by carl wilson

Indie Rock Death 3: This Time, It's Technological

"Waaaah! Stop hurting indie rock's feelings!!!!": Garden State

As promised, the sequel. Declaring indie rock "dead" is as inherent to the existence of indie rock as heavy-rimmed glasses and bad haircuts, but I do think it's different now: In the past, it's always been about some jades saying they were bored, there was nothing good anymore. But as I discuss in today's Overtones column for The Globe & Mail, what I mean is that the indie model, the independent record label and the "scene" as alternative community, all that is being so changed by the Internet and file-sharing (meaning wide access both to information and to the means of production, even in remote areas, and all the cultural mixing that entails) that the "indie" infrastructure and ideological apparatus is beginning to rust from the inside and crumble from without. This is a Good Thing. (Note: This piece owes something to the Popmatters article about "the O.C. effect," which I read thanks to Aaron.)

Afterthoughts: This "incubator" campaign among the Big Four record companies deserves close inspection and tracking. And does anybody know if there's a Net-wide music-downloads chart, where you can find out the most-downloaded songs of the week or month (or day!?), at least commercial downloads? Lots more to consider there - my designer Bill's reaction is in yesterday's comments section. Whatcha think? [...]

Grow up, Pitchfork. Indie bands have

By Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
Sat., Jan. 22, 2005

For much of this young century, Omaha, Neb.'s indie-rock prodigy Bright Eyes -- whose mama named him Conor Oberst, and who was still in his teens when the calendar flipped to the 2000s -- could do no wrong.

He could con his fans with brazen lies, like a tall tale of a younger brother who drowned in the bathtub; he could come close, for real, to dying of alcohol poisoning; he could be photographed smooching Winona Ryder; he could put out a seven-record box set; he could even commit poetry.

Still, the fanzine praise would flow like champagne, and the cat-eye-glasses-wearing freshman girls would hang his saucer-eyed photo on their dorm-room walls, and no one would complain except their would-be boyfriends down the hall, who would insist over beers that he wasn't as good as Interpol, but confess late at night in on-line LiveJournals that he was better.

Yes, Oberst could get away with anything -- except making a decent living. Whether it's Bright Eyes, Wilco or "O.C. effect" beneficiaries Death Cab for Cutie, when indie stars dip a toe in the mainstream, they risk the ire of their former biggest fans.

When Bright Eyes (who played Toronto last night) managed to top a Billboard singles chart with not one but two separate songs in November, the indie-scene "it" website headlined its bulletin, "Black Thursday: Bright Eyes Dominates Billboard Singles Chart: Universe Reveals Plan to Self-Destruct."

Editor Ryan Schreiber, 28, peppered his account with asides such as, "we're hesitant to report it" and "surely this is the news that sent Arafat over the edge." When staff at Oberst's tiny independent label Saddle Creek said, "This certainly shows great promise," Schreiber interjected, "Yeah -- for a world smeared in shit and horsegore. Am I right, people?"

This is the way, too often, that indie rock treats its heroes. Schreiber was kidding, but only half. His curdled incredulity was consistent with Pitchfork's tone toward all culture tainted by mass popularity, with the old indie habit of retreating behind concentrically embedded moats of sarcasm.

Yet Pitchfork, a nine-year-old basement operation out of Chicago that this week premiered a pricey redesign, is itself among the most popular of Web pages, with 115,000 visitors a day, eyeballed more often than many porn sites. If Schreiber needed a culprit in Oberst's success, he might have gazed into the reflection on his computer screen.

Pitchfork's accolades certainly made the career of Toronto rock collective Broken Social Scene, catapulted from obscurity onto the international circuit by a 2003 review that called its album "the Holy Grail for people like us" and rated it 9.2 out of 10. In September, P-fork sounded the alarm for Montreal's the Arcade Fire; for the next week, stores everywhere couldn't keep it in stock.

But Pitchfork's influence alone can't explain why 2004 was chock-a-block with hits by bands nobody expected to get famous.

Uncharacteristically upbeat single Float On gave U.S. band Modest Mouse (which came on the scene in 1994) a million sales of its prophetically titled album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Scottish glam-guitar groovers Franz Ferdinand are nearing two million albums sold. Death Cab and Interpol each sold a quarter-million. Stranger still, Death Cab electronic side project the Postal Service nearly half a million.

And after Natalie Portman told Zach Braff in the movie Garden State that New Mexico pop philosophers the Shins would "change your life," sales of their Oh Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow spiralled to similarly great heights.

How can this be, when conventional wisdom dictates indies can never break 100K? Garden State is a clue: Exposure often came in films, ad soundtracks and TV shows. A handful of U.S. commercial stations have gone to "alternative alternative" (or "neo-rock") formats, such as Los Angeles' Indie 103.1. But they haven't had the impact of teen soap opera The O.C., whose music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas has put Death Cab, the Shins and many more in prime time.

Directors and ad makers like indie rock because it sounds cool and comes cheap. Music supervisors in their 20s and 30s are thrilled to oblige.

Few other forms of music regard money as though it were infested with plague -- imagine Aretha Franklin worrying she was selling "too many" records! -- and indie is finally getting over its Marxist-holdover idealization of poverty, give or take a few Schreibers.

But to be fair, everybody knows how badly it turned out, artistically and financially, last time "alternative" went nova, in the early 1990s. Today's indie rock isn't nearly as defined a style as grunge, but as it crests, the global music conglomerates -- of which there are now only four -- will muscle in and copycat it. Many bands would rather stick with a small label and license out songs than gamble a career on a corporate contract.

Business arrangements apart, though, is indie really a genre? There's always an underground of experimentalists whose music is to pop what conceptual art is to comics, or abstract poetry to a mystery novel. Neither side is superior (I mean it), but you don't approach them from the same angle.

Yet the indies taking off now are just idiosyncratic pop that didn't happen to be fashionable when smart dance beats and dumb rock ruled. The Britney Spears/Limp Bizkit generation is reaching an age of restless introspection, and seeking music to match. (Don't worry, they'll come back around to Britney, first with nostalgic irony and then to get down at their gay weddings. Limp Bizkit, blissfully, will be lost to time.)

The mainstream industry long ago lost its will to nurture songwriters who may take years to hit their stride, as adept as it is at assembling crack teams for dance smashes. So some of the Big Four are offering deals to have indie labels act as "incubators" for rock and hip-hop talent they may want to market in the future; they've even begun to set up branches to manage that process, though wise artists will stay suspicious.

Meanwhile technology is short-circuiting outmoded fetishes of exclusivity and obscurity. If you discover (or make) something superb, you put an MP3 up on your website; next week it may be on The O.C. (The emerging paradox is that the more downloads a band gets, the more albums it sells.)

Isolationist indie ideology is looking like a Cold War relic; it was a hollow rationalization for the impossibility of access to broad audiences. Today, artists can ride the "long tail" of culture - they can thrive in a relatively marginal niche if they put the word out widely.

For a politically minded performer such as Conor Oberst, that's more exciting than singing to the smugly converted. And as the snob factor lessens, the mutual resentment between (ex-)indie and other genres may ebb away.

Good riddance to old insular indie. It doesn't mean the death of alternatives, but a fresh declaration of independence. Pound that Pitchfork into plowshares: Open up your bright eyes, Ryan Schreiber, and let your universe explode.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 22 at 4:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)



what i find intereting is that over at the localcampus radio station, or even on 20hz sometimes, people consider getting a review on pitchfork to be a pretty big deal, and something that's questioned sometimes. weird, i wonder if ryan and pitchfork seems that happening...

Posted by matt thompson on February 9, 2005 9:28 AM



Big Champagne dot com is the firm that does P2P bean-counting, but they don't seem to give much away for free at this point ...

Posted by Marc Weisblott on January 23, 2005 8:30 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson