Indie Might Be Dead But the Fun Is Far From Over
In How Indie Finally OFFICIALLY Died: The Broken Indie Machine, a recent post on the terminally relevant site Hipster Runoff, blog founder Carles says indie music is really over this time. “I’ve seen the faces behind the Corrupt Indie Machine in VIP areas across the world and while there are still some pure souls, it is a broken, unfixable machine that should be put to death,” he writes. As he notes, the outlets/content farms basically all cover the same stuff and that stuff is mediocre meme music made to be pushed out in front of passive online music consumers as quickly as it is recorded.
I feel that. But this new Web-driven music landscape can be fascinating, and it supports artists like the decently interesting Purity Ring (Carles’ example) who might not have gotten a hearing before now. It is not the landscape that produced the sainted likes of Elliott Smith, Pavement, Belle and Sebastian, Cursive and Sleater-Kinney, but maybe that’s okay. Indie as we knew it has died, but maybe it has served its purpose in breaking down the walls the music industry built around our ears, and, more to the point, Carles needs to get off the Internet and to stay away from the V.I.P. section. I’ve been to the V.I.P. section. There is nothing going on in there and it’s too far away from the stage to even see what is going on. I’ll explain.
First he’s right about most everything, but it’s problematic to hate on the sophisticated network of blogs, publicists and the like who keep them indie wheels turning, almost independently of rank-and-file music lovers. It is kinda lame that indie is its own para-industry now, merely adjacent to the music industry proper and subject to most of the same evils, but getting mad about it just seems like begrudging young artists the opportunity to be recognized.
The left-field musicians who formed that first fresh, pure wave of what we now call indie rock were making music without any real expectation of fame or compensation in the way we think of it now. It was a beautiful and heroic era and it paved the way for all that we enjoy today. Now that this highly effective machine is in place, it’s a little harsh to ask the next generation do without it because it will build character or some junk. The landscape that birthed the likes of Modest Mouse or even Of Montreal was a hardscrabble one of tape trading and zines. The old way took such a long time. The next generation is supposed to have it easier. Go Purity Ring! Get that blog buzz!
The dream of having a music a career without having to pander to an out of touch and risk-averse music industry has come true! Or has it become a nightmare? Must artists now pander to the mafia of blogs? Worse, must artists now pander to everyone all of the time? That might be the real problem. It’s great that, collectively, we are all participating in independent music on the Internet now because it’s more inclusive. You don’t need to know any secret passwords and you don’t have to hunt down whatever obscure vinyl your favorite band claims they were inspired by because someone uploaded that shit to YouTube three years ago. It’s bad because this has had the unforeseen effect of encouraging the blandest most boring stuff, which was exactly the problem with the music industry pre-indie.
You see, individually, some of us might have decent taste in music, but collectively we all work together on the Internet to support cultural miscarriages/naked astroturf like Lana Del Rey and Foster the People. But there’s no way around it. Together, apparently, we have apocalyptically terrible taste. And then, adding sophistry to injury, we are told by contrarian hep cats that we shouldn’t care, because taste is totally relative.
That line is the facile posturing of someone who is trying to sell you something, most likely limited edition sneakers. The quasi-populist vibe of the new indie regime and the genuinely democratic nature of the Internet is bad for music. This is because all opinions about music are not, in fact, created equal. Some opinions are better informed than others. Some people have been paying closer attention and for longer. This is why there is still a point to writing about music, provided the writers have been paying attention for awhile or at least intend to do so.
A person who has not heard a lot of music might have their minds blown by the likes of Purity Ring and we should be happy for such a person. Joy in this life is ever so fleeting… But their opinion simply is not as valid as that of the degenerate old bastard snarking at the back of the venue. He’s got good reason for snarking, even if he doesn’t have any good reason for being at the show. He probably likes about five things, but those five things will be unassailable. Go talk to him. He’ll put you on the right path. Just don’t give him your number.
I address you here, young music fan, because it is you I am concerned with. The bloggy bands making cynical, self-similar music, the bloggers and the publicists will all be fine and eventually get into law school. This isn’t the first time there has been a buzz bubble. But what about you? This is your time.
First fuck Spotify, fuck Pandora, and Stereofork and Gorilla Vs. Vegan can eat a bag of dicks. Indie truly is an industry now and all industries bank on the consumer being poorly informed. You’ll have to look out for yourself now.
Let’s go back a bit. This pass has been a long time coming. I was The Death of Indie Rock for Halloween in 2006, around the time that Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus and all my favorite bands from TV on the Radio to Erase Errata released incredibly dense, sonically impenetrable albums as if they were trying to cram in all their musical ideas before it all went to hell.
Bands like Sleater-Kinney were being replaced by younger artists who made well-crafted music that was easier on the ears and appealed to a middle-class audience that didn’t see anything wrong with finding out about new music from an Apple commercial. (Love you Feist.) This new wave of music was fine-to-amazing, even if the new company at shows was a little annoying. Indie became synonymous with cool, then it became glamorous. There was money to be made, or something.
The pretty people descended on the scene, the actors and actresses, the part-time models, the kids with nice teeth and futures. It was awful. As Richard Beck pointed out in 5.4, his magisterial review of Pitchfork on n+1, indie is made and enjoyed by a different class of people now. They took over, essentially, and turned it all into their rather dull conception of cool. It was a bit like when post-punk gave way to “new pop” like Human League in the ’80s. This is fine. This is a cycle. This is what always happens. Long story short, there is now a thing called festival wear.
And now even the indie part of indie rock has abandoned us, replaced by what Hipster Runoff rightly calls memes. Which brings us to the real, real problem. In reality, there is absolutely amazing music going on all over the place all the time but the blogosphere, once so instrumental in connecting musician with fan, has become an overgrown hedge separating them with a wall of buzz. Bloggability doesn’t equate to quality and now that quirky is a fashionable aesthetic, it can be harder to unearth what you really want: uniqueness, moments of strange beauty, artists with something to say.
The solution is the same as it is for a lot of modern maladies. Get off the Internet and go somewhere. In this case, you want to go to the dodgiest music venue in your town. If it’s not technically a music venue, but really an industrially zoned storage space that sells alcohol to minors, you’re in luck. That’s where you’ll find good, weird, brilliant music that will be worth listening to years from now. It didn’t go anywhere. It’s just no longer easy to find using the Internet.
The “scene” might be dead but there is still independent music to be heard. It is still a world of adventure, discovery, and even danger, ripe for the taking if you are intrepid. In the past two years, I’ve seen human feces flung at the stage, ducked a mic stand flung from the stage, and had my scalp split open by a blunt object flung from an unknown point in the venue, and this is in New York City, where things have supposedly gotten tame. All of these shows were awesome even before the mayhem. Whether you prefer hip-hop or dance music or loud rock music or quieter weird shit, you will always find the good stuff late at night hiding in grimy corners where there is no V.I.P. section.
When you go and engage with music in the real world it gets a lot easier to distinguish between Lana Del Rey, Carly Rae Jepsen, and something worth your time. There are useful music blogs but the established “indie” ones are kinda like Costco, they’re great for getting staples and random crap that was on sale. But you wouldn’t want to get all of your clothing or even nutrition at Costco.
If you suspect your blog of choice isn’t delivering the goods, go the old fashioned way with music discovery. Cultivate the friendship of obsessive music fans. Weasel your way onto message boards run by cantankerous old record collectors. Check out bands live that you’ve never heard of. Always come early enough to the show to see the openers. Go on YouTube and click around (It’s your only real friend online…). There’s some work involved here and if you go all in, it will ruin your life but it will be worth it, and, hey, maybe you don’t have anything else going on. If you aren’t willing to put effort into finding music for yourself and being an educated listener, that’s fine. A lot of people have genuinely better things to do with their lives. Just don’t pretend you’ve got a dog in this fight, or that your opinion is relevant.