Indie: The new Mainstream?

January 7, 2009

Jonathan Mahler in an article on Andrew Bird for the New York Times, sums up the whole indie music vs. mainstream music distinction (with the changing music industry as a backdrop) quite well:

Bird’s trajectory, his gradual climb to success, is unusual for a business in which careers tend to be made on the back of a big break. But his increasing popularity may also say something broader about the shifting dynamics of the industry. The rock-music business has long been dominated by major labels following a simple formula: They saw what bands were selling and looked for others that sounded just like them. And because these same labels held what often seemed like exclusive access to the key retailers and influential radio stations, it was difficult for independent record companies and more inventive, esoteric artists to find traction in the general public. But with the precipitous drop in record sales, the major labels have lost much of their leverage, and with it, their ability to determine what records will become popular. “Andrew is worried that if he goes too mainstream, he’s going to offend his hard-core fans,” says Steve Martin, one of Bird’s publicists. “I told him that mainstream no longer exists.”

The above reinforces three (related) points. First and foremost, the term “indie” refers to the label/record-company and not necessarily to the type of music. Therefore, and secondly, I scout for indie music not because of some urge to be non-conformist (as a friend alleged), but simply because its my best bet for finding something different and discovering new sounds and new artists. These days, bands/artists that release their music with lesser-known labels seem more likely to make music which is unusual, interesting and different….but not necessarily so! And finally, the matter of “Indie becomes the new mainstream”:  For the audiences this is welcome. It means that a few record companies don’t, in principle, determine what kind of music the public is going to be hammered by.  For the artist, it means there is no short-cut to stardom, and the road ahead will be, to paraphrase Bird, trying to win one person at a time. It also means an even playing field for record labels and artists.

Btw, Andrew Bird is certainly one of my favourite musicians, not the least for using words like “formaldehyde” (in Fake Palindromes). For a chemist, that is just …. well, music to the ears ! 🙂 This statement by Mahler about Bird’s lyric writing is also, I feel, accurate:

He is more interested in how the words in his lyrics sound, in the mood they create and sense they relate, than in their literal meaning.

Can’t wait for “Noble Beast” !!