Editorial: Too Indie For Our Own Good?

turntable

Indie music has had quite the evolution from its humble beginnings to its current condition.  Once simply a name given to DIY small labels and underground bands operating outside the much maligned confines of major corporations’ machines, now “indie” is commonly used to express collective associations with fashion, political beliefs, and even personality traits. Stemming from their love of music, indie fans have essentially created their own niche in pop culture, but what sort of impact has doing so made on modern music scenes?

“Music scene is crazy/bands start up each and every day/I saw another one just the other day/A special new band…”

-Pavement, “Cut Your Hair”

There’s no doubt that the internet has played a massive role in forming indie culture, ensuring that all things associated with it reach the largest possible audience.  Music fans commonly check in with music blogs as their meter for what’s cool and what’s not.  And who can blame them?  With the massive amount of bands already established and the seemingly endless string of new bands being formed at all times, there needs to be an effective way to sift through it all.  Frequenting music websites and locating blogs featuring the tunes and musicians who move you can be an invaluable resource in terms of staying up to date, expanding your mp3 collection, and discovering new artists–that is, when used in moderation.

Taking our musical cues from outside sources in excess has a downside.  Too often, having these sites instantly available at our fingertips fosters a culture of slothfulness and minimizes the significance of our own musical experiences.  How so?  Let’s consider Pitchfork.  Any indie kid worth his/her salt has visited the site at least once.  Full of in-depth album reviews and artist interviews, Pitchfork provides a one-stop-shop for absorbing a slew of engaging perspectives on music.

Pitchfork

The site, though, is starting to become THE authority on what’s hot and what’s not.  A good review on the site can do wonders for an up-and-coming band, while a poor one can mean the end of the road.  “If your band isn’t popular on Pitchfork, it might as well not exist,” is quickly becoming the implied sentiment in the critical community.

While it’s true that sites like Pitchfork who utilize a clearly knowledgeable staff of writers can provide some degree of guidance to music fans, they have become something of a hipster cool kids club that encourages listeners to mold their own judgments around the site’s predetermined ones.  Readers are presented with what they “should” like rather than an unbiased evaluation of the art itself.  Didn’t really care for Fleet Foxes self-titled album?  By the time you’re done reading Pitchfork’s review, you’ll be trying to convince yourself otherwise.  I mean, it got a 9.0 rating for Christ’s sake! It MUST be good. Don’t really “get” Radiohead?  Might as well kiss your credibility card goodbye.

The idea that disagreement equates to poor taste devalues individual opinion, morphing us into a society of sheep–even more so than we already are.  The music scene will be a much healthier place once we realize that part of the joy in fandom is choice.  Being able to articulate why a band or artist is uniquely special to you is a joy that many indie kids are missing out on.

Q uncut NME Rolling Stone Spin Blender

It’s worth noting too that the indie-friendly online music community is also having an impact on its print publication counterparts.  It’s no secret that American music mags leave something to be desired (especially compared to the in-touch approach taken by well-respected UK ‘zines like Q, Uncut, and NME). Rolling Stone just isn’t what it used to be, to say the least, and rags lilke Spin and Blender never used to be much of anything to begin with.

If American music magazines want to stay successful they need to begin devoting more effort to creating exclusive content such as compelling intelligent artist interviews and commentary with personality as the online community has done, rather than projecting themselves as a shallow, celebrity-crazed, sex-heavy time killer.  American print media just isn’t going to be able to compete with the immediacy and significance of web-based music news outlets unless their focus changes dramatically.

“Seen your video/That phony rock ‘n’ roll/We don’t want to know/Seen your video/Your phony rock ‘n’ roll…”

-The Replacements, “Seen Your Video”

As I mentioned above, it used to be that indie music was considered such because it was, well, produced independently of major labels.  While that still holds true for a great deal of bands out there, the term “indie” is also now being applied a little too liberally.  Now, it seems as though bands are achieving indie status through their clothes more so than their music.  It used to be that you could approximate what a band sounded like by how they dressed.  But with the increasing popularity of formerly indie-exclusive fashions like skinny jeans and vintage dresses, anyone within driving distance to Urban Outfitters can project themselves as a cookie-cutter product of a scene that they don’t have any legitimate affiliation with.

Jonas Brothers

Take major label darlings like The Jonas Brothers for just one example of fashion’s growing conflict with music.  They are, essentially, a pop wolf in indie sheep’s clothing.  Skinny jeans?  Check.  Trendy graphic t-shirts?  Check.  Hair styled to messed-up perfection?  Check.  They’ve got it all except the sound to match.  It’s the real-life verison of that scene in High Fidelity where John Cusack’s character admits, “I felt like all those people who suddenly shaved their heads and said they’d always been punks. They just went and suddenly get a razor from http://factschronicle.com/best-electric-razors-of-2017-revamping-your-outlook-by-shaving-1377.html, and went ahead with the shaving, for me it felt like a fraud.”

As was the case with punk rock, the popularization of genre staples like leather jackets, studs, and hair dye, has cheapened the music itself.  If you can be “punk” by simply throwing on some Converse sneakers, what does it even matter that bands like The Damned, The Buzzcocks or The Heartbreakers even existed?  The messages and sentiment of the art (rebellion, individuality, irony, and–ahem–DIY) become lost to swarms of twelve year old mallrats with guyliner and anarchy symbols stamped on their Ts.

When you can pledge allegiance to a certain code of art without having the perspective or intention to back it up, the art itself becomes the joke.  Anyone who genuinely cares about the music that they listen to should take the consequences of these trends seriously.   In the current indie scene, as in the punk world, the music becomes secondary when, as Joe Strummer tongue-in-cheekily painted across his chest, “passion is a fashion.”

Joe Strummer

“We hate it when our friends become successful/And if they’re northern, that makes it even worse/And if we can destroy them/You bet your life we will destroy them/If we can hurt them/Well, we may as well…” –Morrissey, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”

Is it wrong to expect current indie bands to operate in the same manner as their predecessors?  After all, it’s hardly the same ballgame.  With the emergence  of quick methods of mass communication in the music world such as individual blogging and Myspace.com, bands are gaining fans at an unprecedented rate, leading to fewer and fewer true underground groups in existence.  It used to be that the greater difference in the talent to popularity ratio equated to legendary indie status.  Now, it’s hard to tell which groups even qualify.

Take Oasis for example.  The self-proclaimed “best band in the world” has certainly been one of the most financially lucrative.  The controversial and beloved Mancunian group has played to crowds of millions, topped the charts on numerous occasions, been awarded some of the highest honors in the music community, and its members have achieved A-list celebrity status.  So, can they still be labeled “indie” the same way that groups like Voxtrot or The Brian Jonestown Massacre are?  Well, why not?  Though they’ve had their share of major label involvement, Oasis got their start on Alan McGee’s Creation Records, one of the most famous and influential UK indie labels, and are now recording on their own label, Big Brother Records.

Big Brother

Somehow, though, their high levels of success and popularity has made their indie roots irrelevant in the eyes of the music community.  In this way, indie music has become self-destructive.  Commercial success is frowned on to the point that many bands find themselves facing an interesting choice at some point in their career:  Reject financial security, or reject credibility.

“I miss the innocence I’ve known/Playing Kiss covers/Beautiful and stoned…” –Wilco, “Heavy Metal Drummer”

As much criticism as I have for some of the components of the current indie music scene, I can’t deny that at heart I’m a fan, as many of the most exciting, intelligent, enjoyable, progressive and important bands of the last few decades have fit into that category.  Though I’m concerned by some of the things happening in pop culture as a result of its success, I’m actually looking forward to what will come next. With thoughtful change, I have faith that indie music can become more than a just cool kids club.  We owe it to ourselves to be conscious of how our culture is manipulating the world around us as well as how we can assure that it changes into something positive.

–Shelley Peckham

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8 Responses

  1. Good job, Shelley!

    I still hate indie, though.

  2. Thanks Geno!

    But you’re not fooling anyone….I think you are having a not-so-secret love affair with indie music.

  3. Great article, Shelly. I must admit I feel I rely on Pitchfork way too much, but I typically go there not for the album reviews, but just for the news headlines. In this day we are overwhelmed with new music. I keep Post-It notes by my computer with recommendations from friends, stuff I stumble across online, or maybe an opening band I really liked, but didn’t have money to buy anything from. These notes have become evasive and my computer desk is riddled with them. When I do finally get a chance to cross one of the albums off my “list” it seems a lot of times I can’t spend the time I’d like with it because there’s too much I am eager to listen to. Not that this is a problem, because I’d rather have that be the case and keep an album in queue then pass over a great album completely. I am constantly stumbling across stuff from years past that I was completely unaware of and feel like a fool for going so long without them being brought to my attention. Why has no one previously brought The Wedding Present to my attention, or how have I been 20+ years late on Television Personalities?

  4. It is wrong to expect current indie bands to operate in the same way as their predecessors.

    The “indie” scene now is utterly and completely different than it was even five years ago, and the Internet is totally and completely to blame. With the ability to manufacture popularity by clicking a mouse – both in how quality a group’s music sounds, as well as how many people actually hear a group’s music – the Web and technology in general has completely torn down the infrastructure that made it possible for truly skilled musicians to stand out from the pack.

    The Arctic Monkeys never would have been discovered without the Net. We wouldn’t have heard Chinese Democracy 2 years before its release this past month without the Net. And 90% of the bands that exist today wouldn’t exist without the Net. This is all because by making fame – though not necessarily success – a guaranteed outcome, to a certain extent, the Internet has ensured a massively inflated crop of completely inferior musicians for all time.

    It’s all but impossible to make a living as an indie musician now because there are 10 bands living on your same block who are willing to do what you do for free, and no matter how good your act is, the club on the other side of town is going to pick the cheaper group to play – they’ll bring just as many friends (cause who cares about how bad your buddy’s band is? You still get to drink, right?), and they’ll take less from the venue at the end of the night. A few notable exceptions (like the late CBGB, True Endeavors, etc.) have made it their business to support growing music scenes by booking quality groups over cheaper ones, but by and large, bigger scenes opt for the big payout, and they continue to be the big scenes because bigger bands skip the smaller ones, again, to get a big payout.

    Thus, the only way for a group to get noticed now on a massive scale is by appealing to gatekeepers like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, Blender, and Razorcake. Which in turn has inflated the egos of said publications to ridiculous proportions, watered down the opinions of their writers, and subjected an already tested industry to a new and decidedly ridiculous game of suck-up-or-shut-up.

    Music journalists have their work cut out for them now more than ever, sifting through the incredible rifts of garbage brought on by MySpace. I really hope they don’t lose their heads over it any more than they have.

  5. Years ago it took money to go into a studio and lots of hard work to get noticed. If you were lucky.

    Today, an album can be made in your living room and you can make friends/fans without ever going on the road.

    On the other hand, few artists make money selling records, so everyone, from baby bands to legacy acts, are touring more frequently. The result is it’s more difficult to make money or break even touring.

    Not all that long ago, allowing a song to be used in a commercial was selling out, no question about it. Now, for every Tom Waits that holds the line against corporate appropriation of original art, there are hundreds of solid and talented artists selling songs to corporate America as a means of survival.

    Branded one-off festivals like SoCo Music Experience represent a new low, but who’s to blame bands for signing up for the big payday. I’m privy to some of those guarantees paid out by SoCo — trust me, it’s a lot..

    The commodification of dissent and rebellion is nearly as old as rock and roll itself, but dammit if we don’t need a punk revival of some sorts.

    That, to me, is the silver lining to the recession. Who will be the new Clash?

    Shelley — excellent job with your post….excellent comments from others as well.

    Thanks,

    Tag Evers

  6. Justin– I feel the same way. There’s so much to absorb, and it’s hard to give every great album or song the attention that it deserves. Sure, we’re lucky to live in a time where quality music is easily accessible, but it’s also nice when you get the chance to really sink into the body of work and know it inside and out. Otherwise it’s kind of like running though the Louvre or something, you know? You might happen to see the Mona Lisa with a quick glance–which is fine, you can be able to say you saw it–but it’s hard to say you really appreciated its significance.

    Nick– You made a ton of great points and it’s nice to get your perspective. I thought this was especially important: “Thus, the only way for a group to get noticed now on a massive scale is by appealing to gatekeepers like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, Blender, and Razorcake. Which in turn has inflated the egos of said publications to ridiculous proportions, watered down the opinions of their writers, and subjected an already tested industry to a new and decidedly ridiculous game of suck-up-or-shut-up.”
    Watered down just about says it all. Music journalists have a huge responsibility in bringing artists to the forefront of the collective conscious, and it’s about time more of them actually wrote with some semblance of a genuine opinion.

    Tag– I like that you mentioned the idea that we need some sort of musically-led social rebellion like the punk movement. It seems that there has been a historical pattern where times of social uncertainty have inspired great art–from the sixties counterculture, to punk and, even more recently, the Britpop era in the early ’90s. I’m very curious to see what will come from this.

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting! It’s very cool to read everybody’s thoughts on this stuff!

  7. Dream Theater is in the studio again, and I can’t wait to see what magic they produce!

  8. I really like what you’ve written here. In many cases, I consider myself an “indie” music fan, but not for any cultural reasons, hipness, or whatnot. Simply because I believe the best music to be had was being made independently of the major record labels. I don’t want to be spoon-fed music made to please. I want real heart, sound, and soul within that album

    Because of that, I rarely, if ever, visit Pitchfork. Read enough of their reviews, and it becomes obvious that they’re crafting an image–an indie image, to be sure, but a planned out description of person and music they can push.

    The fact they can take a band and put it on an unnatural evolution of popularity, crash, and slow burn (see: Tapes n’ Tapes or Voxtrot) says that listeners need to be more discerning, and (once again) give the little guys a chance.

    It’s just this time, the definition of indie has been redefined.

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