Last night I’m talking with Jason and he is telling me that his number one favorite recording artist, The Mountain Goats, have a song on a Rhapsody for iPhone commercial and it is blowing the MG message boards up. A body of the fans are super bummed that John Darnielle has totally and irrevocably sold out and/or now the shows will be full of posers who have only heard one or two of the Mountain Goats’ albums.
This morning I got up and read this really interesting article over at Invisible Oranges about car maker Scion becoming at lifestyle brand. The question being, if a band you liked put out an album through Scion would you buy it or not because Scion is a major label.
I’ve talked about this before, just days ago really but I felt like writing more because we really are all in eighth grade and I’m vaguely butthurt offended by the IO article author calling Hydrahead and Southern Lord ‘hipster metal labels’ and this song Tim Barry from Avail wrote called “Idle Idylist” about how we should all be poor and not sell ourselves.
So, the purpose of independent labels was to put out music that the major labels would not. The major labels wouldn’t put out this music because they didn’t think they’d make any money on it, and they’re a for profit business. There is really nothing wrong with this in and of itself. It’s a free country, you can do what you like, if you don’t want to put out such and such album, that’s really your business. There is a really false perception that if the listening public had all of this independent music available on the same level they would flock to listen to it. I’m going to assert that this is patently false. The taste of the American listening public seems like it would fall on a bell curve distribution. Most people like seem to like ‘nice’ music. You really only have to look to most of the popular music acts in the history of the 20th century to realize this. Really there is nothing wrong with this (while granting a lot of Top 40 seems… bereft of… goodness), I like a lot of nice music too, not everything has to be brutal.
So the idea that you were moving to a major label meant you were ‘selling out’ because you were going to change the sound in order for your music to appeal to a wider audience and sell more albums. This is understandably upsetting to a lot of fans when it does happen, like with Metallica, but the punk or indie ethos is morally bankrupt and conceptually false.
There are a mess of punk rock songs telling you to do what you want and think for yourself. This is really where the moral bankruptcy lies. What is practiced in effect is ‘conform to a system of morals or be excluded from the subculture.’ What’s especially egregious is that it’s a system rooted in the lack of self-awareness and self-righteousness that only the really young can muster. This isn’t a particularly shocking revelation, but it seems to you have to be outside the scene to realize it at all.
This is where I take offense with Tim Barry. Tim is singing about how he has a $200 a month apartment and works when he wants to. He’s singing about his friend that works in NYC, has stock options and a pension but works 60 hours a week. Tim is singing about how all of this doesn’t confront him because he’s poor, and oh, where did we all go wrong. The thing he’s missing is this. What if his friend wants to do what she’s doing? Is she happy? If not she should change her lifestyle, but what if she is? What if someone else is happy living that life? Do what you want, right? I’m a visual artist myself, there are things I want to do with my life that don’t involve that, things that are about me as a whole person, not me just as an artist. I’m selling my time to get money to do those things, because they’re meaningful to me. Selling my time, not selling myself. I’d say everyone should go buy Avail’s Front Porch Stories, because I really like that album, but maybe everyone shouldn’t, that might ruin it.
So at this point does it matter if a band puts out an album on an indie, a major, or by themselves? It’s not the fan’s music, it’s the artist’s. If the artist wants to reach as wide an audience as possible and turn a profit on their music, it’s their prerogative. Likewise if they want to only put out music on a tape only label with no website, that’s an equally valid personal choice. If they want to do their thing but are cool with someone paying them for it, why not exactly? We’re living in a era where recording artists have the most control over how they approach what they’re doing and music fans have the most exposure to the widest variety of music in the world. It’s up to each individual member of the listening public to decide if it’s worth their money or not. Think for yourself, right?
This is why the ‘hipster metal’ thing gets me. I wasn’t trading tapes with Euros as a teenager, but I have been listening to stuff on Hydrahead and Southern Lord long enough to remember when absolutely no one gave a shit about those labels and the bands on them. However, having been established for a long enough time, a lot of those bands are shockingly attracting a wider audience as they gain exposure. Given the musical similarities with some acts on those labels, it’s not super surprising that some Mogwai fans are coming to the shows or something. This shouldn’t really diminish your personal enjoyment of it. It’s not like when the magic number of ‘hipsters’ starts listening to Pelican all copies of Australasia explode. It’s also not like it’ll make all copies of the new Watain blow up either. (This is seriously why metal is my favorite music, the spectrum of what metal is so awesomely broad, and despite the bullshit of scene politics, that almost never intrudes into the music; nothing I listen to at least.) I’ve always understood a hipster to be someone who follows whatever is ‘cutting edge’ because of some perceived personal gain. They’re basically nothing worry about then are they, you can (rather quickly) wait them out.
I seriously, seriously doubt any member of Pelican or John Darnielle would disregard any fan saying ‘Hey, I just heard you guys for the first time last week and came to the show.’ They’re not going to say ‘Yeah, come talk to me when you have all the 7″s, then you’re a fan.”
At the end of the day, I don’t think the major vs. indie label argument is relevant anymore.
If you heard of whoever before I did or went to more shows in the day, like back when they were playing basements, good for you. I’ve been that guy too. These facts and a dime will get you a cup of coffee.
So I would listen to an album that Scion puts out, unless it sucked.