One of the pleasant and unexpected side effects of working on the Walk in Silence project is being able to see the cyclical nature of things. Well, let me rephrase that–I did expect to see certain patterns emerging here and there, but I’ve been amused and entertained by how they emerge…how new things are often mutations of the original, and others are similar or reverential to its inspiration. I see it most clearly through the indie music that we’ve been listening to on the Sirius stations as of late…I now make it a game to find similarities between the songs being released nowadays and those of the 80’s–the “[current band] sounds like [80’s band]” meme. Some of them are more obvious: Beach House’s “Myth” certainly picks up where Cocteau Twins’ “Crushed” left off, for instance; others are more of a nod to the past, such as M83’s “Midnight City” being a perfect fit on a John Hughes soundtrack.
One of the other ways I see this is in the evolution of indie rock (as it’s called nowadays). Since I’ve done quite a bit of homework on the subject (well, at least coming up with a theory on how it evolved from punk to New Wave and post-punk to “college rock” and so on, at any rate), I’ve come to the conclusion that the genre is now at the point where it’s back to where it started: mostly aural and closer to its origin.
To elaborate: by “mostly aural” I mean that this music is mainly listened to on streaming websites or online radio stations now, rather than visual, considering that the video outlets of yore (MTV, VH1, etc.) have moved past the music video as its main programming. Videos are relegated to YouTube and Vimeo and elsewhere, where we can check them out whenever we want. The video has always been a four-minute jolt of caffeine to the music lover, a visual layer to add to the aural layer–the icing on the cake. Back in the 80’s, us kids used to watch MTV for hours on end, gorging ourselves on these things. We couldn’t get enough, partly because it played so many things we never heard elsewhere. That, of course, changed years ago.
By “closer to its origin”, I mean that indie music has always, at least in theory, been about the tight link between the band, its output, and its fans. It’s no secret that the big labels have always latched onto the Next Big Thing, colluded with the radio stations and the video channels to get as much airplay as possible, leaving the less commercial music to fall by the wayside. Agreed, a lot of the less commercial stuff you can take or leave, but the subgenre of indie rock has always been different–it’s the weird cousin that you’re never quite sure about, who seems to be in a completely different movie altogether. I say “closer to its origin” because a lot of the early indie music, the DIY punk and the small-label creations, embraced the musicians rather than using them for a profit. When the Big Label consolidation started in 1998 with Universal and Polygram, and later Sony and BMG in 2008, a lot of otherwise creative bands either flew the coop or were unceremoniously dropped (or worse, ended up dissolving). Even despite some independent labels’ short lifespans, many labels at least tried to keep the focus on the band and its output. And thanks to the power of the internet, computer software and sites like Bandcamp, a lot of bands are foregoing even signing to a label, choosing instead to record and mix their music on their PC, convert it to high-bitrate file formats, and sell it themselves, reaping much of the profit in the process. And because of that, a lot of the creation is purely of the band, with no outside influence from the labels or radio. It’s all about what the band laid down.
Ultimately, at least for me anyway, this marks the return of music listening as a purely solitary event. Indie rock has gone through quite a lot of changes since the 80’s. It slowly started infiltrating the commercial side sometime around 1986-87–John Hughes’ soundtracks, and REM’s Document are but two major points off the top of my head–eventually finding its own chart in Billboard in 1988 (under “Modern Tracks”), and finally becoming hip and mainstream in 1991, thanks to Nirvana’s Nevermind and other albums of the time. The 90s iteration of indie rock was an interesting shift: it became the mainstream due to the drying up of the old guard, hair metal and hard rock. But in the process, the radio stations that had prided itself on being truly alternative–namely, the college radio stations–were at a crossroads. Should they play the same alternative rock song being played on a commercial station, and should they even entertain the thought and risk being seen as a sellout? And thus indie rock evolved again–the commercial alt.rock becoming the normal rock, and the more leftfield indie taking on different influences, from rap to world to jam and everything in between. I could go on, but this would take awhile, and I’ll be covering it in WiS anyway. Point being–come 2012, indie rock is about as prevalent as hip-hop, bubbly pop, dance, and every other genre under the sun, thanks to the power of the internet. We have infinitely more ways to listen to music than we ever did in the past.
Which brings me back around to the beginning: listening as a purely solitary event. Ultimately, we’re no longer listening to the boring and harmless “listen at work stations” (as I call them), prevalent as they may be, because we don’t have to. Unless I’m stuck in a supermarket or in an office, I can:
–listen to multiple websites streaming new releases so I can see if I like them before buying them.
–listen to multiple online radio stations.
–listen to one of the multiple Sirius music channels on our TV.
–listen to the stations that I used to listen to on the east coast, while living on the west coast–including the college stations that influenced and inspired me years ago.
–go to the band’s official site and listen to their new and as-yet-unreleased album, and even order it directly from them.
–simply start up Media Monkey on my PC, or turn on my mp3 player, and listen to any one of the thousands of songs in my collection.
In the end, this is what listening to music has been all about, at least for me: listening to music on my own terms. It lets me enjoy it as a purely aural treat and as a personal soundtrack. It inspires moods and writing sessions. College rock was my genre of choice back in 1986 because it was so unique and catered to my teenage geek years. Indie rock is still my genre of choice now because, despite its evolution, at its core it’s still all about originality, creativity, and recording something true to yourself. Despite all these new outlets and thousands of new bands, genres and subgenres, it’s still all about my own personal enjoyment with a song or an album or a band, and maybe discovering something new in the process.
And in this day and age, it’s blessedly easier to achieve that personal nirvana.