Winning to Lose: The Indie Rock Revolution a Decade and a Half Later
Paul Banks, Wayne Coyne, Kevin Drew, Black Francis, Ben Gibbard, Jens Lekman, Murray Lightburn, Colin Meloy, Nina Persson, Laetitia Sadier, and More on Indie Rock's Identity Crisis
Mar 20, 2017 Issue # 59 - 15th Anniversary Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern (for Under the Radar)
A Conversation About Indie Rock's Changing Landscape with The Avalanches' Tony Di Blasi, Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew, The Cardigans' Nina Persson, The Dears' Murray Lightburn, Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, The Decemberists' Colin Meloy, Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello, Interpol's Paul Banks, The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, Jens Lekman, Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington, Pixies' Black Francis, Polyvinyl Records' Matt Lunsford, Saddle Creek Records' Robb Nansel, Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier, and Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart
In 2001, when Under the Radar's first issue was released, the music industry had reached a transitional moment. In January, Apple introduced its iTunes program to the world, laying the groundwork to forever change how listeners interfaced with their music. In July, after facilitating the illegal downloading of millions of songs, Napster was forced to shutter its doors following a court injunction. By December, Rhapsody became the first streaming service, offering a glimpse at the most dominant music delivery system of the future. Linkin Park sold nearly five million records—more than anyone else—but that number was less than half of the previous year's top seller. A college student in Montreal named Win Butler formed a band called Arcade Fire, Joey Ramone and George Harrison died, and music—especially classic rock—became comfort food following the 9/11 attacks. The world was in a state of upheaval, and the music industry represented just one of the tremors.
For all of the turmoil in the air, the view from music's underground didn't look that much different than it had the year before. By 2001, the post-Nirvana boom had largely subsided, and indie rock was branching off in three very different directions. The first represented the more-or-less linear evolution of the genre, leading from The Velvet Unground through The Stooges, punk rock, hardcore, Sonic Youth, Pavement—you get the picture. It was artsy, noisy guitar-based music, and 2001 presented the last real revival (or perhaps death rattle) of that strain of indie music, with the garage rock revival of The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Hives, and any number of bands with plural names preceded by the article "The."
The second branch would become the dominant current for the next 15 years, and you can trace the roots of nearly everything that would follow leading back to 2001. A year after Radiohead forever upended the notion that rock music had to prominently feature guitars with their electronic opus Kid A, a stampede of experimental acts with laptops started to flood in from Europe. That was the year that an Australian band called The Avalanches released Since I Left You to an international audience, essentially a pop album made almost entirely out of samples. Blur's Damon Albarn formed Gorillaz with a team of collaborators and released an album that sounded like an iTunes playlist of the future, tying together hip-hop, Britpop, psychedelia, reggae, and any number of other hybridized variants. Daft Punk made futuristic dance-pop for hipsters, Dntel mixed vocals with IDM, and Fennesz created a hybrid of glossy guitars and digital noise that pointed the direction for the sorts of melodic ambient music that would be released over the next decade. Songs moved away from verse-chorus-verse structures, hooks got weirder and less focused, and digital programming allowed textures to expand far beyond the standard guitar-bass-drums palette.
The final branch, perhaps better than any other, represented the changing face of indie music. Led by Death Cab for Cutie, a generation of sensitive songwriters popped up that favored heart-on-sleeve sincerity and vulnerability over angst and irony, and artists such as Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, and Joanna Newsom made theatrical, highly literate albums whose ambitions sometimes seemed to eclipse the music itself. Along the way, indie music simultaneously got more experimental through Animal Collective and St. Vincent and more accessible through Grimes, HAIM, and CHVRCHES, acts that would have been considered mainstream pop only a decade before. By the middle of the next decade, bands on independent labels routinely released albums that appeared in the upper ranks of the Billboard 200 chart (with Arcade Fire hitting #1 twice) and were nominated for Grammys. Publications formerly devoted to underground music began to praise mainstream pop acts with similar intensity, and that notion of what it meant to be an indie artist became increasingly unclear.
Today, the fallout from that transitional year is still being felt. Indie rock, to the extent that it retains a coherent identity, has either never been healthier (in terms of visibility) or has never been more moribund (in terms of its stylistic integrity), depending on who you ask. Due to increased access to laptop recording programs and distribution programs, it has never been easier for an artist to make his or her music available to anyone who wants it. (It's also never been harder to get someone to pay attention.) No one sells many records, everyone tours to pay the rent, and everything moves so quickly that older bands are pushed aside the second dust gathers on their "next big thing" status. For acts whose careers span both sides of the revolution, the pace of change can be disorienting.
Take Canadian art-rockers The Dears, a band whose trajectory matches so many acts that were born in the '90s, came of age in the early 2000s, found international success in the middle of the decade, and now find themselves fighting to stay relevant. In the fall of 2016, they released a career-spanning three-album set of acoustic re-recordings of non-album rarities entitled Acoustic (1995 - 2011) with no more fanfare than a post on their Facebook page. Just another day in the life of an indie rock vet.
"It's funny that a band in 2016 can just do that," says Murray Lightburn, the band's frontman and primary songwriter. "It's a completely independent product, and now it's up on our store and people are consuming it today. That's a really powerful thing to be able to do. When we started, you felt really powerless, because the way the industry was structured. There are still tons of gatekeepers. In a weird way, it's kind of worse now. But a band is still really empowered with the tools before them, and if they're savvy enough they can make some headway. Now indie rock has an entirely different meaning, though. It's a genre of music which is not independent at all. On many levels, indie music is totally dead and has been for a really long time."
If indie rock is dead, it was the victim of its own success. For most of the movement's history, artists created their work under the assumption that they were participating in a rigged game, one where they couldn't compete with the soulless music being churned out by major labels because people had little access to anything better. (There was a less charitable interpretation, as well: indie rock wasn't popular because it was challenging and unfamiliar, and most listeners are too stupid and/or lazy to appreciate it.) The unprecedented commercial success of indie-turned-major label artists such as Nirvana, Green Day, and Beck added some evidence for this claim. With the advent of the peer-to-peer trading—when just about any indie rock album ever made was instantly available at the click of a button—this theory was put to the test. It was found to be at least partly true.
"I remember touring and being shocked at how we were going across the world selling out shows, because people would tell us that they found us online and through these websites and interviews," says Kevin Drew of Canadian indie rock collective, Broken Social Scene. "There's a classic story of my father calling me, saying, 'Someone at my work told me that there's this website called Pitchfork, and they gave you a very good review on your record [2002's You Forgot It In People].' I didn't own a computer, let alone go to music sites. I was still reading magazines and papers. What appeared after that was our first tour where we were playing small rooms and they were packed. We played those small rooms on the basis of hoping we'd get 50 or 60 people out, and some of those venues we had lineups outside. I thought to myself, 'Oh, there's a new way of discovering music besides your local record shop.'"
Bands like Broken Social Scene were among the first beneficiaries of the new paradigm, an example of how much faster word of mouth can spread when it doesn't depend on actual words from actual mouths. Just like that, the fundamental method used by all of the previous generations of listeners who had discovered underground music changed. In the days before online access, a quality music store was a precious resource, the sort of place that existed as a cultural hub for the local music scene. No longer did you have to comb through fanzines and fliers to find out about the albums you needed to buy. No longer did you have to fill out an order form (by hand!) and send a check (in the mail!) to a record label, then wait two weeks (if not longer) to actually receive your music. No longer did you have to pay actual money to assemble a collection of the best music that wasn't sold at your local mall. And with the bar to entry so low, millions of people began listening to music that they never would have tried otherwise. In those early days, some even paid for it.
"We grew up in the time when the Internet was really taking off, so when those initial things were happening, we were just selling more records every day," says Robb Nansel, owner of Saddle Creek Records, who first started signing bands outside of their native Omaha, Nebraska, in 2001. Formed in 1993, by multi-instrumentalist and producer Mike Mogis and Justin Oberst (brother of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst), the label provided an example for other indie labels of how to successfully navigate a changing industry. "We were kind of immune to it in a lot of ways. But then, like anything, there was a tipping point where we were like, 'Oh, shit. People aren't buying records.' Sony and Warner Bros. and Universal were the first to notice it, because they had this giant catalog of music that they'd been selling for decades and it was pretty stable. They could count on it. And when they saw those catalog sales, they could see the writing on the wall. But we didn't have that. We were a new company, and we were reaching all these new people, and our music was resonating with fans and people were buying it. All we were experiencing was growth."
But some artists were hurt by that new paradigm. "It actually initially hit us really, really hard," says Jamie Stewart of experimental art-rock band Xiu Xiu, whose debut album, Knife Play, was released in 2002. "We saw our royalties from the period of 2004 to 2008 diminish by maybe 500 percent. With The Air Force, I know the person who leaked it. That was the period—2006 to 2008—that we were playing the biggest headlining shows that we were doing, and the royalty checks that we were getting were a tenth of what we were getting before."
If you were on the ground in 2001, the difference was instantly noticeable. Go to your local indie rock venue, and it was no longer packed with edgy-looking kids with piercings and colored hair. Those kids were still there, of course, but now they were surrounded by decidedly square-looking college kids, older 20-somethings who appeared to be attending their first indie show, and even a few middle-aged suburban moms that wanted to see the band that they heard in that new TV commercial. Now, indie bands—actual artists on indie labels, not "alt"-sounding bands that were gobbled up by major labels in the post-Nirvana boom—were suddenly all over late-night TV and movie soundtracks. By the time indie legends Pixies reformed in 2004, they became one of the first bands to reap the rewards of the indie rock legend reunion tour phenomenon.
"There definitely was a wider age range, meaning people our age and maybe a little older, then down to people who were teenagers," recalls frontman Black Francis of those first reunion tour audiences. "It wasn't like we were playing to the same audience. It was a wider range, and it was like it had become a multi-generational audience that was 50/50 male/female. When we first started out and started to get that appreciation, our first audience, they were definitely younger and more boys than girls. They owned you. They discovered you and no one knows about you, but they know about you. So there's a kind of cultish zeal. I would say that changed a little bit. It became a little more muted, and now maybe [the audience] heard about us for a long time or listened to us for a long time, but they'd never seen us. If they're younger, they're like, 'Oh, this is an important band.' It seems like people are being respectful, because we're wondering, like, 'Well, it's not going well tonight. There's not much of an audience reception.' And then you realize that everyone is totally paying attention. It's just more deferential, whereas when we started out there was a lot more hooting and hollering going on."
As reverence had traditionally been antithetical to the ethos of indie rock, this was no small change. When Pixies were making their first recordings in the late '80s, the battle lines were clearly drawn and the war waged by hundreds of angry, sardonic 20-something men in T-shirts and jeans who found the notion of musical heroes to be anathema to everything they believed. "Indie" was an attitude as much as an aesthetic or method of distribution, and there was little question of who was in and who was out. The changing attitudes in the early 2000s provide an example of how cultural memory is lost in the age of the Internet, as local communities move online and away from the people who have the most invested in maintaining them. Downloading allowed listeners to bypass all of those old rules, weakening the links in the chain connecting all of the generations that had built the music and the culture.
"Growing up I had a small handful of friends that were doing shows and were involved in writing up bands and playing music, and it became like a community and a tribe," says Matt Lunsford, co-founder of Polyvinyl Records, a label that formed in 1996. "So if you were really interested in that, you were very proactive about it as a way to belong and make new friends and things like that. Now, I feel like you can still do the music part of that without doing the friending part of that. You can search around and seek out music and look online, and you can do it without the actual physical side of it."
Lunsford, whose label started as a fanzine in the pre-Internet era, says that he often meets people who are familiar with bands on Polyvinyl through downloading or streaming but who have never actually heard of his label. This, too, is a significant change from 15 years ago, when labels still held some curatorial power in giving acts a stamp of legitimacy. But the culture of downloading doesn't just change the culture surrounding music and threaten the bottom lines of the artists who make it. It also potentially changes the music, itself.
"I think peer-to-peer sharing completely devalues a record," says Xiu Xiu's Stewart flatly. "When you don't seek something out, when you don't put some small effort into acquiring it, you don't listen to it as closely and you don't get as much out of it. But if I go and buy a record, I will probably listen to it three or four times before I really assess whether it means something to me. I think [downloading] has kept them from having as deep a relationship with music as they could have in the past, because there's no stake in giving it any time or focus. For some people, they are trying to write a song that caters to the idea that no one is going to fucking care about it, so you better made it interesting for [the first] 10 seconds and the rest can be fucking pointless. It leads to the writing of commercials as opposed to songs that can really become a part of somebody's life. That doesn't make something music anymore. It makes it a bag of digital potato chips or something."
Stewart tells a story of how he knew the old definitions of indie rock were shifting in the mid-2000s when Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Efrim Menuck explained to him that their shows were now being attended by people who were likely hostile to many of their radical left political commitments, people who never would have discovered them only a few years earlier. ("I thought, 'If that band is being taken over by assholes—that's the end of the underground,'" Stewart recalls.) For an indie artist to try to make popular music was one thing, but to find yourself the subject of attention from the people that you believed should hate your music could cause an identity crisis. In the pre-Internet days, the most damning charge you could level at an indie artist's music was that it was so easily digestible and inoffensive that it could be used to sell cars and beer, just another gear in the machinery of capitalism. Today, even the most adventurous acts (tUnE-yArDs, St. Vincent, Joanna Newsom) have songs that turn up in national advertising campaigns.
"There seem to be more bands writing music that is made to be used in an Apple commercial," admits Tim Harrington of post-hardcore heroes Les Savy Fav, who formed in 1995 at Rhode Island School of Design. "The idea that your song might be in a TV commercial was preposterous for a band like us when we formed. I wonder how much that effects music. I feel like there's way more twee music now than there ever was. The ukulele fad of however many years ago—without Internet or TV commercials using twee ukulele music, I don't think that ever would have happened. There were 800 ukulele playing girls. That was a product of 'That little ukulele thing sounds so good in that Nissan commercial. Everyone is into it.' My friend was joking about an album that he wants to write specifically for Urban Outfitters."
Having come of age in the era of indie rock tribalism, Harrington says that he planned his youth around trips to the local music store, where he'd buy just about anything Dischord Records released. Once he had those records, he'd scour the liner notes to see which bands those artists cited as influences, and he'd plan his next list. Having a great record collection was a badge of honor in those days, proof that you were sufficiently invested in your tribe. Much has been written about millennials' admirable tendency to prize inclusiveness and community over prejudice and partisanship, but that same tendency essentially undoes niche communities that define themselves by a certain in group-out group dichotomy. But what happens when a genre of music that defined itself as much by what it wasn't as by what it was no longer feels the need to be against anything? When everyone listens to everything, what role does music play in a young person's identity formation? Indie rock has been such a durable form because it represents a safe harbor for the awkward and the outsider, the kid who wants nothing more than to something to identify with and call his or her own. What happens when we're all part of the same tribe?
"I was a part of that, too, and it helped me create an identity for myself when I felt very marginalized growing up," says The Decemberists' Colin Meloy, "being in junior high and feeling out of place but having The Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen and Hüsker Dü and Depeche Mode—things like that seemed to be celebrating outsider status. That was a really powerful and important thing to me. I think that was the antecedent for all of the indie rock tribalism. And now the embracing of Top 40 music, like your Rihannas and Drakes and Beyoncés is surprising to me. I remember back in the day when Pitchfork would run an April Fool's Day edition, which would be them celebrating Top 40 artists. But there are some days if you look at Pitchfork now it looks like that April Fool's Day edition with all of these mainstream artists. I'm not saying that they've somehow sold out. Tastes have changed."
Those changes accumulated slowly but their collective weight was clearly shaping the dialog by the mid-2000s. When publications previously devoted to covering indie rock started including hip-hop in their coverage, it was only a matter of time until R&B would be explored, too, given the overlap between the two forms. Once that occurred, it was inevitable that mainstream pop would start turning up, as well, since R&B is the largest single influence on the music that has dominated the pop charts for the last 25 years. Soon, Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé (and, later, Taylor Swift)—the kinds of artists who would have been dismissed out of hand by indie fans for their near-universal commercial appeal—were praised by the same people who once celebrated Nirvana's commercial success because it knocked Michael Jackson from the top of the charts. But just as indie rock artists benefitted from previously unadventurous music fans being more willing to explore underground music when they could download it for free, indie fans did the same with mainstream pop music. The end result appears to be a more or less comfortable détente between the two traditions that once seemed diametrically opposed, with all of the old stigmas dissolving in listeners' iTunes playlists.
"All of the genres have dissolved now, haven't they?" asks Jens Lekman, a Swedish singer/songwriter who has drifted more and more towards pop music since he released his first CD-Rs in the early 2000s. "I think it was more thrilling when you weren't allowed to [make pop music], and you did it anyway. Now everyone is allowed to do whatever they want. It's not like people are going to tell you to stick to your genre or whatever. Everyone has to be so goddam eclectic all the time now," he says with faux-frustration, "but I think that's great."
In many ways, Lekman is correct. Kids who grew up in a post-Internet world have no memory of "pop" being a dirty word. Free of that baggage, they are able to hear music with far fewer preconceptions. As the genres have faded, music in all forms has gotten more innovative, more eclectic, and more idiosyncratic. There are those who have lamented the lack of genuine icons in today's landscape, as there doesn't seem to be anyone who has the culture-captivating power of The Beatles or Michael Jackson today. Instead, with the singles replacing the album in the listener's imagination (and shorter attention spans), we've entered a golden era of pop hits.
"I woke up to Hot 97 [in New York City] today and fucking Rihanna's 'Needed Me' was on, and I'll put that against anything," says Paul Banks of Interpol and Banks & Steelz. Interpol's 2002 debut album, Turn on the Bright Lights, remains one of the definitive touchstones from the last 15 years of independent music, but Banks is quick to distance himself from any notions of indie rock provincialism. "I don't care what genre we're talking about—pop, indie, alt, anything—it's just dope. I don't know that 15 years ago I would be listening to pop radio like, 'That is dope. That's as cool as any fucking band you'd hear in the East Village.' But somehow the producers are interacting with artists in the spirit of pop music and rap, it's fresh as fuck and really exciting and edgy and creative and great. I don't know if that means that people are looking at indie or the sensibilities are just getting edgy and interesting, but in a post-Kanye world I'll take some pop music. It's good. That Diplo stuff with Bieber is fucking fantastic."
There you have it, something that would have been unthinkable in 2001—an indie rock icon praising a teen-pop idol with sense of no irony. Banks, himself, is a fairly compelling example for just how much the boundaries between genres have eroded, as his Banks & Steelz project with Wu-Tang Clan's RZA is arguably the most high-profile full-length collaboration between hip-hop and indie rock royalty in music history. Fifteen years ago the idea of blending hip-hop and rock would have brought to mind images of white frat-boys with backwards baseball caps playing obnoxious nu-metal riffs (or, possibly worse, Jay Z collaborating with Linkin Park). Today, two legends of their respective genres can come together and make an album while each retains his core aesthetic. But the celebration of all things creates a climate where there's so much music that no one can really hope to keep up with it all, where no album or song can hold the collective attention very long and most albums are instantly forgotten.
"Now everything moves so fast, and there's so much that you can listen to at any moment," says Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel and The Postal Service. "I can spend a couple years working on something, and it feels like no matter what, once you put it out it's blown away in the wind in a week, if you're lucky. So it makes it hard. You start questioning why you're making music. It really has to be for yourself and your own exploration. Sometimes putting it out into the world doesn't even seem worth it."
That's the approach taken by Nina Persson, lead vocalist of mid-'90s Swedish alt-pop darlings The Cardigans. Instead of making new music, she spends her time raising her six-year-old and doing what she calls "political cabaret" shows. For artists who once had worldwide success, the extent of the changes is enough to make them consider giving up music altogether.
"I'm in a place right now for myself where I feel like I'll probably make records again, but it's a confusing time," says Persson. "The last time I made a record [2014's solo outing, Animal Heart], I felt lost. I'm from the generation that was there in the '90s, and I had major labels. People who started later, who get right into the climate that is now, don't think it's bad. I just can't really handle it myself. The people who start these days, they get right into that you have to do everything yourself and be very on top of things. I don't think it's worse at all," she says with a sigh. "It's just different."
For the moment, at least, Persson says she doesn't miss the life of a recording and touring musician, and it's easy to imagine why. In some ways the art of being a musician has fundamentally changed. For the first time in 50 years, the album has been deemphasized in favor of the single due to the way people consume music. The days of stretching out for a few months to make an album on the record label's dime are largely over. The image of a listener sitting at a laptop while music streams in the background is decidedly less sexy than having someone pouring over an album's artwork and liner notes with headphones on.
According to data, 2016 is the first year subscription streaming services now outstrip downloading and traditional CD sales in terms of revenue, at $1.6 billion. But the artists see a vanishingly small piece of those revenues, fractions of a penny for each time their music is played. The business of making music for public consumption can seem like a pointless enterprise.
"I don't have any advice about the music industry that I could give to a young band in 2016," says Ben Gibbard of Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie, who formed in 1996. "For us, we feel very grateful that we were able to come of age and make what will most assuredly be our most successful and popular albums when people were still buying records," he laughs. 'It has given us the financial freedom to create when we want to create and when we feel inspired and to tour when we want to tour. I don't think that's a luxury that whatever band got Pitchfork's 'Best New Music' this week is ever going to experience. I don't have a judgment on that. I'm not going to be one of those people who will say it was better back then or worse now or better in 1991. This was just the era we came up in, and for us I'm glad that a lot of the things that bands have to deal with today are not a part of how we go about our business."
It seems like a distant memory now, but when Death Cab signed to Atlantic for 2006's Plans, the announcement was greeted with the assumption that the band would streamline and polish their sound and make some concessions to commerciality. There had been horror stories, bands such as Spoon who had signed to a risk-adverse major label and then quickly found themselves twisting in the wind when they failed to turn much of a profit. But by the mid-2000s, The Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse had sold millions of records on major labels without changing their sound much at all, and Death Cab would soon follow. Where signing to a major label used to be seen as a creative death sentence, today it might be necessary for a band's long-term survival. But as bottom lines continue to tighten, even thriving inside of that system is getting harder and harder.
"There's something like only three record companies anymore, basically," says Tony Di Blasi of Australian electronic sample wizards The Avalanches. "It's like everything—it's the mass corporatization of the world. The big record companies eat all of the smaller ones. It's like how our old label, Modular, got bought up by Universal, and now Modular is nothing. It's gutted. Maybe this is just talking, and it sounds really bad, but maybe there are not a lot of music people in record companies anymore, like there used to be. And I've heard this from people who have been in the industry for a long time. Saying that, we're on EMI in Australia, which is amazing. And we're lucky that Astralwerks and XL are amazing. The person who clears the samples for us said that the music industry used to be run by music people, but now it's just run by people with MBAs. It's just a business. It's not like, 'First is my love of music. Let's make money out of it.' Now it's like, 'I'm a businessman. How do we make money out of this?'"
Di Blasi admits that part of the equation—the making money part—largely comes down to luck, to being in the right place at the right time with the right songs and the right people pushing your music in front of the right listeners. The Avalanches took 16 years to complete Wildflower, the follow-up to their acclaimed 2000 debut, Since I Left You, and Di Blasi believes that had they been signed to a less patient label they would have been forced to release something that wasn't finished. The risk, then, is that as more indie labels get swallowed up by majors, there will be fewer options for artists who are waiting for that equation to line up. For a band like Oklahoma City's The Flaming Lips, there might be less money to be made, but that means there's also more freedom to create.
"I don't think it's better for all types of groups, but it's definitely a better time for us," says Wayne Coyne, the band's frontman for the past 33 years, 26 of which have been on a major label, Warner Bros. "Most of the music industry up until now was trying to be more about selling lots of records and making lots of money and following that. Now I think it has freed people up to be like, 'There's not that much money being made if you're not Coldplay or Adele.' There's the Beyoncés of the world who are still going to make a billion dollars, but there's a lot of stuff that isn't. And if you don't absolutely love music, there wouldn't be a good second reason to get into it. Whenever things are making a bunch of money, it attracts people who like money. But that doesn't mean that they're not creative. It's just a different scenario. When we were involved in the music industry in the early '90s, bits of it would be repulsive to us, because we were just interested in making our music our way. And now there's not very much about the music industry that is even there if you're not a Beyoncé or Adele. It's not really set up to create another Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth would just have to create themselves and put out records. There wouldn't be a label that would think that's worth doing now. I think that's for the better, because you can put out records yourself now. You don't need a record label to do it." The truth, of course, is that a band as legendary as The Flaming Lips probably doesn't need a record label. They could be dropped by Warner Bros. today and continue to pay their bills by touring and making new music for their large and loyal cult. But if a new Sonic Youth wanted to create themselves as a purely independent act, they could certainly put their music out in the world and find an audience. But given the structure of the industry, they'd likely face long odds in keeping the lights on in their apartment until they turned a profit. How is a band that is just starting going to make the system work when even established artists are struggling to find ways to effectively monetize their music?
"Everybody should be paid for their work, but at the moment there's people who are profiteering from other people's work," says Laetitia Sadier, formerly of Stereolab and Monade and now a solo artist. One of the definitive bands of the '90s indie rock scene, Stereolab would issue a series of now-classic albums that often mixed a Marxist message with boldly experimental songcraft. Sadier sees the vanishing revenues for musicians as just another symptom of capitalism run amok. "Platforms like Spotify don't pay, do not remunerate the artist fairly. It's misery what they pay to the artist, but they themselves profit and expand. It's not that it isn't a great thing to have access to music, but we should pay for the services that we get and pay a fair price, but we live in a world where everything has to be 50 percent off. But we're being robbed in the process. It's not something that should be celebrated, even if it means that, 'Oh, we can consume more or listen to more music.' It's not desirable."
The end result, Sadier says, is that music is now seen as a far more disposable commodity than it has ever been, a lifestyle accessory to fit beside your Netflix, your Twitter, and your morning commute. There is a panic setting in among musicians, she says, who see their livelihood dwindling away as the market clogs with too much music and too few listeners. Just what the long-term implications of this are remains to be seen. Harrington suggests that the lack of monetary rewards will return most musicians to the days before the recording industry, when people made music as a hobby that provided personal enjoyment but no prospect of a career. Lunsford, ever the optimist, believes that labels like Polyvinyl will figure out a way to monetize their product enough to survive. Banks believes that artists will continue to create, whether they are being fairly compensated or not, and we should welcome a future where pop, hip-hop, and rock music continue to feed into each other in new and innovative ways. No one knows.
Perhaps indie rock really is dead. Or maybe the spirit of the music has been driven further underground, into the basements and garages and house shows where a few dozen people decide to get together and make some noise. What remains indisputably true is that music remains a cultural force, one that is still at least a peripheral pursuit for many Americans. Lightburn tells a story of how, back in 2007 when Radiohead shook the industry by releasing their In Rainbows album online with a pay-what-you-want option, he downloaded the album, put it on his iPod and waited for the right time to listen to it. That moment came a few months later, under the stars on a beach in Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic. For those 42 minutes, it didn't matter that the music was digitally produced, that he couldn't read the liner notes, that it was made by a band that had spent most of its career on a major label. It was just an engrossing piece of art, and he was as transfixed by the power of that music as he was when he first wanted to be a musician.
"If you really love music and you want to be transported by that music, you want to consume it that way," Lightburn concludes. "You want to treat it as holy as it is. I think that there's still a ton of people out there who consume music that way, who love music in that way. As artists we just need to continue to respect that, and the consumers and the buyers and the lovers of music will continue to respect that, as well. Sure, maybe you're making your pie a little smaller, but who gives a fuck? You still have a pie!" he says with a self-effacing laugh. "I'd rather have a pie than no pie, even if there's only a hundred people interested in that pie."
[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Best of 2016 / 15th Anniversary Issue (January/February/March 2017). This is its debut online. The issue came out in late December 2016 and partially celebrated the 15th anniversary of Under the Radar's first issue, which came out in December 2001.]
- Kevin Morby Announces New Album, Shares Lyric Video for New Song “Come to Me Now” (News) —
- Black Lips Announce New Album Produced by Sean Lennon, Share “Can’t Hold On” (News) — Black Lips
- Saint Etienne Announce New Album, Share “Heather” (News) — Saint Etienne
- Thurston Moore Announces New Album, Shares Video for “Smoke of Dreams” (News) — Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore
- !!! Announce New Album and Tour Dates, Share “The One 2” Video (News) — !!!