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Independent culture in the Google era

By Ryan Bigge

Part I

So there’s this indie rock band from Toronto called Soft Copy. They’re pretty ordinary, but they’re also pretty good, and they’ve attracted my attention. In the summer of 2006, my friend Brendan sent me to Soft Copy’s MySpace page. I liked what I heard, downloaded a few songs, and when their album Wolves, Wolf, and More Wolves appeared in the fall of that year, I grabbed it. It’s a swirling mix of power-pop that reminds me of my favourite bands from the 1990s (including Sugar and My Bloody Valentine) while still sounding fresh and contemporary.

Although I’m no Lester Bangs or (god forbid) Greil Marcus, I sense magic in their should-be-a-hit-song ‘On The Outside.’ There’s the haunting way lead singer Andrew McAllister stretches the word w-i-n (‘we’re getting older / so let us win’) and the rhythmic buzzsaw generated by the guitar and drums partway through the track. But hearing, as they say, is believing.

In February of 2007 I convinced the members of Soft Copy to join me for cheap draft and nachos at indiepunk fixture Sneaky Dee’s. As it turns out, lead singer and guitarist McAllister is (like myself) in his early 30s, which might help explain why his music speaks so clearly to me. Unlike me, he sports a very respectable indie-rock beard. Drummer Paul Boddum who’s a little over 40, looks like Bob Mould’s younger brother and speaks with the soothing demeanor of a psychiatrist. Bassist Wes Hodgson, meanwhile (who replaced founding bassist Mark Pindera, who moved to England in fall of 2006), is the baby at 28.

Unlike Born Ruffians or Tokyo Police Club, or [insert the next up-and-coming young indie buzzband here], the members of Soft Copy have given up on the near impossible lottery that is big money rockstardom. Making reference to their former band Christiana, Boddum says that, ‘I think we had our kick at the can on having a–‘

‘Serious touring rock band,’ says McAllister, finishing the thought.

The boys like their day jobs and no longer find the alcohol abuse and the grind of touring an appealing lifestyle. At the risk of devolving into cliché, for Soft Copy, it’s about the music, man.

Soft Copy is one of at least a thousand pro-hobby bands across North America. So why should you care about them? Well, pretend for a moment that this article is their big break. No, really, follow me here. After being posted on the Broken Pencil website, a few music blogs link to my words, some fans post a low-budget tribute video on YouTube and on and on until Soft Copy hits the upper reaches of the blogosphere. Then, somehow, Pitchfork decides to review Soft Copy’s wolf pack album and they like it. In fact, they really like it, and the album receives an 8.8/10.

Suddenly, thousands of music fans swarm, (Soft Copy’s record label), where the entire album is available as a free download. (As Boddum explains, the band decided to release the album for nothing after former bassist and music lawyer Pindera revealed what a typical indie Canadian act earns from the sale of a CD.) The server overheats a few times, until someone is smart enough to create a BitTorrent. A month or two later, ‘On The Outside’ appears in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or Entourage (or both), and Soft Copy no longer has to drink cheap draft.

The barrier between above and below ground cilture might be more about access than aesthetics

Soft Copy are now sellouts, except they’re not, because they did nothing to actively pursue fame and fortune, nor did they make any compromises. They’re DIY to the core, having recorded and mixed the album themselves. All they did to cause this hypothetical chain reaction was create a MySpace page, put their album online for free, and let me interview them. In essence, the Soft Copy scenario shows that you can use the technologies of DIY to create indie culture that a mainstream audience might find appealing. Which means, among other things, that the barrier between above and below ground culture might be more about access than aesthetics.

The debate about crossover culture is an old one, but the technologies involved are new. In March of 2004, New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker described this mixture of indie-outlook and technological infrastructure as the ‘mass underground.’ Using DJ Danger Mouse as an example, Walker argued that the Grey Album (the wonderfully illegal mash-up of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’s White Album) was easily accessible (provided you had internet access and a bit of computer savvy) yet hovered below the mainstream radar. The mass underground is filled with poorly kept secrets, a new cultural category where a free, self-financed movie (like The Recommendations, created by Montreal’s Automatic Vaudeville Studios) or free, downloadable novel (Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town) or free album (Harvey Danger’s Little by Little…) can be downloaded once, or a million times at no additional cost to anyone.

The mass underground sounds ideal, but distribution methods can alter content and vice-versa. Physical restrictions on cultural access in the pre-digital era influenced the politics of the end product. Punk, for example, was forced to create a parallel system of marketing and distribution, a series of nodes, be it mail order or alternate venues to ensure they could book their own fucking life. Meanwhile, 1990s indie rock produced a sound (lo-fi) and an attitude (irony) as a reaction against major label dominance and dullness. Given various barriers, these subcultures remained below the sightlines of most consumers, which meant artists were free to experiment, without fear of alienating a fanbase that didn’t exist.

While the mass underground makes the physics of cultural distribution frictionless, it significantly alters the psychology of subculture. Soft Copy’s Boddum is the first to admit that: ‘We don’t have the overabundance of ego or confidence to make us assume we’ll blow up huge.’ Sure, it could happen, but putting their album online is a pragmatic decision. Similarly, Mark Slutsky, the Head of Talent at film collective Automatic Vaudeville, remains level-headed about The Recommendations. He estimates that in the past ten months the film has been downloaded ‘hundreds, possibly thousands of times.’ And while he daydreams about the film becoming a smash sensation, he’s simply pleased to be reaching many more people then he ever would through small-scale screenings and indie film festivals.

Still, lurking within the mass underground is the possibility of blowing up huge. And not everyone is as low-key as Slutsky or Soft Copy. As the title of an October 2006 New Yorker article about YouTube fame suggests, ‘It Should Happen to You.’

Part II

So, there’s this guy, Andrew Struthers, a Victoria-based filmmaker and journalist. And in the summer of 2006, Struthers went into his backyard with a Super-8 camera and created Spiders on Drugs, a funny little film that cost $300 to make. It did well in film festivals, where, as he writes in an article for lefty B.C. webmag the Tyee, ‘it was seen by tens of people.’ But Struthers wanted to reach a larger audience, so in January of 2007, he decided to post it to YouTube.

In less than a week, the spider flick received more than one million views, but not before Struthers had to shut down a rival YouTuber who had illegally claimed the spider video as his own. The success of the film was pure vindication for Struthers, who had the idea seven years ago, but could never convince anyone to provide him with funding. YouTube gave his film the audience it deserved. Cue happy ending.

Except that the act of observing something alters the thing being observed. The ‘Total Plays’ and ‘Views’ counters on MySpace and YouTube are not neutral odometers, which helps to explain why Struthers’s article reads like a frenzied daytrader riding a volatile stock to success. ‘On Saturday I was #1 top rated, top favourite, most discussed and top director on all of YouTube,’ he writes. ‘Six days in, the hit count was up to 750,0000 and I had over a thousand e-mails. I was shovelling them out like snow.’ A few paragraphs later, ‘it’s 3 p.m. on Tuesday, one week since I had the idea. I’ve just hit the million mark, and there are 55 pages of comments.’ We’re excited for spider guy, of course, but ultimately his YouTube rollercoaster is reduced to a numbers game.

Spiders on Drugs was an offline piece of indie culture that exploded, unexpectedly, online. But what about Struthers’ next short film? When generating culture for the mass underground, the possibility of blowing up huge, of becoming a smash sensation, becomes hardwired into the act of creation itself. ‘A video has to grab you by the neck in about five seconds–otherwise people lose interest.’ That’s what Arik Czerniak, co-founder of video-sharing website Metacafe told the New York Times. Hodgson from Soft Copy agrees, saying that, ‘There’s so many times I’ve listened to a sample of a band on MySpace, and I honestly give them five seconds.’

If hooking someone in five seconds alters content, then so too does an out-of-control views counter. As Clive Thompson, writing about OK Go in the New York Times Magazine observes:

In the end, the band decided not to do another dance video, because, as [lead singer Damian] Kulash concluded, ‘How do you follow up 15 million hits?’ All the artists I spoke to made a point of saying they would never simply pander to their fans’ desires. But many of them also said that staying artistically ‘pure’ now requires the mental discipline of a ninja.

While the mass underground makes the physics of cultural distribution frictionless, it significantly alters the psychology of subculture

Thanks to the mass underground, indie culture is at risk of internalizing the logic of Amazon sales ranking and the most-emailed articles chart from newspapers. And the problem, of course, is it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. In many ways, YouTube represents the pinnacle of what cultural observers have been lobbying for. As Broken Pencil founding editor Hal Niedzviecki argues in his book Hello, I’m Special:

In the near future creating your own TV shows will also feel like an unconscious elemental activity to coming generations of wired I’m Specialites. They will want, demand, and perhaps ultimately create parallel television worlds that will, like Napster momentarily threatened to do, cut corporations out of the business and make indie culture accessible and accountable in a whole new way.

YouTube and MySpace, at least before they were purchased by Google and Rupert Murdoch respectively, appeared to make good on the accessible aspect. But the mass underground, like any technological apparatus, generates unintended consequences. And in this case, the unforeseen problem is that we have met the enemy, and he is us. That is, the desire for attention, combined with our increasingly sophisticated understandings of self-promotion, threaten to alter indie culture for the worse.

Wanting to reach as many people as possible is one thing. The desire for fame is yet another. And for Andrew Wernick, a professor at Trent University, the problem is that our desire for attention and fame is leeching into the creative groundwater, in the process changing the form and content of the culture we create. In his book Promotional Culture, Wernick makes an obvious but valuable distinction between an advertisement (a discrete moment in time, like a 30-second ad) and promotion, which is an ongoing attempt to draw attention to a person, place or thing. Sacha Baron Cohen, for example, is often praised for his ability to stay in character, answering reporters’ questions as Borat, rather than himself. But in doing so, Baron Cohen/Borat becomes a non-stop promotion for his film. As hilarious as his wonky MySpace page might be, it’s ultimately another part of the machinery that reinforces the Baron Cohen/Borat brand.

Flipping through Terryworld, the coffee table collection of work by fashion photographer Terry Richardson, reveals a number of images of Richardson himself, posing with his models. Taking photographs of other people is passé in the world of promotional culture. To see how far down the chain promotional culture extends, you need only read a May 2007 Wall Street Journal article about expectant parents who are selecting baby names based on Googleability. As Kevin J. Delaney writes, ‘Many people aspire for themselves–or their offspring–to command prominent placement in the top few links on search engines or social networking sites’ member lookup functions.’

YouTube, MySpace, Google and other cogs in the mass underground machinery are not the cause of promotional culture. We project our desires onto technology as much as technology attempts to shape us. But these tools allow delusions of grandeur to float ever higher and help naturalize the logic of promotional culture. Or, to put it another way, YouTube is not the reason why Anthony Anderson, a stoner from Hartlepool UK decided to urinate on a disabled woman dying in a doorway in July of 2007. But the internalization of promotional culture and the naturalization of surveillance help explain why his friend filmed the moment for posterity with a cell phone, and why Anderson, at one point, shouts ‘this is YouTube material.’

Part III

So. There’s a new event for journalists in Toronto called Nonfiction. It appears to be pretty ordinary, but it’s actually pretty extraordinary, and it’s attracted some attention. Basically, the evening involves a bunch of media types offering uncensored peeks into their trade. As the poster for the event states, ‘All stories at Nonfiction are considered off-the-record and may not be repeated in print, conversation or broadcast.’ This is extraordinary only because the idea that information can be constrained to a specific place and time seems ridiculous in the digital age.

I was at the first Nonfiction event, and I’ll honour the aforementioned rules. But I will point out that to no one’s surprise, a few people blogged the evening, and a reporter from NOW, an alternative weekly, tried to tape record the event, until he was spotted and gently confronted by host Jesse Brown. Which is to say, it’s almost impossible to remain culturally invisible.

In a June 2007 interview with The Onion, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk answered fan questions, including this one, from someone named MollyPocket:

Q: Do you think there can really be true “underground” movements anymore, or is the Internet making everything too readily available to everyone?

CP: There will always be an underground. Maybe the reaction to the current “public” atmosphere with its confessional memoirs and reality shows will be a backlash of veiled, hidden societies wherein folks swear to keep their involvement secret. If I can imagine it, that’s already happening.

As Nonfiction demonstrates, Palahniuk can imagine it, but it’s basically impossible. In 1979, Dick Hebdige published Subculture: The Meaning of Style, a groundbreaking examination of the symbols and rituals of the punk subculture in London. Almost 10 years later, in an essay reflecting on youth culture, Hebdige wrote, ‘Subculture forms in the space between surveillance and the evasion of surveillance, it translates the fact of being under scrutiny into the pleasure of being watched. It is a hiding in the light.’

Hiding in the light is an evocative metaphor that honours the complexities of subculture. The problem is that evading surveillance is nearly impossible today–and, according to the logic of the mass underground and promotional culture, no longer desirable. Without the underground that MollyPocket bemoans, an important incubation period is lost, and subcultural oddities are light-exposed before they’re ready, leaving them underdeveloped.

The desire for attention, combined with our increasingly sophisticated understandings of self-promotion, threaten to alter indie culture for the worse

Rob Walker, on his blog Murketing, talks about Julia Vallera, a student at Parsons who used QR codes to convert parts of her diary entries into a kind of barcode. She then put these scrambled barcodes on t-shirts, which can be ‘read’ by cell phones with the right software. The idea is to make the private public. Semapedia, a similar project, uses stickers with QR code to provide information about particular landmarks in New York neighbourhoods. The QR codes are more speed bump than subcultural barrier, since all that’s required to translate the message is a piece of technology. Learning the language, slang, rituals and conventions of a subculture requires time. Unraveling QR takes a few clicks. But it’s one way of deflecting at least a bit of the light that shines on the underground. Call it hiding in plain sight.

In September of 2006, I saw a related example of hiding in plain sight at a conference held at NYU. I watched as Helen Nissenbaum demonstrated a program called TrackMeNot. Basically, this Firefox plug-in automatically creates fake, random search strings for Google, and this info-garble scrambles surveillance and data-profiling attempts. Subcultures have a history of hoaxing the mainstream (fake grunge slang once made its way into the New York Times), but this plug-in is a little different. TrackMeNot creates false positives, mixing signal with noise. It’s not a tangible solution to the mass underground dilemma, but it’s a useful metaphor for thinking about how one might disappear temporarily in an unhidable culture.

The irony, of course, is that the technology that destroys privacy might also help restore a tiny piece of it. There is always a blind spot.

The other solution is to create underground movements that limit membership to one person. In the documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, we learn the story of Henry Darger, a custodian who spent his nights writing and illustrating an imaginative dreamworld that he showed to no one. Starting in 1909, and continuing until a few years before his death in 1973, Darger wrote a 15,000 page novel about the battles of seven princesses known as the Vivian girls. He also completed nearly a hundred large, bright, watercolour paintings, many of which were double-sided.

Darger was self-taught and more than a little eccentric, and only three photographs of him exist (!!!). Creating and maintaining his rich inner life required ignoring everything around him, and one of the reasons the documentary is so compelling is that it taps into our romanticized notions of how culture should be created–the lone genius, struggling for years, creating for the sake of creation. I’m not suggesting that indie culture should emulate the Darger model. But as long as we admire and identify with his efforts, the mental software required for maintaining an underground still remains.

Ryan Bigge gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Ontario Arts Council’s Writers’ Reserve program.

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