Last night I went out in Brooklyn to a see band I’ve been listening to for a few years now. I hadn’t seen the band perform live in a while because I’d been living abroad, so I was looking forward to seeing them play again. I probably saw them over ten times back when I lived in Boston, and I know the guys pretty well now, so I have a good feel for their sound and where they’re headed. Or, I thought I did.
Basically this band is one of many that is facing today’s music industry quandry. They’re good–they’re really good–but they don’t really play the game of hype and they are truly invested in their sound and work. They don’t change their music to accomodate the press and they don’t sound like many of the trendy bands that are getting reviewed today. It’s a tricky musical quagmire to be in, while bands wait around and let the press determine their futures. But what if these kinds of bands, if they had the support, could turn things around and change the general function of the press? The key part of that question is “if they had the support.”
Imagine a world where every band gets a fair shot, and is not ranked by a number (that controls many people’s opinions) on a single website. Imagine a world where blogs actually try to report and not just re-report what they read elsewhere (i.e. Japandroids’ latest good, but massively hyped album). Imagine a world where an indie band can make a small profit off its music because its fans are loyal and support the music financially because they want to see the band continue its career.
“Indie” music’s original purpose went against exactly what the state of the industry is today. But somehow we forgot what mattered to us, what music meant to us, and why we gave music the title “indie” to begin with.
I’m writing this as an attempt to explain what this band I mentioned and what many other extremely talented bands are experiencing in today’s “indie” scene. I was inspired to write this after leaving the show last night, in awe of this amazing live act, and so frustrated that the guys in the band aren’t where they should be right now. They should be touring successfully, selling records, and getting out there. Music should at least be their part-time job that brings in some kind of income. But the case is as follows: their first solid record deal wasn’t incredibly successful because of timing and the fact that the label arguably didn’t do the necessary things to get the band attention. After that, there was a 7″ single released, on a different label, but the same thing happened: no money was put into promoting the record and it pretty much fell through the cracks of the blogosphere. Now, years after the band’s last release, they have a record done and they’re shopping it around, playing the same industry games they were playing nearly ten years ago, except this time the games seem to be even harder. It was never easy to “break out” and be a big band, no, but I argue that the current attitude we carry as listeners and the current state of the industry makes it difficult for a band to have a lasting impact today.
I’m also writing this as a response to what I consider to be naive writing in an NPR blog article that sparked a huge backlash in cyberspace last week. I want to show that, contrary to the author’s (Emily White’s) claims about her “generation” that I am also a part of, there are “younger people” out there who do care and do want to actively do the “right” thing. I am one of them. I am tired of how this industry is run. I will not sit around condoning this dispiriting disposable culture.
I’ll introduce myself a bit first so you know where I’m coming from. I booked my first band when I was 16 years old. As a high school kid, I worked at my local college radio station (for people from countries where college radio isn’t as prevalent, read more about American college stations here) and interviewed national bands that I loved, and when I met a band I liked that was touring through my area, I booked them for a show. I spent my senior year of high school in Germany, where I learned about the European side of the music industry and how things flow over there. Following that year in Germany, I moved to Boston for college where I DJed at my college station and was a music director for two years. During that time, I also booked shows across the city with a D.I.Y. collective, wrote a bunch of music articles, and interned at a music promotion company. After college I moved back to Germany where I worked at a music venue in Dresden and worked for VICE in Berlin, all still while freelancing, booking, and running individual PR campaigns in my spare time. In February I started this website because I was tired of music blogs and recyclable artists. I was tired of reading hype on Pitchfork and I was tired of listening to so many bands that sounded the same.
Back to the band that I mentioned at the start of this article.
The band’s current stagnant state is frustrating to me because I know without a doubt that they “deserve” more right now. To repeat, a lot of bands are in this same exact spot. They tour and they write and they release, and tour, and write, and release, all while making a very small profit. In this particular case, the band I saw last night needs a new label. But more than a label, they need a system that supports their art.
The Emily White blog post pissed me off because it’s someone who is just a bit younger than me admitting and accepting the fact that she is a lazy music listener and does not actively monetarily contribute to the bands she apparently “supports.” I do not want to work with people like that in the music industry. Some of my greatest friends are musicians and I am so exhausted from seeing them in this financial freeze where they simply need money in order to continue with their craft, but things just aren’t adding up. People will not invest in an album. So the musicians dream and work and dream and work, but what happens when they’re about to be 30 years old and they haven’t been a stupid Pitchfork buzz band yet? What happens then? When should they give up? When is it okay to say, “This isn’t worth it anymore”?
The problem at hand is the fact that music journalism is streamlined right now into a few major publications and repetitive blogs, and also that people as fans and listeners are passively allowing the digital age to greatly affect the music they love.
The band’s performance last night blew me away. Half the live bands I see in the U.S. and Germany are not as good as these guys. Yet, these dudes are the ones who are in the waiting line, wondering what move to make next. Wondering if or when timing will ever lend a hand. Wondering if it is even possible to live a life with financial stability as a musician.
This comes back to the fact that listeners and fans need to be aware of how taxing this system is. White’s post proves to me that people do not know what life is like for aspiring musicians right now, or even for musicians who have already “made” it. American musician and professor at the University of Georgia David Lowry wrote a long and detailed response to White’s post that provides great information about the state of the industry and the amount of money bands make today. Big indie acts still struggle with their finances in today’s world, largely due to the loss of revenue because of cyberspace downloads.
This conversation of funding music comes up every now and then in the media. Paste Magazine touched on the modern day musician’s lifestyle in this article with Eric Johnson of The Fruit Bats. Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart talked about his less-than-glamorous touring experiences in this Huffington Post article. The New York Times published an article this month about Amanda Palmer’s $1.2 million Kickstarter campaign that seems like a real financial win but actually leaves her with much less money than one would think. Jeremy Messersmith recently went over his financial gains from his music in this interview he did with a radio station.
The reality is that the state of the “indie” (I keep putting the word in quotations because the term is so broad) industry is less than ideal. A few publications are monopolizing music journalism, leading to less information and a tighter dissemination of music. We also believe now, as fans, that we can take as much as we want without giving back. One point of Lowry’s that I really found compelling was his comment on “fair-trade” products nowadays, and how it’s popular to buy fair-trade and/or local goods:
Many in your generation are willing to pay a little extra to buy “fair trade” coffee that insures the workers that harvested the coffee were paid fairly. Many in your generation will pay a little more to buy clothing and shoes from manufacturers that certify they don’t use sweatshops. Many in your generation pressured Apple to examine working conditions at Foxconn in China. Your generation is largely responsible for the recent cultural changes that has given more equality to same sex couples. On nearly every count your generation is much more ethical and fair than my generation. Except for one thing. Artist rights.
His point is valid. I know so many young people with money (I went to one of the most expensive colleges in the country) who will invest in positive, smart, and ethical “purposes” and will buy tofu instead of poorly processed meat, or will go to a local coffee shop instead of Starbucks. But, why aren’t more people buying music appropriately? Why don’t more people care when a publication like Pitchfork changes its ways and covers Usher over a smaller, talented act that’s been trying to garner larger music press for years? Why do we buy into the trends? Why don’t we question how things work and how we can make things better? Do people have to make buying music COOL before others will start buying it again to the extent that it will improve the well-being of the musicians we support? At least vinyl sales seem like they’re on an upward swing.
I work with a lot of bands like the one I saw last night that are considering quitting the industry and going back to school or pursuing restaurant jobs. The thing is, these are not mediocre garage bands. These are good bands that deserve wider coverage and cash from the people who listen to and enjoy their work.
I am also at a turning point, where, as a person working in the industry, I have to decide whether I will apply for jobs and/or work with people or companies who endorse these defeating notions, or whether I will take the harder and longer road that will most likely be less lucrative, and fight for the music and the ethics that I believe in. The bottom line is: We need change. It’s about making a choice, and being the change you want to see. It really comes down to that.
It boils down to a click on the Internet and realizing that buying music directly from an artist or label usually funds the artist more than making the purchase through the more-convenient method of iTunes or Amazon. It’s about calling Pitchfork out when they report on some stupid Kanye gossip instead of putting energy into objective, honest music coverage, like they seemed to do before they exploded so popularly into the international sphere. It’s about asking Under the Radar magazine and Magnet to highlight bands that are “under the radar” again. It’s about being in control and making independent decisions, “read[ing] the foreign news to understand [your] nation.”
I think the main way to combat these issues is to stay cognizant of what is going on in our industry and educate audiences everywhere on how the system works. Because our world keeps becoming more and more digital, it will be hard to hold on to the traditional values we believe in the most. It doesn’t mean we have to let them go, but perhaps we need to remind ourselves and others sometimes, why we like music, what music does for us as people, and, considering those two things–how can we better help the musicians whose work benefits our lives on a daily basis?