Indie Mindsets and the Contemporary Album
Something interesting about the music scene in America today (or at least the way music scenes are covered) is that rarely does it appear that any stone is unturned. With the proliferation of online outlets to cover pop music of all shades, and with the eagerness of many writers to shout “First!” at a discovery regardless of its quality, there are fewer and fewer places for new artists to hide. Entire ‘movements’ are being covered which have yet to spit out any halfway decent artist, much less one with one or more albums under his or her belt. This clashes with the indie mentality prevalent since the genre’s inception, a mentality that grew increasingly skeptical and paranoid even as major labels saw rapid decline in sales at the turn of the century thanks to outlets such as Napster. Independent labels now have the clout (though not quite the capital) of majors—Arcade Fire won a Grammy for Best Album, Radiohead’s pay-what-you-will model led unknowns to release their material in similar fashion, not without results (Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, et al.). So it no longer seems apropos, nor has it for a while, for small acts to eschew fame if it’s brought upon them with them having done essentially nothing. The want to stay obscure is fine if all you ever wanted was to perform with your friends at the neighborhood pub, but the attitude that fame or critical regard is a sign of selling out no longer holds water, and is destructive to any political or communal ideals indie was established to harbor; by becoming increasingly exclusive, indie scenes shun outsiders who weren’t there when it started, and who are thereby forever out of the loop. (For the record, I don’t think indie ever had any political goals—at best it was vaguely critical of capitalism, promoting a DIY work ethic over major label studio slickness. Maybe it was just anti-greed. If the hipster cliques in and around Brooklyn have a political slant, I’d guess it’s Occupy-esque, though most probably that movement is too well-known for them to maintain street cred.) When a band like Vampire Weekend signs to XL and goes on world tours, natives feel betrayed, but they move on, finding the next up-and-comer to call their own. Problem is, some online zine has already named and reviewed all the bands you’ll never hear of before they get three songs on BandCamp.
Which is my sort-of segue into a matter I’ve expressed concern about previously. Rock writers also have a difficult decision to make. Given the wide availability of albums on iTunes (or available directly from a label or artist’s website) and the option of downloading tracks individually, should writers begin to consider albums in this manner? An abstract example: band X (not the LA punk group, FYI) releases an album with a running time of one hour. A rock writer finds the album, gives it several spins, and decides that tucked away in that hour are thirty-five minutes of truly primo music while the remaining twenty-five are utter trash. There are twelve songs, each five minutes, and they alternate from good to bad to good to bad from start to finish. Is it permissible for the writer to reward the album the highest rating possible (five stars, A+, whatever) to those thirty-five minutes, informing the reader he should only pay for the seven tracks that are worth it—i.e. to skip buying a CD, to create his own mix of the seven five-minute ditties that are worth hearing? Band X are no hacks and, like any self-proclaimed artist, thinks of their album as a whole, regardless of the writer’s opinion. Should the writer take into account the songs he thinks are terrible in his write-up for the album, or is he liberated by the digital age to recommend purchasing only certain tracks? In the days where only records, CDs, and cassettes were available, this was impossible—if you were going to recommend a purchase it had to be based on everything. This is no longer true. So what does that say about the album? Will our conception of the traditional album change? What liberties and/or responsibilities do rock writers have? Thoughts?