Note: The essay below, published in October 2010 in Issue 49 of Broken Pencil, has been chosen as one of the Best Canadian Essays of 2012. Congrats Ryan!
When the “indie” aesthetic becomes the mainstream, what happens to “indie”? Ryan Bigge argues it either embraces transparency or it disappears.
By Ryan Bigge
In August 2009, Richard Nash, the former publisher of Soft Skull Press, wrote an insomnia-inspired blog post about a new book called Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture. As he noted at rnash.com, “Open source, Twitter. Indie won. Etsy. The irresistible decline of major labels and network TV and corporate publishing. Indie won.”
Hurrah! Victory for indie culture at last!
Except I cheated by failing to mention that Nash prefaced his observation with these three sentences: “Indie doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s dead. Which is OK, because it won.” Nash is not alone in suggesting that indie culture now enjoys crippling success. In the conclusion to Slanted and Enchanted, author Kaya Oakes writes that “indie is simultaneously reaching a stage of oversaturation and corporatization, and it’s debatable whether we should just stop using the term ‘indie’ altogether.”
Boo! Defeat for indie culture yet again!
Well, not quite. Both Oakes and Nash conclude with variations on vague optimism. “Each time indie culture has gone through a change, it has re-emerged as something new,” Oakes argues in her book, “and each re-emergence has ushered in a new cadre of artists.” Nash, meanwhile, suggests that, “…now [that] the phase of indie is over, now that the monopoly on the production and distribution of knowledge, culture and opinion has been broken, what next, a new phase, a drive to, perhaps, create, maintain, defend a New Authenticity arises?”
While Oakes is probably correct to suggest that indie will transform itself yet again, authenticity (be it new or old) is a dead end, not the road forward. Authenticity has become dominated by persona (or worse, personal brand), serving to disguise or deflect a person’s motives. At this juncture, indie needs to provide a better window into its soul — and like every useful window, it must be transparent. The website Hipster Runoff once dubbed itself “The Most Authentic Blog On The Information Super Highway, Y’all” but the fact that creator “Carles” remains anonymous makes it utterly opaque, instead of transparent.
The problem, of course, is that authenticity is much sexier (and safer) than transparency. “Select only things to steal that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic,” explained indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch in a 2004 article for MovieMaker magazine. “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” Transparency has no place in this equation because it involves footnotes and citations and other unsexy tools of attribution. Ripping someone off, meanwhile, requires nothing but swagger.
David Shields, in his recent book Reality Hunger, is equally obsessed with artistic bona fides. He admits that he is “desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice” and that “we’re clinging to anything that seems ‘real’ or organic or authentic. We want rougher sounds, rougher images, raw footage, uncensored by high technology and the powers that be.” Curiously enough Shields, like Jarmusch, endorses thievery, admitting that “most of the passages in this book are taken from other sources.”
Meanwhile, in February of this year, it was revealed that Helene Hegemann, a 17-year-old German novelist, had also taken Jarmusch’s advice and plagiarized (or borrowed, or remixed, or repurposed) a blogger named Airen in her book Axolotl Roadkill. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” Hegemann said in her defense, taking inspiration from Shields and nearly plagiarizing Jarmusch in the process.
The problem, then, is that unlike indie, whose definition is rooted in animosity toward any corporate attitude (independent from the mainstream), authenticity is a slippery concept. (As music critic Chuck Klosterman once noted, “The White Stripes are simultaneously the most fake band in the world, and the most real band in the world.”) Even worse, authenticity, rather than saving indie culture, might be partially to blame for its current false victory. Which means the future of indie can no longer be about keeping it real. Instead, it must involve a return to financial transparency.
In other words, it’s the economy, stupid.
Let me be honest here — trustworthiness being one of the hallmark virtues of authenticity. A few weeks after I started work on this article, back in February of this year, Paste magazine published a cover story by Rachel Maddux entitled “Is Indie Dead?” The Paste essay was nine pages long, a mix of history and obituary that was, in some ways, the thing I’d been assigned to write for Broken Pencil. After the usual cycle of panic and procrastination, I was eventually saved by Andrew Potter, who published his book The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves two months later.
Although Hoax is in many ways simply a clever rewrite of his first book (The Rebel Sell, co-authored with Joseph Heath), Potter does provide one particularly useful insight: “our pursuit of the authentic ideal has become one of the most powerful causes of inauthenticity in the modern world.” In other words, the harder we work to try and keep it real, the more we encourage the rise of fake authenticity.
Potter isn’t alone in this belief. New York based sociologist Sharon Zukin, in her latest book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, reinforces Potter’s argument as she explains how our desire for “artfully painted graffiti on a shop window, sawdust on the floor of a music bar, an address in a gritty but not too thoroughly crime-ridden part of town” precipitates and accelerates gentrification. Once the rough shoulders of the working class can no longer afford to live in the new neighbourhood, they depart, and with it, most of the area’s authenticity.
It should at this point be no surprise that Maddux also explores authenticity in her Paste article, arguing that indie culture is currently defined by its presence or absence. Authenticity, according to Maddux is “some level of organic craft — real art made by real people, not manufactured and mass-produced.” Although she has little to say about sawdust bars, she does admit that “authenticity is an imprecise, continual assessment, prone to personal bias and human error — not exactly something to build a whole musical movement upon.”
Or a whole literary movement upon. Or a whole artistic movement upon. Or a whole car marketing movement upon.
Those who choked on “car marketing movement” aren’t paying close enough attention. Since 2003, not one, not two, but three different cars have been launched in North America, each significantly utilizing the tropes of indie culture. First was the Scion, detailed in Rob Walker’s book Buying In. (“Scion showed up at graffiti block parties on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and outsider art events in San Francisco and Los Angeles.”) Next was the Yaris and their Drive It Yourself campaign, described by Anne Elizabeth Moore in her book Unmarketable. (“The Yaris version of doing it yourself meant having cool kids from the underground show you how to do what they do, albeit in the context of corporate-sponsored workshops.”) And most recently, the Nissan Cube, which was launched in Canada last year with a social media only campaign. (“I want non-conformists,” ad executive Tony Chapman told the Financial Post in June of 2009, defining them as people with “dreadlocks and a courier bag.”)
As should be apparent, there’s nothing particularly indie about a car, unless you visit an auto wrecker and build one yourself from jagged scraps. (Although David Shields, whose collage book is the non-fiction equivalent of a D.I.Y. vehicle, might approve.) Many of the tools and techniques that Nash praises (open source, Twitter) are incredible sources of underground creativity and communication, but there’s nothing inherently indie about them. Sure, Owen Pallett has almost 22,000 Twitter followers, but Justin Bieber has 5.2 million. Their music could not be more different, but they both comfortably share the same publishing platform.
Meanwhile, witness the devolution of indie-centric Tumblr, which is creating a self-reflexive caption culture where numerous memebuzz hopefuls try to score the next blog-to-book deal. Literary agent Jason Allen Ashlock described the hipsters + snark formula to Galleycat as “Image, caption, laugh. Image, caption, laugh.”
Not only is the joke no longer funny (unless it’s a hipster slipping on a Velvet Underground banana peel) it’s now too easy to harness indie for profit and still retain your authenticity (or at least a suitable facsimile therein). As Lizzi Bougatsos, lead singer of Manhattan’s Gang Gang Dance, told the New York Times in October of 2008, “There’s no such thing as selling out in my mind.”
Perfectly Imperfect Sound Forever
Not everyone has given up on indie, however. As a character in the online comic strip Cat and Girl notes, “Imperfect is the new desirable!” The latest tactic involves a return to the “rougher sounds and images” described by Shields, despite technology that can autotune or autocorrect your deficiencies. “We live in a time of ragged edges,” proclaims the friend of Girl. Or, as Marginally Mediocre blogger Tully Mills (who is actually quite a good blogger despite the name of his blog) asked in March of this year, “Why does my generation try to make everything look like it’s straight out of one of my dad’s shitty photo albums from the ’70s?”
While our comic strip heroine Girl agrees (“Not everything needs a poorly silk-screened drawing of a bird on it”) her friend gets the last word: “If you need me I will be listening to tape hiss in my room.”
It’s funny, because it’s true. Really. It sounds like a strange joke, but tape hiss is back in style, last popularized by Guided By Voices, Liz Phair and Sebadoh about 15 years ago. And while the hiss still sounds about the same, despite advances in digital technology, sounding terrible (or at least underproduced) definitely means something slightly different in an era of perfect fidelity. Back then, the prohibitive costs of recording in a professional studio left indie musicians with no other choice but to use more affordable but less sonically sophisticated four-track recorders. Which, for anyone born after 1990, refers to a device that recorded music onto an analog cassette. (Today, of course, you can buy a FourTrack iPhone app for $10 that will record CD quality music.)
Using a four-track meant that no matter how great your songs might be, and how carefully you recorded them, you’d never get played on commercial radio. Now, with programs like ProTools, you have to work awfully hard to make a recording sound imperfect. One of my favourite albums of the 2000s was The Woods by Sleater-Kinney, which was recorded in a proper studio (Tarbox Road Studios), by a proper producer (Dave Fridmann) and released by a proper label (Sub Pop). Despite this, everything sounds loud and distorted, as if someone purposely allowed the recording level needle to constantly dance into the red.
It might be a coincidence, but that same year a label called In The Red Records released Let It Bloom by the Black Lips, a garage band that sounded like it was also recorded in one. These days, sounding bad is a good career move. In a May 2010 article for Popmatters.com, Toronto music journalist Jay Somerset makes a link between the limited audio quality of AM radio and current chill-wave acts like Neon Indian, whose album Psychic Chasms “contain[s] the same sort of hooks and catchiness inherent to pop hits, but the sonics here are somewhat deformed, at times sounding like you’re listening to the record on a slightly warped cassette player.”
The technical term for this technique is a “phonographic effect.” As Mark Katz explains in his book Capturing Sound, “Simply put, phonographic effects are the manifestations of sound recording’s influence.” It’s jarring for the listener to have their attention drawn to the sound of the recording process, removing them temporarily from the immersive experience of musical enjoyment. But does this make the music any more authentic? Probably not, although The Woods serves as a not-sosubtle announcement that moving to a larger label would not make the band any more accessible or radio friendly.
The latest divide is between content and economics. You can try and determine whether a particular expression of culture is sufficiently rough and raw or you can ask about the economic conditions under which it was produced. A major label can release a rough and raw album, but that doesn’t make it indie. Likewise, an indie label can release a delicate and pretty album and remain indie.
Responding to the flawed approach of New Authenticity on Richard Nash’s blog, someone named J. Lasser noted that, “To really assess the authentic independence of a band, or a magazine, we’ll need to go through the same process as identifying truly organic food from small farms: squinting at complex charts of corporate ownership, reading the fine print.” Which is where financial transparency finally comes in.
Right now transparency is enjoying a slow death as an overused marketing buzzword. But instead of the New Authenticity, I think we need the New Transparency. The late Kurt Cobain was inordinately proud of the fact that Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, cost $606.17 to record. Dave Eggers provided one of the more famous glimpses of artistic transparency in his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by revealing his book advance ($100,000) and how he spent it ($14.32 on a copy of the original movie soundtrack for Xanadu). More recently, the Onion AV Club’s Nathan Rabin talked about the economics of non-fiction in a December 2009 blog post. A $60,000 book advance, after agent commission and taxes, works out to $28,000 for two years worth of work.
Revealing the numbers about how culture is produced does not guarantee the end result is any more authentic, but it does serve to demystify the conditions under which it came to be, which is pretty darn indie. As Oakes writes in the conclusion to Slanted and Enchanted, “To make something on your own, regardless of its potential to bring in money, lends the end product an inherent sense of value.”
And so I will once again be very honest and explain that this essay would not exist without a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, who gave Broken Pencil the power to distribute grant money to various artists and writers via the Writers’ Reserve program. I received $2,000 from this grant — which sounds like a lot, until you start adding up the hours spent researching, writing and rewriting. Not to mention the years devoted to improving one’s craft. I’m not complaining, merely pointing out, on behalf of cultural journalists everywhere, that thoughtful writing doesn’t come free.
The good news is that many indie artists are already embracing the new transparency through sites like kickstarter.com — an allor-nothing funding platform that allows complete strangers to invest in a book, film or album before it’s created. It’s too early to tell if KickStarter is working quite perfectly, but I like that it serves as a referendum on the value of a given project at the outset, rather than necessitate the creation of an after-the-fact mythology or backstory to provide an artist or artifact with the aura of authenticity.
The pessimist in me fears there are invisible biases built into KickStarter, just as there are limitations to citizen journalism initiatives like Spot.Us. But the optimist in me doesn’t care. As Oakes argues, “indie never really dies; it continues to reemerge in repeated surges.” So let’s give indie culture a kick start and see what happens.