When we published our article last week about 10 things that are killing indie music, we got a predictably broad spectrum of responses — some people loved it, some people hated it. So it goes. A couple of commenters, however, suggested that we follow up with a feature on things that we love about indie, which is a request we’re only too happy to oblige. We chose to highlight the things we feel are hurting indie for the simple reason that we care deeply about it — and for all that there are things we wish could be different, there are also many reasons that we reckon things are better in 2011 than they’ve ever been before. Here’s a selection of them.
If we had to nominate the single best thing about the world of indie music today, it’s the fact that genre partisanship is largely a thing of the past — not entirely, mind you, but mostly. It’s easy to forget how territorial people used to be about their tastes — mods and rockers used to fight over them, after all, and even when we were growing up, there was a veritable chasm dividing people who liked guitar music and people who liked electronic music. These days, people are far more inclined to listen to anything and everything, and we’re all for it — the more open-mindedness in music and popular culture, the better.
In our article about the 10 things killing indie, we lamented the reliance of certain sections of the indie world to rely on pretty tired and dull gender-based clichés. However, in the spirit of fairness, let it also be said that indie music is far more accepting of people on their own merits than the world of mainstream music will ever be. It’s a chastening experience to go off and watch MTV or VH1 these days, wherein pretty much every female singer is a) scantily clad and b) conventionally attractive, or watch the sort of dismal talent shows where singers are told to lose weight if they want to succeed.
Diversity of sounds
Similarly, the diversity of sounds in today’s indie world is a thoroughly welcome development. Look at some of the most successful indie records of recent years, and you’ll find a whole world of sounds — Vampire Weekend’s African influences, Beirut’s embrace of Eastern European folk music, Diplo’s excursions into Angolan kuduro and baile funk. The questions of cultural appropriation these records raise are beyond the scope of this article (although if you’re interested in this writer’s view on the subject, you can find it here). But the point is that whether or not you happen to enjoy the work of the above artists or not, the fact that musicians are looking beyond the basic guitar-bass-drums formula and the same old 4/4 beats means that there are more ideas in the world of indie than ever before, and for listeners, this can only be a good thing.
A few years ago, we saw Screaming Masterpiece, a fantastic documentary about Icelandic music. It involved interviews with, inter alia, the likes of Björk, Sigur Rós, and Múm, and the filmmakers asked all the artists how it was that so much amazing music came out of such a small scene. But while Björk’s success blazed a trail for a bunch of her compatriots, you can’t help but wonder how many other regional music scenes fell in the forest without anyone hearing them before the Internet changed things forever. Happily, in 2011, no matter where you are, if you’ve got an Internet connection, you can get your music heard. You mightn’t make any money out of it, but you can still upload it to Bandcamp or Soundcloud (or, God forbid, MySpace) and have people across the world hear it. This means that while in some ways it’s harder to get discovered than ever before — the sheer volume of music online makes it hard to stand out from the crowd — at least the possibility exists, even if you’re making music in your bedroom in a place that’s a long, long way from the bright lights of the big city.
Availability of recording technology
On a similar point, it used to be that apart from the initial outlay on instruments, studio time was the biggest single expense in getting your music heard by the world. No longer. These days, get hold of a cheap sound card, a decent laptop, and a torrented cheap DAW, and you’re on your way. If you grew up in the 2000s, you probably take this for granted, but never forget that it’s a wonderful thing. When impediments like recording costs are removed, we move closer to a world where the only thing that restrains musicians is their own imagination. And that has to be good for everyone.
The homogenization of mainstream music
If it looks like we’re contradicting ourselves here, well, we are — but only to the extent that we’re finding a silver lining on a fairly ominous cloud. We cited this point as one of the things that’s killing indie music, and in some ways, it is — the chances of indie artists crossing over to mainstream chart success are lower than ever today, with major labels pursuing an ever-narrower focus on plastic gangsta hip hop and AutoTuned mannequin pop stars. It’s really quite depressing to look at something like VH1’s amazingly dire list of the allegedly greatest songs of the ’00s and see just how dreadful the world of chart pop is these days. But! In some ways, the gaping chasm between chart pop and the rest of music does benefit the indie world. How? Because as people get fed up with the bilge they’re being fed by commercial radio and major labels, they look elsewhere for answers. Which brings us to…
Relatively strong indie labels
It’s a perverse consequence of the Musical Financial Crisis™ that while the major labels are floundering as they try to preserve their increasingly archaic business models in the 21st century, indie labels are in relatively good health. Just as the Internet now allows artists to reach a wider audience, it also allows labels to bypass traditional distribution methods to sell to their audiences — audiences they generally understand much better than their major label counterparts. This is not to say, of course, that the Tri Angle Records dude is flying around in a Learjet just yet, but there’s definitely a renaissance among specialist labels who a) know their audience, b) sign bands that audience likes and c) don’t alienate that audience by devoting their time to suing single mothers and dead people.
Greater commercial self-awareness
The history of music is littered with artists who’ve been fucked over from pillar to post by rapacious contracts, predatory “advisers,” incompetent managers, and dodgy accountants. Happily, while musicians are never going to be the most practical people on the planet, this generation is definitely more financially and commercially savvy than their predecessors, with more musicians than ever opting to retain their own publishing rights, distribute their own music, and sell their own merch. Part of this, of course, is due to the point that we discussed in the article about things killing indie music — that there’s less money in the world of indie than ever. But at least it’s not all going into the pocket of unpleasant executives.
A variety of critical opinion
We have a confession to make here — while we’re always genuinely interested in what our readers think and what they have to say, we don’t really buy into the Web 2.0 everyone-has-a-voice idea. If you check out the comments section on YouTube (or here), you’ll understand why. But still, the last ten years or so have seen the high-and-mighty titans of music criticism decline in relevance, because of the sudden rise of music blogs and online magazines that can reach a massive audience with relatively little expense and infrastructure. The result is a greater diversity of opinion than ever before, where there’s a specialist blog devoted to just about anything you can think of. Sure, Pitchfork can still torpedo a career with a bad review, and bloggers/commenters/anonymous haters are more savage than mainstream critics ever were. But ultimately, we live in a world where there’s at least an alternative to the tedious self-appointed tastemakers who used to rule the roost. Rejoice.
We’re going to reserve this space for what Donald Rumsfeld might have called the “unknown unknown” — the next amazing record we hear, the next great show we go to. Because ultimately, artists will always create art, and whenever you think it’s all turning to shit, someone like The Stooges or The Clash or Nirvana or whoever comes along and turns the whole thing on its head. As someone who loves music, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of hitting play, and listening, and then going, “Wow! Who the hell is this?!” It’s why we keep listening, just like you. Bring on the next great band.