An article called “Is Indie Dead?”

Posted on January 29, 2010

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(I almost called this post “Is Indie Dead?” as well, but thought I’d distance myself from the attention-whoring title while still using it to provoke people into clicking on the link. Oh don’t mind me, I’m just over here having my cake and eating it too.)

There’s an article in Feb’s Paste Magazine called, you guessed it, “Is Indie Dead?” I was linked to it from a friend’s facebook page, and found it somewhat worthwhile, despite some pretty gnarly extended analogies. You should probably read it before you read on here. I’ll wait.

I have a few responses to this article that branch off in various, semi-related directions. Since I don’t hate it, this won’t be the kind of unified diatribe that has appeared here once or twice. Okay, so, yes, first I’ll acknowledge that comparing the (in)famous Time magazine “Is God Dead?” to the question “Is Indie Dead?” is ridiculous, but I mean, it’s a lead in. Moving on.

1. I’m kind of amazed that people are still getting surprised that advertising co-opts things that have personal meaning to people in order to sell products. This is literally the definition of what an advertising company does. It’s not immoral, it’s just amoral. It devours every image or style that it can make use of, and does not care about the other contexts of such things, only about using them to do what it does. It is beneficial to make paradoxical appeals to people’s individualism in order to sell them mass produced things. Yes it feels weird to be in the target demographic, but it’s nothing personal. It’s quite the opposite. I find it hard to get outraged about things like this. The machinery of capitalism is just machinery. They want your money and they’re not trying to hide it, so either give it to them or don’t. They’ll keep trying. I don’t like most of these companies either. What else is there to say? I feel like there are better places to direct our outrage.

1b. In a related note, I don’t really believe in the idea of selling out. Yes, when you are making music solely to obtain money, something is probably wrong (usually the thing that is wrong is that the music is terrible), but it’s not so cut and dried. The thing is, people like to imagine music (especially music with which they deeply and personally identify) being forged out of some kind of incalculable personal pain and suffering or cast down from on high. But, music is both an art and a craft. One of the best pop songs I ever wrote is a song that I would never have written if I hadn’t been forcing myself to write something every day. It is the product as much of work as of inspiration. True, once I got started it felt no different from writing any other song: a loss of any sense of time, intense focus, some kind of curtain of emotion that has to be kept undisturbed as long as you’re working. But the origin of the song was in work, not divine inspiration. Sometimes I think we get so heavy on the artistic purity tip that we deny that some skills are necessary in making and recording music, and we wind up with a thousand bands recording a bunch of reverb-drenched mumbling into Garage Band. It IS great that anyone with a laptop can make okay-sounding songs nowadays, but to make really great sounding music takes a real mastery of not just musical technique but also recording technique. The latter is like a whole other instrument and it takes just as long to learn, and it costs money to employ that expertise. Anyway, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people getting paid for having their songs used in commercials as long as they don’t disagree with the ethics of the company in question. Someone’s songs are going to be there. Should we reserve those funds for corporate music? Also, I feel like anyone who does a lot of downloading sort of loses their right to bitch about the ethics of musicians looking to sustain their careers in other places. Then again, I was never a punk, so I’m not quite so hung up on the idea that getting paid for music is wrong.

2. Equating those mayonnaise commercials with “indie” is not really fair, because it’s not like some previously respected band recorded those songs. It’s just a corporation aping what’s hip. See #1.

3.

In all cases, just because you can do something—or want to do something, or were once told you could do something—doesn’t mean you should. But as a musical movement founded on sheer hopelessness and utter lack of popular appeal, one that relished the freedom to be unruly, untrained and unconcerned, that’s a tough stance for indie to take.

I think this is a really interesting point, actually. I agree with the first half very much so, but on the other hand I feel like those things will sort themselves out eventually. People who are really terrible (not just stylistically terrible, which is a separate thing) at what they’re doing will get discouraged by failure and wind up in accounts payable in like 5 years. But it is interesting that the bedroom-DIY aesthetic naturally prevents anyone from being critical. This is a trend that you can see all over the place (notably in the pervasiveness of lousy music), but I especially notice it in music blogs, which are slaveringly positive about every band they post (because there are so many music blogs, something without a 100% positive blurb will be ignored), never offering any kind of tempered enthusiasm or smart criticism. It’s either “this is the best song I’ve ever heard” (+ like 100 unnecessary adjectives and made up genre names) or “this band is a joke but i’m not even going to explain why. Oh you don’t already know? how pathetic.” In some media, like painting or architecture for example, creative people examine each others work with a fine tooth comb, brutally criticizing every flaw they can find. It’s rough going, and one needs to be careful doing it, but in the end I think it produces people who are more confident in what they’re doing, more easily able to explain why they’re making the artistic choices they’re making, and more able to adapt and change their techniques as they move through different periods of creativity. Most rock/pop/whatever musicians have their one trick and they cling to it with a deathgrip. Maybe a little mutual criticism society would be a good thing for us.

4.

“To insist that underground music be snarly and abrasive is to subscribe to a hidebound cliché, which is ironic since the whole idea of the music is to dispense with hidebound clichés,” he says. “Underground music stands against and apart from mainstream culture in order to offer an antidote to it. In eras past, mainstream culture was blandly, blindly complacent, so underground music was angry and dissatisfied. […] But now, mainstream culture isn’t complacent, it’s stupid and angry; underground culture reacts by becoming smarter, more serene. That’s not wimpy—it’s powerful and productive.”

This is an idea that appeals to me quite a bit, though that is perhaps only because it reinforces precisely the things I am already doing. The culture against which we push is not the same as it was in 2000, let alone 1977, so naturally our response to it shouldn’t take the same forms. It should be constantly shifting and challenging itself. Mainstream culture now is simplistic, so we should be subtle and complex. Mainstream culture now is alternately angry and vapid, and shapes itself to the caprices of ever-shorter attention spans, so we should be thoughtful, consistent and ambitious.

5. Here is the main reason this article is worth it:

“Over the last three decades, indie has built itself a subculture that is just as dependent on trends, superficiality and the whims and caprices of the listening public as the pop mainstream has ever been. It’s generally less egalitarian toward female and minority performers than the mainstream. And even within its most narrowly defined bounds, indie is susceptible to its own ravenous appetite for the next big thing.”

There it is. Truth.

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