click here to access Diaryland click here to send me an email click here for bio and links click here to access the archive list click here for the latest entry


Here’s my take on independent music. I posted a version of this on a City Data forum a couple of days ago (I can link to the thread if anyone’s interested). Basically, some of the older folks were questioning where all the good music was. And this led to some of the new music fans posting a few brilliant examples of new music. This prompted the following question from an older person who was impressed with the selections:

Why is this band and song not being put out there so listeners can hear it, like it, go out and buy it, and brag to friends about it? Good question.

Reasons indie bands don’t make more mainstreamish music
1. Freedom -- independent labels exert minimal influence over the artists. This means experimentation and originality is valued over conformity and mimicry. Artists can realize tremendous creative freedom, something that may be partially or completely absent for mainstream/radio/mass consumption music. This can lead to unique sounds, musical styles, structures, fusions, and thoughtful topics or themes, which is the antithesis of “mainstream.” And the result has been an explosion of aural, structural, and melodic diversity and exponential expansion of the “genres” used to describe and categorize various independent acts.

2. Priorities -- independent artists are usually somewhere between only mildly concerned and completely unconcerned with wealth, popularity, stardom, sales figures, radio or television exposure, or other trappings of so-called “success.”

3. Fences -- well somebody’s got to push the boundaries and try new things, otherwise it’s just one radio-friendly band or American Idol act trying to emulate the last one trying to emulate the last one trying to emulate the last one, each generational copy becoming more and more homogenized, bland, and tepid. Independent music explores sound and the elements of what humans call music such that eventually, years and years later, certain types become watered down and sanitized and over-produced and guided by megalabels to become tomorrow’s mainstream crap.

Reasons the music they do make isn’t more popular
1. Image -- you've simply got to have model looks to "make it." Small people care about looks, style, and "dance" moves more than notes, sounds, soul, complexities, lyrical ingenuity, or the creative impulse. Subsequently, some acts spend MUCH more time on image than on songwriting, creation, inspiration, musicianship, jamming, rehearsing, experimentation, etc. Nothing sells like sex, cool, fashion, etc. And no matter how talented an act and how amazing their music, if they don’t have IT, something, they’re not going to find much “mainstream success.”

2. Acquired taste/challenging/nuanced -- a fast food burger is easy. There's a restaurant on every corner. You don't even have to get out of your car. You don't even have to tell them exactly what you want, just say "#1" and a one-size-fits-all burger is thrown your way within a minute or two. You know exactly what you're getting and it's cheap and safe and extremely bland. It doesn't challenge your taste buds, it doesn't require acclimatization, and it takes virtually no effort to acquire or consume. And this $h1t is extraordinarily popular! Bud Light is easy too. Contrast that with fine dining in a fine restaurant. Or vintage wine. Appreciating this takes much more effort. It may be an acquired taste that the neophyte could not appreciate or even stomach. Or its subtle nuances may just be totally lost on the person used to big mac and fries. The quick and painless fast food meal may even appear “better” to some. But for those who can appreciate it, the experience is vastly more rewarding. Some may actually recognize the fine wine or the fine four course meal is infinitely better, but may not ever really want to exert the effort it takes to appreciate the setting, the rituals, and the food or drink itself. Why bother, the other stuff is plentiful, cheap, ubiquitous, all his idiot friends like it too, heck he can even eat it while pretending to drive. I probably don’t even need to complete this analogy.

3. Niche -- many successful companies in many different industries sell mainstream products to the masses as well as niche products to a drastically smaller audience. Why did Toyota sell the MR2 Spyder when its Camry and its SUVs were selling so well to hordes of mainstream car buyers? Because a tiny group (niche) of drivers appreciated a small, 2100 pound mid-engined two-seater with impeccable handling and dynamic qualities that go far beyond the predictable practicality of the Camry. The MR2 was never intended to sell millions of examples. In the music world, mainstream music is a Camry or generic SUV, appealing to people who treat a car, or music, as an appliance, serviceable but not endearing, soulless but omnipresent. You know what you’re getting and it’s safe and easy and nobody will think you’re odd for listening to it (except people don’t view music as an background appliance). It’s also for people whose musical tastes calcified at age 19, who’ve ceased being open-minded and seeking new music. Independent music is very often niche music. It’s not a mass media commodity and it was never intended to shift millions of units at Wal-Mart or appeal to anything like a wide audience.

Reasons the music they make that’s really good isn’t “out there” everywhere
1. Distribution -- indie albums generally don’t appear on the endcap at your local Wal-Mart. Without a massive label-managed distribution deal and network, there’s not a lot that can be done to get this stuff out there. It comes with the territory. And radio? Forget about it! There’s an establishment that determines the stuff that gets on the radio, long before it ever gets out of the studio!!! Bands are groomed for radio play while signing and recording stuff. It’s not some conspiracy, it’s just the industry. Fortunately, technology including the internet has changed and continues to change these models.

2. Marketing -- see above, really. Who’s going to get the word out to the LARGE masses of people? Barsuk Records, run by a few dedicated music fans? I seriously doubt it. Yet the people who would actually appreciate the music in the first place (remember, your friends have never heard of it and it’s not on the radio) are willing and able to seek it out. Sites like Stereogum help too. I subscribed to Paste and CMJ magazines, which included monthly sampler CDs, for many years and found tons of great obscurities this way.

3. TV and film -- see above, again, really. Who makes the Grammys? Who’s doing halftime at important football games? Who does New Years Eve, SNL, MTV, teeny TV shows and movies, etc.? Fortunately again I see a couple shifts. Letterman, for example, seems to have some better-known-but-still-indie acts on from time to time. And car commercials and other commercials of all things have started to introduce people to off-the-beaten path music.

4. Fan chatter -- believe it or not, some fans don’t want to tell their friends! This may damp the popularity. I can see many reasons for this. They may want to keep this newfound bliss a secret of their own as long as possible. They may not want to spoil what they’ve found by letting the opinions of others intrude. They may believe that without having listened to many other groundbreaking acts, their friends may be ill-equipped to have any frame of reference at all for appreciating the nuances of this new music, or that they may be not acquainted with the experience of being challenged by music, having been spoon-fed most of their lives (this is why I usually keep quiet). They may desire for the artist to remain relatively obscure so as to preserve what makes them great in the first place. They may have an aversion to anything popular and remotely mainstream (usually due to prior experience with said mainstream media) and wish to see the act not fall into that model. They may just not care. The point is, word of mouth may not be what it was in the past. What spreads amongst one very close-knit and divergent group may not even register to the next group over.

5. Major labels -- obviously this isn’t true of every major label conglomerate out there, many of which actually have their own semi-indie branches here and there, but as a general statement, major labels like to go with what is more likely to make them money, and that is generally looked at as stuff that’s wholly similar to stuff that made them money in the recent past. It’s not a ground-breaking experimental album by Portugal.The Man or a whip-smart guitar-fueled opus by Cursive or heartfelt soulful folk music by Shearwater. These albums may garner extraordinarily positive critical reviews, and tremendous niche fan adoration, but they’re not going to draw in the sheeply masses who again treat music as interchangeable/background/appliance/style-over-substance. Particularly as John Gourley, Tim Kasher, and Will Sheff are not even pretending to be stylish, hot, or particularly good-looking. And this kind of music would never ever receive any radio play outside of the one radio station per large metro area that plays one hour per week of actual new music late on Sunday night.
-------------------------------
Now more than ever:
independent = music
mainstream/major label/radio = a crummy money-making scheme