That '90s Show

With the economy headed for recession and a Clinton running for the White House, it feels like the ’90s all over again.

A spate of recent musical happenings in the indie world is supplying an appropriate soundtrack: The Lemonheads just reissued their 1992 album “It’s a Shame About Ray” and played the entire album at New York’s Bowery Ballroom; the Breeders released a new record April 8; and Liz Phair just announced she’ll issue a deluxe edition of her provocative 1993 disc “Exile in Guyville.”

As more ’90s acts return and sign to indie labels, a particular set of challenges and opportunities begins to emerge. How does an indie reintroduce a band that has been out of the spotlight for several years? How does it appeal to a new crowd without alienating the now-older core fan base? And why has the act chosen to continue its career on an indie as opposed to other alternatives, like returning to majors or leaving music altogether?

“Our goal is to re-educate the audience, and cover all the ground we can,” says Miwa Okumura, senior product manager at Beggars Group, whose 4AD label is releasing the new Breeders album after the band was dormant for six years.

“It seems like everybody is familiar with the band, and we’re not treating it like they are a new band, we’re treating it like a new record. When we took it to college radio, all the kids knew who they were.”

College radio, fittingly enough, seems to play a major role in marketing all of these acts. But translating airplay into sales is a challenge. Dan Gill, GM of Vagrant Records, which put out the Lemonheads’ self-titled record in 2006, said, “We really worked college hard.” But the album has sold only 17,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (Rhino is handling the “Ray” reissue.)

When the goal is to connect with a younger crowd — which is crucial in working these records — college radio is only part of the strategy. The Internet, predictably, is a key factor.

“‘Exile’ isn’t even available online right now,” says Jon Salter, product manager at Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, which is handling Phair. “With the rerelease, we’re planning on getting it on iTunes, eMusic and Rhapsody to make sure that the greatest number of people are exposed.”

For her part, Phair is less motivated to chase the teen crowd. “My core audience is really composed of older people who have lives,” Phair says. “My core fan base will be the same people that have been fans since the beginning.”

The fans who have hung in since the beginning have seen all three acts go through the same transition: break on an indie, sign to a major and then return to an indie.

“These acts have had a taste of the major life, and it was probably profitable for them, but now they see the model is not working,” Okumura says. “One of the reasons Kim (Deal of the Breeders) came back to 4AD was that she enjoyed the camaraderie of a small label and that we have a tremendous amount of respect for her vision.”

For Phair, the decision to come back to an indie was easy.

“I never wanted to go to a major in the first place.” She broke through on indie label Matador, and ended up in the big leagues at Capitol, where she struggled.

“With ATO, I don’t have to start with thinking about the sales and work backwards.

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